How Can Design Be More Strategic at My Company?

Advice from The Sherwins for September 2019

Aiming for Impact

Hi Sherwins,

I’m writing to you because my last two performance reviews weren’t great, and no one seems to be able to tell me what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m new to management, and my supervisor told me that I need to be more strategic and that I have to think about the business side of things. But when I pressed him and asked what I actually needed to do, or if he had any examples I could study, people I could interview—anything really—I couldn’t get any specifics.

If this were just about my reviews, it wouldn’t be so bad, but there’s also a big push right now to change how design works at our company. There’s a group of senior design managers saying that we need to be more strategic and that we need to think about the business side. Word for word the same thing from my reviews. And I ask for specifics about what the team needs to do, and I still can’t get anything useful. 

I’m honestly not looking for a to-do list, but I can’t help feeling like no one here actually knows what we’re supposed to do to get better. Any advice?

—M in Boston

Hi M, thanks for writing to us. It’s entirely possible that you’re doing a fine job and that it’s management with the problem. But in your case, management’s problem is also your problem: you need to show improvement, but don’t know where to begin. The directive of “being more strategic and thinking about the business” is trendy right now. It’s both frustratingly ambiguous and inspirationally expansive, which is also known as Design’s first breakthrough album.

Design is having a bit of an identity crisis right now. For a while, design’s higher calling was to amplify the voice of the user. We were advocates in quirky shoes, the only ones paying attention to what people really needed and wanted. Once we got a good story built around the world-changing power of design, we just sorta riffed on it for a while. We showed up to a meeting and asked What problem is this solving for the user? and we looked like rockstars. (That’s not to say that some companies still don’t have designers stuck in the corner making logos bigger.) All in all, it was a pretty cool time to do design because we all sounded pretty cool talking about it. If you weren’t a designer, you trusted us.

But over the past few years, this has been changing. Now, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a user-centric company, and dozens of non-designers in every company are asking during kickoff meetings about “the voice of the user”. We tried to spice things up by asking clarifying questions about customer vs. client vs. user vs. end user vs. consumer, but it was all for naught. Whether it’s design-led, design-focused, or design-driven, everyone at work is one of us now. 

Which is great. It’s good. It’s fine. Really. We have no one to blame but everyone else for our success in this situation. If thinking about the user weren’t so gosh-darn easy now that we’ve made all of these toolkits, we’d still be the only ones who could do it.

Let’s be frank, though, M: the VP of Sales in that kickoff meeting is not great at thinking about the user. None of those VPs of Anything-not-Design are. And, to be even more frank, neither are we. Usability, in all of its forms, is still our job and, even though we really haven’t figured it out and there’s an entire world of progress to be made, now people want us to think more about the business side of things. This is infuriating. It is not design’s job to think about the business; it’s design’s job to partner with the people thinking about the business so they can think about it better.

We’re glad that you’re asking about specifics. Even us tossing off that “partner with…” line is vague, and the concept of partnership is difficult to track on a performance review. So, let’s start with the strategy part.

Strategy, simply put, is how your function makes decisions. It might be communicated through a framework or a set of principles, and though it might be made visible in something like a roadmap, it’s really just a lens for decision-making. Don’t confuse the thing for the thing that it makes. A five-year plan is not a strategy; it’s a thing borne from strategy. 

Which brings us to your first specific: Describe the outcomes of your projects, not the outputs of your process. Outcomes are strategic things, outputs are not. Outcomes highlight the user, outputs highlight the designer.

Like we said before, design is ultimately responsible for usability. Every discipline of design, such as service, visual, UX, and so forth, hooks into usability with its own strategies, heuristics, principles—every organization has its own word for this. So how to think more strategically about design? If, say, your team uses heuristics, a performance review competency might read something like: “Understands and connects product decisions to outcomes through heuristics, and advocates product changes in this same manner.”

In bettering yourself and your team, in every review that involves a major product decision, ask: what heuristic allows us to make this decision? Then ask this question: given how we currently understand this heuristic, is this the right decision to make? (And if you hesitated when we said ‘heuristics’ or whatever ‘design principle’ term you use because your team has never utilized them in their work, rewind everything we’ve said so far and start there.) The more open the heuristic, the more strategic you’ll be thinking. How do your customers feel they have a choice when they engage with your service? How do users experience the efficiency of your product? Do they feel they have control? Do they want to? Do they need to in order for the product to function in an ethical manner?

