What does leadership entail in the context of design? What does a lead product designer have to concentrate on in order to be a good design leader? How does an organization benefit from strong design leadership? And how do we establish ourselves as design leaders within external organizations here at UX studio?
As a ui/ux design agency, we’re facing these questions every day. Hired as external consultants, researchers, and product designers, sometimes we’re asked to join an existing product team and help in transforming an organization from the inside.
In most cases, however, we are only expected to deliver proven and tested design assets to developers in the form of a design system and sophisticated user flows. Sadly, delivering great design doesn’t automatically translate into successful products.
That is why we are always on the lookout for opportunities to bring design and its surrounding environment to a higher level. We provide strong design leadership every step of the way on our projects to ensure that we don’t only think about deliverables but also make sure that the output of our work generates the highest possible return on investment.
Throughout the years, we had the opportunity to work with many different types of companies at different life-cycle points, each facing its unique challenges. The points mentioned in this article should help to achieve meaningful and sustainable change. We believe this is the best way to ensure a good return on investment for our clients too. We also believe adapting these pillars to other roles, such as project management or product ownership, should provide a stable ground to build user experience-friendly leadership and ship highly successful digital products.
- Listen first
A good design leader recognizes that their primary role is not to teach but to listen. Understanding the team and the context they operate in is the starting point before trying to change anything. Excellent communication and being humble is imperative.
- Find purpose
Probably there is a good purpose for your team to exist. The leader has to find it and phrase it in a way that is powerful and can be effectively communicated. Good leaders are storytellers who can create narratives that can inspire every stakeholder involved.
- Create alliances
Communicate the purpose inside the team as well as to all stakeholders around. The leader is responsible for being the voice of the team internally as well as externally. If the alignment is achieved in the organization and within the team, you will be able to create great things together.
- Balance structure and flexibility
Recognize the potential in your team and trust them to be independent creative problem-solvers. Some structure is necessary, but make sure to provide enough freedom and flexibility too. Product design is not like an assembly line. You are managing humans, not machines.
- Adapt goals and monitor
Design leaders can identify countless opportunity areas to improve in an organization, but how should they prioritize? Taking the design maturity of your organization into account will give a great basis for understanding where to start and what direction to go. Also, we shouldn’t forget to look back often to monitor the completion of our goals. Don’t let the calendar take control. Base decisions on observations and insights.
In our experience, keeping these points have proven to be useful in the context of product design and beyond. Leadership as a topic is an extensive and broad area of science, and many other aspects are essential, such as intrapersonal communication or managing resources, just to mention a few. Here, we are only concentrating on leadership in relation to design for digital products and services. Our aim is to provide a clear and memorable mental checklist for leaders when they have to think about maximizing return on investment in design and research activities using our own experiences.
In the rest of the article, we will detail how we at the UX studio have applied this way of thinking to our projects to maximize the success of the products and services we helped to build.
Let’s see how these five pillars are established in our day-to-day practice here at UX Studio.
1. Listen first
It is imperative to understand the context and people we are working with first. This attitude should be constant, but at the beginning and it is achieved by focusing on listening to our team. This is everything we concentrate on, and only gradually, we transition into building new structures and processes. Before that, we have to take a deep look at how things are going at the moment and identify what can be improved.
One of the first things every UX lead learns at UX studio is that there are no prepackaged solutions to provide for clients. We are very strong in sharing our experiences with each other in the form of a brown bag lunch or a project safari. The uncomfortable truth is though that there are no two clients who are the same. Thus no two ways of leading should be the same.
Luckily, this is not at all foreign to us. The product design approach we follow is heavily focused on doing design based on knowledge and understanding. The three main contexts we have to listen to are: users, business -and technology, and everything in between.
When a project starts, we do a kickoff meeting to ensure we have a head start on all the necessary knowledge and materials we will need to begin rapidly progressing. Similarly, when someone gets in a leadership role, we usually start with running a survey inside the team and maybe with other stakeholders as well. These can serve as a starting point to having in-depth conversations with stakeholders to unearth as many insights as possible.
Surveys like this can be used to benchmark later on when we want to gain insights about the effect of our leadership.
2. Find purpose
If we listened carefully and made sure that everyone’s voice got heard we might find that their individual goals are perfectly aligned with the higher level vision and the underlying reasons are perfectly clear for everyone across the organisation. The team shares a common purpose that is clear and motivating for them. Thus, they are empowered to contribute freely and form their own role because they understand best how they can create the greatest value. Unfortunately, usually that is not the case.
At this point I personally get a great deal of excitement because we are starting to see tremendously valuable opportunities outside the artboards in the design software and more inside the client’s organisational habits of doing product design and strategy. It is not necessarily that they are lacking structure but that the structures in place needs to be looked at critically.
Sometimes it turns out that it is not the structure that is at fault but the purpose it was built on was not formulated in an understandable and motivating way. Leaders should strive to be great storytellers and this is the time to put that in practice.
A well-phrased goal or vision helps everyone in the team to think deeply about their role in relation to it. It also helps people outside the team understand the importance of our work so we can find more allies across the organisation.
