How to Expand Your Strategic Impact as a Designer

4 learnings from 250 days as a lead growth product manager.

I’m a product designer by trade, but for 250 days last year, I was also the lead product manager (PM) for Tally’s Growth team — it was quite the ride. I learned a lot on the fly while balancing product management and design work. Now that I’m back designing full time, I wanted to share a few learnings to help other designers scale their own strategic influence.

You might think this is an edge case you’ll never find yourself in. Or maybe you are wondering how these learnings might be relevant? Well, in the first several years of your design career, you were probably focused on developing your process and nailing your craft. But are you at a point where you’re exploring what comes next? How to have a bigger business impact? Or how to spend more time thinking about problems, and less on pixels?

My name is Caitlin Brisson, and I’m a Staff Product Designer at Tally. Tally is on a mission to make people less stressed and better off financially. Through our credit card debt payoff app, Tally has saved people millions of dollars on interest and late fees. We empower people to break free from debt so they can focus on what really matters in life.

How to not feel like Fido

Prioritize your goals, and use them to optimize your output.

During my time as a PM, I was often doing double duty as a designer. My days ran the gamut — from stakeholder updates, roadmap planning, design visioning, to pixel-by-pixel handoffs. Balancing my work became a challenge.

As a former teacher, I love SMART goals, and typically set them quarterly and annually. My goals are a mix of things that tie to business impact, my own career aspirations, and design things that bring me joy (like accessibility and design culture). To create balance for myself, I took the prioritization mindset that is key to being a successful PM, and applied it to my goals and how I was spending my time.

This application allowed me to strategically focus my impact on my role and on my own development. I more easily saw what to say no to and what to delegate. It gave me better balance at work and focused my efforts on the things that mattered most.

  • Set weekly and quarterly goals and use them to decide where to spend your time.
  • Use your goals to frame trade-offs between new projects or requests. This allows you to use business impact as a way to say no. Practice saying no in a kind, positive way.
  • You will drop balls along the way. Figure out which balls are plastic and which are glass. Use this perspective to help manage your workload.

No matter the career path, as you level up, there will always be more that can be done. You have to make decisions about competing priorities. Remember: you’re the only one who can create focus for yourself. As you increase your scope and influence, use prioritization as a guiding principle to be effective in your role.

Happier teams led to better outcomes.

Set the right tone through change (and when things break).

Last fall, we had just finalized Growth’s roadmap and were starting to kick off new work, when we discovered that a critical experience in our app had broken. It was all hands on deck.

Over one week, our entire roadmap changed, our team doubled, and we set out to solve a new problem — it was stressful. Though people were turning to me for direction, what the team needed wasn’t the answer for what we should do. (I didn’t know it). Instead, I realized the need for a calm, reassuring, and positive space to come together. I set out to create that environment.

  • Be human and meet people where they are in their change curve. Be kind, patient, and present. Ask questions and make space for other’s questions or concerns.
  • Be candid, but also shape the narrative. Protect your team when possible from unhelpful feedback or context.
  • Create space for not knowing the answer. It’s okay not to know what to do. You just need to bring people together to get the ball rolling.

As designers, we often facilitate work across multiple disciplines. This sets you up to influence your team’s culture. Helping your team work better together while building and in the face of change will help you develop your own leadership skills and build stronger solutions.

Maths can be fun — I promise.

Use data as a tool for discovery, prioritization, and assessment.

As a former scientist, I love data and its use as a storytelling tool (shoutout to Giorgia Lupi and Janet Echelman who continuously inspire me on this front). But as a designer, I used to rely heavily on my cross-functional partners to help answer quantitative questions.

As I took on more PM responsibilities, people began asking me questions about our conversion numbers. In order to share weekly data trends with stakeholders, I had to get a crash course on data analytics (see resources at the bottom for more) and our current data models. Learning how to do this allowed me to self-serve my questions, run health checks, and explore user behavior more deeply. I also started adding analytic events to my designs, and created a visual map of our events. This has become a widely used tool and process on our team, helping to improve cross-functional alignment and understanding.

So my advice to designers is: get comfortable with the numbers.

  • Spend time understanding the analytics in your product area as well as the tool that serves them up — for me at Tally this was Mixpanel, Metabase, and an A/B calculator.
  • During discovery, use analytics to explore user journeys. Use the baseline data to consider where to best invest your exploration time.
  • Before handoff, integrate analytic events into your designs so you can explore how to assess design decisions. This also makes implementation more visual for your engineering partners.

A key element of driving design strategy is storytelling. Integrating quantitative data into your process as a tool, and combining it with your qualitative insights, will allow you to tell stronger and more strategic stories.

Keep everyone focused in the right direction.

Make sure everyone is looking at your long-term map — not just you.

Having a long-term vision is important; however, it’s easy to create one, share it, and let it slip into the background. As a PM, I didn’t use our long-term map as a tool with stakeholders enough. I was too focused on the work in progress.

This was a big lightbulb moment for me. When our team moved on to the second phase of the project, some stakeholders were surprised by what needed to happen next. I learned that it’s critical to not get so bogged down by your day-to-day work that your broader team loses track of the vision.

  • Take time to step away and reflect at the 100-feet view so you don’t get too caught up at the 1-foot view.
  • Continue to remind and realign your direct team on the future you are building towards. Use it to make decisions and work through trade-offs.
  • Use your map as an ongoing storytelling tool for partners and stakeholders to keep everyone aligned and engaged on your long term plan.

As designers, we create artifacts — that might be a design vision, design principles, working agreements, etc. Artifacts are critical tools for alignment, collaboration, and inspiration. The best long-term artifacts are used regularly as tools for decision making and alignment.

When creating artifacts, consider how you plan to use them and what their audience will be. If it’s a one-time thing, consider if your approach is a good use of time. If its regular use will help you reach your goals, don’t let them gather dust in your GoogleDrive.

While I’m thrilled to be designing full time again, I’m grateful for the experience of leading our Growth team as a PM. It was humbling and I learned a lot that I’m excited to apply to my career in product design — I hope this gives you some ideas too!

To summarize, here are a few ways you can strategically scale your impact and influence as a designer, from my 250 days as a product manager:

  1. Prioritize your goals, and use them to optimize your output.
  2. Set the right tone through change (and when things break).
  3. Use data as a tool for discovery, prioritization, and assessment.
  4. Make sure everyone is looking at your long-term map — not just you.

Also, if helping people get out of debt and be less stressed about money sounds interesting to you, I’ve got good news: we’re hiring!

👋 Check out our careers page for more info.

🛠

Resources

A selection of some resources that helped me along the way

  1. Mixpanel: The Guide to Product Analytics
  2. Product analytics: The fundamental guide for 2020
  3. 5 prioritization templates that help you focus on the right stuff
  4. How to Track Your Growth Experiments

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Learn more about Tally’s engineering, product and design teams, and how we work together to build and operate our apps, systems and platforms.

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Caitlin Brisson

Caitlin Brisson

Staff Product Designer at Tally // Visual Scientist www.caitlinbrisson.com

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