There Is No Design Team

Scott Kiekbusch
Jun 18, 2019 · 6 min read
Spoon Boy teaches Neo about the nature of the world around him — The Matrix (1999)

There is a memorable scene in the film The Matrix where a young boy with special abilities teaches an important lesson to the protagonist, Neo. The boy helps Neo open his eyes to the fact that the construct in which they’re living isn’t real, and therefore, neither is the spoon that appears to exist within the construct.

“Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

―Spoon Boy

Like Neo, professional designers (user experience designers, interaction designers, user interface designers, digital product designers, etc.) have also been indoctrinated into a construct known as: The Design Team. We’re regularly encouraged (by team leaders) to be loyal to The Design Team, to share work-in-progress only within The Design Team, to present a unified front and keep disagreements within The Design Team, to make sure we cover our asses to protect The Design Team.

The Design Team often sits alone together in their own (most likely well decorated) corner or floor of the office. They operate design software like Sketch, Illustrator, and InVision on MacBooks adorned with stickers and beautifully customized desktop backgrounds—sharing updates & insights from the most recent design conference they attended, or the design thought-leaders they follow on Twitter. They speak knowingly about kerning, ppi, and Design Thinking.

The Design Team is frequently positioned as an independent group (or “internal agency”) that provides support to other teams—including Development, Product, Business, Marketing, and Research. Can we get someone from The Design Team over here to do the wireframes… to skin the prototype… to mock up a concept for the pitch deck… to help with the branding… to clean up the PowerPoint presentation for the senior leadership team???

When you exist as part of The Design Team day-in and day-out, the construct can become so compelling that it’s almost impossible to see how things could possibly work any other way. But, like Neo, you have a choice.

Morpheus offers Neo a choice

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

—Morpheus

Have you ever seen a football team that’s all kickers? How about a baseball team that’s made up exclusively of shortstops? Of course not because that’s not actually how teams work! Successful teams are comprised of people with a variety of complimentary skills & specialities in order to achieve a common purpose.

Rather than a team made up exclusively of designers, imagine a world where designers are part of a collaborative cross-functional team—sitting (virtually or co-located) alongside product owners, project managers, scrum masters, developers, analysts, writers, and researchers. In this world designers aren’t brought in merely to make it pretty but expected to play a key role as co-equal team members with shared ownership over decisions about how to create & deliver the best possible products (the team’s common purpose).

There are many benefits of this embedded, cross-functional model—not only for designers but for product teams and organizations as a whole:

  • Product designers are trained to identify problems and focus on the needs of the end-user. Incorporating designers as integral members of a product team increases everyone’s ability to be user-centric and improves the chances of delivering a product that your customers will ̶u̶s̶e̶ love. Don’t believe me? Over a span of ten years 10 design-oriented companies in a UX Fund outperformed the NASDAQ index by over 350%.
  • Cross-functional product teams can move more quickly. There’s little need for excessive & time-consuming design documentation (detailed user flows, wireframes, design comps of every screen/state, red line specifications) when designers can sketch a concept on a whiteboard, walk through it, and get feedback from the team in real time. These teams tend to have a predisposition toward creating & delivering product vs. producing documentation
  • Teams that can move more quickly are more inclined to experiment, and innovative ideas are more likely to come from teams and companies who are willing to try new things
  • Cross-functional teams have more empathy for their team members and the roles they perform because they work with each other on a daily basis. Increased empathy leads to increased trust which fosters psychological safety among team members. Related: Psychological safety is one of 5 factors identified by Google that contribute to their most high performing teams
  • In addition to building empathy, working alongside non-designers also helps designers learn more about technology and business decisions that should influence their design work. It also helps non-designers learn more about the design process and the overall value of design. Win-win!

That’s cool, but—just like the football team made up only of kickers — you’re not going to accomplish very much. Take heart, you don’t have to abandon collaborating with the other designers in your organization when you become part of an integrated product team.

This is where the Chapter model popularized by Spotify can come into play:

Spotify team organizational model [Source]

Chapters are groups of professionals who work across different integrated cross-functional teams (a.k.a. Squads in the Spotify model). Chapter members all have similar professional skills e.g. football kickers, iOS developers, or product designers. The Design Chapter meets regularly (at least weekly) to discuss topics focused on doing work as a designer. Chapter meetings are excellent opportunities for designers to provide critiques, get feedback, share inspiration & best practices, and simply bond with other like-minded colleagues. Members of a Design Chapter can also collaborate by participating in workshops and Design Sprints with outside teams. This is a great way to meet and collaborate with people from other teams in your organization while also getting some fresh perspectives and ideas from designers with whom you and your team don’t regularly work.

Granted, your organization may not be quite ready to take the Red Pill. Some will push back on integrating designers directly into product teams. There can be budgetary concerns (we can’t afford to hire a designer for every team) or cultural problems when integrating designers—especially when several team members haven’t been exposed to working closely with designers. Sadly, some design leaders regard integrating designers directly into product teams as a reduction of their power as leaders. If that’s the case where you are, I’d suggest finding another leader/job.

If you’re open to making the change, the process can take time. Start with small experiments; just like any good design process test & learn… integrate one or two designers into teams working on products/projects that could benefit from more consistent design involvement. Determine some success metrics, and track progress. If the designers are any good, word will spread, and you’ll have more teams begging for design talent.

Welcome to the revolution.

Think Like A Designer

Thinking like a designer goes beyond creating great…

Think Like A Designer

Thinking like a designer goes beyond creating great products; it’s a mindset that can enhance your career, your business, even your life.

Scott Kiekbusch

Written by

Digital product design & strategy expert. Team builder. Stoic. Keynote speaker. Co-Author of The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision http://amzn.to/2Epfb3U

Think Like A Designer

Thinking like a designer goes beyond creating great products; it’s a mindset that can enhance your career, your business, even your life.