In case of a recent client of ours we helped them formulate their purpose better with value proposition and mission, vision and values workshops that were revisited from time to time throughout the project. Read more about the first phase of the project in our case study.
3. Create alliances
In most companies that do product design, there is incredible intellectual potential that gets overlooked because of the lack of alignment about the goals and vision.
One of the essential responsibilities of a leader is to create a sense of shared purpose and understanding within their team. And product designers have a great perspective to do this. First of all, they are already in the cross-section of the user-business-technology triangle. Secondly, they are well equipped with visual and verbal communication as well as people skills.
Communicating our purposes is vital outside the team as well. If our goals are not clear or get misunderstood in the larger organization, it can be hard to achieve buy-in and gather the necessary resources for our team.
If you feel your team needs to acquire more significant influence over overarching structures, communicate and advertise your goals and achievements to as many stakeholders as possible. And make sure they understand the meaning of them. You might have to talk to departments outside product design, such as finance or accounting. Translate your thoughts so anyone can appreciate their meaning.
Sometimes the most hostile stakeholders become the most valuable allies if you manage to convert them to your cause.
In a recent fin-tech project, we had a lot of struggle with a lead developer who didn’t seem to appreciate the UX value and kept making changes to the design without our knowledge. Our team leader invested a lot of time into discussing these issues with the lead developer. She explained our process over and over again, showed important parts of usability test recordings and, found different ways to show the value we provide. After a while, the developer started to appreciate all the energy and knowledge that goes into making our design decisions, and now he helps us communicate the benefits of design thinking and human-centred design to parts of their organization we didn’t even have access to before.
4. Balance structure and flexibility
So here we are. We understand the context and people we have to manage. We are starting to create a shared sense of purpose. The team is aligned. Alliances are being built up. Time to build The Process that if we follow diligently will make sure that our goals will be achieved and success starts rolling in. Careful with that mighty Process though!
The reflex of leaders to create invincible structures and processes for their teams to operate incomes from the scientific management method developed a long time ago and for a very different working environment — namely factory assembly lines.
As this wonderful article on the blog of Intercom points out:
“…there are many jobs, like building cars, that still benefit from a scientific management approach. These are, however, the jobs that will most likely be automated out of existence in the coming years and fine-tuned to extract even more productivity gains. It turns out that treating humans like humans and machines like machines is a pretty good management approach.”
So instead of precisely determined processes and strict reward and punishment systems, we have to conceive something more empowering for the workplace of today. Product development is hard. We have to ensure that all our team members have the opportunity to maximize their contribution. Our teams consist of smart and creative people who have to deal with unique situations all the time. The structure we implement has to reflect this.
Going on in a complex project without any framework is not the solution though. We have to provide structure, tools, and guidelines to our team. And we have to design them in a way that incorporates the possibility of deviating from them.
Our agency is a team of 40, and we love to make decisions together. But after a certain number of participants, it can be harder to have fruitful conversations and make the right decisions.
What we did to solve this was not providing a complex process of bureaucracy or rulebook, instead, when we find necessary, we either divide ourselves into smaller groups or use tools that help to facilitate large group conversations from participatory democracy. We developed a shared vocabulary and voting processes that help to provide guidelines to ease group decision making.
5. Adapt goals and monitor
We have a very diverse set of clients. We find that one of the ways to understand what kind of framework they might benefit from the most is not just by looking at the industry they are in, but also by assessing their design maturity.
There are many models to help us understand the design maturity of an organization. Around 20 years ago, the Danish Design Centre developed the Design Ladder. Industry expert Jacob Nielsen developed another model in 2006, and countless others have written about this subject. We also developed our own model more than three years ago and have been iterating on it ever since.
One of the latest developments in the field is Invision’s Maturity Model. In 2018, InVision surveyed designers from more than 2,200 organizations around the globe to understand how design maturity relates to business performance. While doing so, they discovered five stages most businesses can be grouped into.
The Invision Maturity Model understands that a huge part of design happens outside of designers’ influence and looks at the organization from a holistic design perspective divided into the three categories of people, practices, and platforms.
The stages it describes can serve as narrative tools to inspire design leaders in creating inspiring stories for their team about where they came from and where they want to go.
The position we put ourselves in is always one that places a great emphasis on nurturing culture. We strive to create meaningful and lasting change, and for that, you have to go step by step, making sure that all the essential habits in the processes we implement get adapted by everyone in the team before we move on.
Leadership, as mentioned earlier, has more secrets to hold than what can be written in a single blog post. Hopefully, this article will only be a starting point for some greater exploration of the topic.
As with any other skills leadership is also cultivated through trial and error, and that needs a certain kind of bravery and determination. Especially since the fact that other humans are going to be profoundly affected by decisions made by leaders. Responsibility is key, and in our experience, it is so much better when the motivation to lead doesn’t come from a place of ego but responsibility and hard work.
When you find yourself in a leadership position, make sure to take responsibility for your decisions, lead by example, and empower others to do so as well.
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