How You Can Help Product Teams Think Like Designers

Sean Mulholland
Salesforce Designer
6 min readNov 28, 2022

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By Sean Mulholland and Irene Ti

Illustration showing a tangled line on the left that leads to a sketch on the right, with the fingertips of a hand holding a pen on the right.
[Image: Dampoint/AdobeStock]

Great designers do more than push pixels. They’re crucial to the product life cycle for hashing out design strategy, collaborating with researchers, and delivering design specs to engineering teams. Too often, design is an afterthought due time constraints, a lack of research resources, or an eagerness to start defining a solution.

It happens — especially in fast-moving product organizations. But how might we cultivate a culture of design among teams outside of design? Our platform mobile UX team set out to create a shift in how our organization approached product challenges. We recognized an opportunity to help our partners and stakeholders by moving upstream and bring more design thinking to their processes. We wanted to help them create stronger project plans with more informed design requirements and put customer needs first.

Building a culture of design

Taking a relationship design approach helped us focus not just on the strategy or tactics, but also the relationships that would help make this effort successful. We quickly realized there was much more power in building demand for the value of design rather than attempting to enforce strict rules of engagement. We also didn’t want to create blockers by advocating for a waterfall-style design process.

This led us to creating a three-part workshop series to help our teams learn more about where and how design can have impact. We timed these workshops to precede the relevant phases in our typical product development cycles so the learnings could be put into practice immediately. The three workshops:

  • Design Thinking for Product Teams: A high-level intro to how design thinking applies to the product development lifecycle, with case studies highlighting the impact and how it ties to product management and engineering priorities.
  • Research and Insights for Product Teams: A session showcasing the value of research at all stages of the product development lifecycle from identifying needs, motivations, and jobs to be done, all the way through usability testing.
  • Figma for Product and Engineering Teams: A tactical session focused on planning, defining requirements, stages of design, and how our partners can provide the greatest value at various stages from low-fidelity explorations to redlined specs.

Design Thinking for Product Teams

[Image: Modified from design by Nuthawut/AdobeStock]

This post focuses on Design Thinking for Product Teams. The goal of the workshop wasn’t to be a “design 101” lecture or to espouse the philosophical value of the design process. We wanted to ensure that it was tied to real-world value:

  • Reduced QA cycles
  • Improved customer experiences
  • Faster time to delivery
  • Greater team alignment through a shared vision for the end goal for our product

Our goal was to show our partners in product and engineering how design can impact every phase of the product development life cycle.

We knew getting buy-in and support from influential stakeholders would increase our impact. For the Design Thinking workshop, we invited a product management executive who supported our approach to be a guest speaker and share case studies.

To help with logistics, we worked with our TPM (technology, product, marketing) and ops teams to find a date that wouldn’t conflict with major team and org meetings, and had them help us promote the event to the PM and engineering orgs. We also shared our event widely on Slack and secured time during various team meetings to drive awareness and attendance.

Our goal was to show our partners in product and engineering how design can impact every phase of the product development life cycle. UX can help them strategize, create integrated product plans, and align team members and processes. Even during pre-planning, we could help shape the brief and share ways to incorporate design thinking in tasks throughout the cycle. Reframing the conversation around how design could impact their needs and priorities was the key.

How we structured the workshop

Illustration shows a row of design phases and descriptions between two wavy lines.
The “double diamond” design process illustration

Share case studies

  • An executive presented case studies that used the design thinking process to drive better product outcomes. If it isn’t possible to get a partner directly involved, share work from the partner point of view vs. sharing a design-centric case study.
  • We wanted our audience to learn from one of their own leaders to help them envision a future with design baked into every stage of the product development cycle. This helped build credibility and trust with our audience, and piqued their interest for the content that would follow.

Start with the basics

  • Mapped the classic design “double diamond” diagram (pictured above) to the product development life cycle, and showed how design can support product development from early stage ideation to in-market product iteration.
  • Emphasized the iterative and exploratory nature of design, and how this process creates efficiencies in our scrum teams–it’s faster and cheaper to iterate and pivot during design cycles vs. build cycles.
  • Used the “3 legged stool” analogy to highlight how important each pillar (design, product, engineering) is to creating a good product — design is much more than beautification. A strong UX pillar is how we translate functional feature requirements into experiences that meet customer needs.
  • Brought our partners through the design process and help them understand what to expect during different stages.

Quick design exercise

  • We did a rapid ideation exercise and asked: How many uses can you think of for a coffee cup in 60 seconds?
  • This was a great way for us to engage our audience and help show that taking time to step back from our initial assumptions can often uncover creative opportunities hiding in plain sight.

Practical ways to apply design thinking

  • Shared tactical steps our partners could use in their work today, at any stage of their product life cycle.
  • Shared guidelines on how to best involve UX early and often in the pre-planning stage, so that PM, engineering, and UX are holistically integrated throughout the product life cycle.

Workshop impact

[Illustration: Samuii/AdobeStock]

When the day of the workshop arrived we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were happy more than 50 product managers and engineers attended. We presented for about 40 minutes and saved 20 minutes for discussion, which focused on near-term applications and long-term implications for taking a more customer-centric approach to our product development process.

The talk went so well that we were invited to repeat it and share with other designers how we approached this entire process. We re-contextualized our talk to focus on how they could engage with their teams. It was a pleasant surprise that more than 120 folks attended! It turns out, this is a common pain point among designers.

Want to learn more about how to apply strategy design to product cycles? Take the Learn Strategy Design trail on Trailhead.

One small victory for us on the partner side was that we found some PMs were using the slides from our deck in a project presentation to senior leadership. They called out our design- and customer-centric approach for helping to strengthen the final product and validate our direction.

While it will take continued work to bring more product colleagues into the design thinking practice, we’ve seen a distinct uptick in engagement from our partners, and deeper involvement of design across the board. We’re excited for this work lead to meaningful progress in building a culture of design.

Salesforce Design is dedicated to elevating design and advocating for its power to create trusted relationships with users, customers, partners, and the community. We share knowledge and best practices that build social and business value. We call this next evolution of design Relationship Design. Join our Design Trailblazers community, become a certified UX designer, certified strategy designer, or work with us!

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Sean Mulholland
Salesforce Designer

Fascinated with human computer interaction and how technology affects human to human interaction.