Designers provide the most value when they’re involved in the early stages — defining the problem and the product or service that will address it.
– Kim Goodwin, Designing for the Digital Age
Product design is having a moment. Heck, it’s been having a moment for over a decade, with no real end in sight. As the field continues to evolve, I propose this call to arms: for every product designer at every level of seniority to rise above the daily grind of tactical asks, and to establish our practice as vital to the success of our respective products.
Product design is a clear necessity in this age of technological ubiquity. But there’s still lots of opportunity for us in-house product designers to have an even larger impact in our organizations.
The Unique World of In-House Product Design
A year ago, I began my current (and first official) in-house product design role, with the Salesforce Service Cloud UX team. I was immediately struck by how familiar it was, yet totally distinct from my experience in customer-facing agency/consulting work. Sure, it was still “UX,” but the structure was so different. Gone were the meticulously planned project timelines (4 weeks discovery, 1 week synthesis…) and dedicated design team. Instead there was perpetual forward momentum and multiple independent work tracks, with a new set of challenges and opportunities.
It’s up to us to proactively provide the type of strategic framing that drives product success.
I found the new landscape unsettling. I’d spent years strengthening my UX “strategy muscle,” but couldn’t easily identify where strategy work fit into this new picture. I felt like I was trying to claim a spot at the table for strategy. Product managers and engineers rarely asked our UX team to provide strategy (i.e., upfront definition and vision for new features/products.); when they did, it didn’t get much time or focus. More often than not, we were asked for wireframes and comps, without first establishing a considered, holistic POV.
I’ve realized that applying a strategic mindset, even when other teams don’t request it, has immense value. It’s up to us UX designers to provide the strategic framing that drives product success.
6 Tips for Strategic Success
So what’s the best way to put these concepts to use day to day? Here are six actionable insights I’ve gained in my time working on, and leading strategic design initiatives for, a product design team.
1. Seek Opportunities
Your product team is likely working on a long list of initiatives and features, not to mention a significant backlog. Where can you offer UX thought leadership? It’s like approaching a game of double-dutch jump rope mid-swing. Figuring out how and when to jump in can be intimidating, but if you don’t make a move you’ll be left out.
If you don’t make a move you’ll be left out.
The first step is to understand the landscape. Part of your job is to help deliver product releases, supporting the tactical needs of PMs and engineers. In fact, doing so is critical to building trust (which is how you get a seat at the strategy table). But that shouldn’t be ALL you do. Keep your eyes peeled for features and themes that are undefined, or critical to product success. Get well acquainted with the product roadmap. Over time, opportunities will surface — you just have to be on the lookout for them.
2. Nail the Timing
No one wants to hear about strategy when they’re pushing to make feature freeze! To be effective, you need to understand product development cycles and rhythms — and take advantage of them. When engineers are busiest, designers often have time to actually think about strategy. And when PMs and engineers have more time to listen, that’s the time to share your ideas. Make the most of both opportunities.
Your own workload is another important factor. Drowning in design work requests? Wait for a less hectic time in the release lifecycle to introduce a new initiative. If there’s no slowdown on the horizon, talk to UX leadership about creating some bandwidth.
3. Apply (Healthy) Pressure
Don’t let the fact that no one is constantly checking in on your progress deter you from making that progress.
So you’ve identified an area in need of strategic focus. Great! Now what?
Let’s say you’ve carved out some time to establish a POV and create deliverables that will affect the product roadmap. To keep up momentum, you need to set a deadline — and share it with your manager, PMs, and leadership. Put an invite on peoples’ calendars for a month or two out. Team up with another product designer. In short, do whatever it takes to set up accountability and drive follow-through. Another helpful practice is to put project work time (not just meetings) on your calendar — and treat that time with the same respect you would if your manager had scheduled it. Don’t let the fact that no one is constantly checking in on your progress deter you from making that progress.
4. Dive into the Process
Now for the fun part: getting down to the fundamentals of UX design — the reason many of us fell in love with this practice in the first place. Using the resources available to you, start doing the work. That might include stakeholder and subject matter expert (SME) interviews, user research, existing internal and external research audits, competitive landscape audits, UI/product exploration (sketches, wireframes, comps), prototypes, workshops, and anything else that drives ideas. An inclination to action should override any limitations — get scrappy!
5. Document, Document, Document
This isn’t a scenario of the lone genius entering a remote cabin, only to emerge months later with a masterpiece. UX is a collaborative, iterative field, and you should share your progress and get input along the way. To help communication flow, create a master deck, then keep it tight and ready to be shared at all times. This deck should articulate your process, identify your current place in that process, and contain the output of all relevant activities to date, including research insights, experience frameworks, and design sketches and comps. One helpful trick: Keep a separate “scratch deck” where you and your team can compose rough drafts, collect inspiration, and gather WIP designs artifacts. When they’re ready for prime time, add them to your master deck.
6. Spread the Word
Getting your UX strategy in front of the right people at the right time is a strategy in and of itself. With your manager’s help, identify key decision makers, then share your findings and recommendations.
In addition to collaborating with people along the way, hold a series of readouts (or one final readout, depending on the size of the organization) with stakeholders, your manager, and leadership — the higher up the chain the better. The more visibility and buy-in your project gets, the more chance it will have to make a real impact.
Strategy as a Superpower
I hope these ideas serve as a starting point for you to inject strategy into the product design lifecycle at your organization. I believe that product designers have the greatest impact when we bring our problem-solving skills to bear on messy challenges that can’t be boiled down to user stories, or solved with radius rounding or perfect padding — problems that require collaboration and alignment across disciplines. And by solving those problems, we can elevate our role, and our perceived value, in our organizations.
Special thanks to Shahrzad Samadzadeh for her feedback and support on this article (and as a manager in general), to Tim Sheiner for the great additional feedback, to Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet for the awesome edits, and to Adrian Rapp for encouraging me to write this in the first place.