Some of these questions lead us back the concept of partnership. Let’s revisit the VP of Sales asking about “the voice of the user”. The reason she isn’t that great about asking the question is because she doesn’t have to do anything about it. Her bonus and her team’s salaries probably aren’t tied to working with the design team to help users. Unless design is standing in the way of making a sale, then thinking about design writ large doesn’t benefit her or her team

In order for design to be influential in an organization—that is, to make user-focused, specific recommendations about the product and its path that the company takes seriously—it has to be able to work horizontally, across departments. That is how design works strategically. Yes, it’s cool to call this “cross-functional partnerships”, but real talk: no other industry is more dedicated to trying to develop performance metrics around this than us. (Well, us, and maybe product managers.) We’re trying to squeeze the possible outcomes of design strategy into the established outcomes of a business strategy. 

One of the principles of design is that it’s inclusive, but how do you build a corporate structure around that? You’d have to upend all of the profit centers, the reporting structures, the whole shebang, top to bottom. And even then, it doesn’t change the fact that design is not supposed to be in charge. It’s a supporting role, otherwise it just doesn’t work.

Without burning down the entire house, we don’t have a lot of options. What we do have are partnerships. And partnering with design benefits everyone within their budgetary fiefdoms, no restructuring required. So let’s get back to specifics.

If design is responsible for usability—which is the partnership between product and user—how does design turn that responsibility inward to partner with other functions in their company? This competency would read something like: “Communicates with and invites partners into design-supported decision-making.” And in that kickoff meeting, it would sound something like this: “How can design partner with you on this initiative/new product/strategic vision?”

You, even as a new designer manager, should be able to communicate the capabilities of design within your company, starting with tactical support like participating in meetings, contributing your skills, and providing access to actual designers. This can sound like a project manager thing, but it’s actually a design thing. Can you lead a workshop? What kinds? How long will it take to put one together? Then you should be able to communicate the capabilities of design in terms of outcomes, getting to results.

If you can show that you took a report from research and utilized the heuristic lens of trustworthiness to recommend a series of product decisions about it, that’s strategy. If you can work with research to get better initial results to make those recommendations, that’s partnership. And if you can sit with the engineering team to see how your product recommendations from research work within their feasibility strategy, and then sit down with sales to help them figure out how to develop and track trustworthiness as a driver of engagement, then you, my friend, have strategic partnerships. That is what your design managers are looking for: horizontal strategic influence on the product gained by leveraging design.

There’s plenty here for you to work with, M. Part of being a design manager nowadays is that you can’t wait around for someone else’s specifics. You need to be figuring it out, and you need to be writing them. Make it part of your performance evaluation: “Along with other design managers, determine outcomes for strategic partnerships across the organization, focusing on product influence and its related impact on users.” Think about the usability of the position and the outcomes that design can provide.

But now that we’ve said all of that, we’re going to challenge you to tackle this situation in a new light. Because all of this is moot if design stops doing its job.

As designers, we fought hard to justify looking out the window so we could keep the user’s needs in our direct view. But our passion made us popular, and our popularity is pulling us to the center of the room. Now, as others offer us a seat at the table, we must be cautious not to abandon our window.

When we taught everyone else at work about design, we gave up the exclusive ability to ask that one sticky question: What problem is this solving for the user? Everyone asks that now. We need a new question, a better question, one worthy of our time and effort, and one that doesn’t forget where we came from: What’s the impact of solving this problem? Maybe the competency would read something like: “Investigates and reports on the impact of product decisions on the larger world, and drives initiatives to be deliberate about those impacts.” Maybe this isn’t something you can easily frame for a Sirota survey, and maybe that’s how it should be.

Design is the amplifier of the voice of the user, and it’s time we started seeing that our users affect other users. Solving customer problems causes problems for others. How much responsibility do we have for that? How many partnerships are we building with other designers? How are we thinking strategically about the ethics of our industry? What are the outcomes? And for how many? These questions are frustratingly ambiguous and inspirationally expansive. In other words, you’re in the band now, M, and it’s time for Design’s next album.

All best,
The Sherwins

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