Design Leadership

Principles I Operate On

The best designs emerge from an inclusive process. It’s best to incorporate end users, stakeholders, engineers, researchers, marketers, business professionals, and others throughout the design process - the discovery phase, planning, research, coordination, and each iteration.

Great design leadership requires unwavering organizational commitment. For the cross-departmental coordination that great design demands there must be commitment from the top to the bottom of an organization. There is only so much a designer can do to facilitate this. There must be desire within the team first.

Designers are people equipped with any or all of the following:

  1. Understanding of correct design principles
  2. Useful tools for various phases in the design process
  3. Strategies for getting to the bottom of a problem
  4. Skills to deliver usable and effective solutions
  5. Ability to incorporate others throughout the process

Design leadership aligns team efforts for maximal product outcomes. For consumer product organizations or any team that is building a user interface, design is core to their strategy.

The more complex the problem, the more your scope of design work is about documentation. Complexity can come in the form of increasing number of users, touch points, devices, external dependencies, shifts in the competitive landscape, financial-, technological-, or user constraints, etc. There is too much brain failure in any one person to be able to store all necessary information of a complex problem in their long-term memory and adequately retrieve it while working through it. Every additional teammate compounds the need for good documentation exponentially.

Outstanding visual designers and complex problem solvers are different breeds. Each have unique brain wiring and work experience. Very few expert user experience designers will also be expert aesthetic designers. If your organization prioritizes design highly, you will need both.

Innovation is Driven by Design Leadership

Most human-centered innovations are more accurately characterized as ‘design.’ This is for two reasons:

  1. New solutions to problems emerge from a multi-disciplinary team going through a process, in one form or another, of empathizing with people, defining the root causes of their problem, ideating solutions, and testing designs. That’s design thinking.
  2. When it’s human users you are innovating for, you must orient everything your team does around the details of the users’ thoughts, needs, and wants. That’s user experience design.

Design is more about the outcomes of the finished product than about its sensory qualities. A beautiful deliverable that is unusable doesn’t solve the problem. Design is about maximizing a balance between business and user goals.

The best designs combine new insights with old principles - no matter if it be for functional, informational, or aesthetic solutions. There is more to learn from the past about design than any one person can, and yet, all that knowledge will still never be enough to design new solutions for new problems. Great designers must be, by necessity, voracious learners, experimenters, risk takers, and even obsessive.

Optimal outcomes meet an equilibrium between user needs, business needs, and technical possibilities. Graphic concept from A Project Guide to UX Design, by Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler:

Design is more about the process than it is about the outcomes. Preceding the polished iteration of a successful outcome is almost all of the work. The outcome emerges out of the process taken. So, more important than paying attention to the surface layer of your deliverable are the problem solving mechanics utilized.

Principles govern the process. There is no single correct process for all teams, nor is there a single process for one team to utilize all the time. There are always tradeoffs to take in your approach to new circumstances. The goal is to have the right frameworks and tools for new circumstances. This requires leadership with design expertise.

Effective Design Leadership

Always teach. Utilize every phase of the design process for teaching moments with teammates:

  • Explain why certain research methods are right for this context and not that.
  • Raise principles of cognitive psychology in the context of UI design decisions.
  • Explain why this 2 day task could save the team 2 weeks of work later.
  • For more effective team orchestration, take some time to encapsulate key concepts into a visualization.
  • Etc.

Be a voracious learner. This requires focus on both old principles and new insights:

  • Continuously dig into and around the problem you’re solving. It will unearth strategic insights that will set your team up for higher heights.
  • Do not reinvent the wheel. Learn from the masters who have shaped the fields of design you venture into.
  • Continually leverage unstructured research opportunities that might pop up. Interview experts or users when you’re around them or interacting with them online.

Be productively paranoid about strategy. Continually test your team’s assumptions about it, because nothing dampens team morale more than months of effort wasted on a flawed strategy. Strategy shifts produce more waste than changes to any other layer of product design. Strategy needs to be the design layer that changes least frequently.

Exemplify your principles. If you want your words to carry any weight, you must lead by example.

Lead with research. Continually orient team decisions around your users and your data.

Scaling Design

The most critical design work at scale is the creation and maintenance of the system and processes from which the end user experience is produced. All documentation, standardization, and team organization will be oriented around the user touch points along their journey and the surrounding ecosystem of your product or service.

Synchronizing many minds to work together with synergy comes down to visualization and story telling. Walls to pure text with no narrative don’t activate people. Concept and data visualizations drive understanding of critical information better than text can alone because it utilizes more parts of the brain in creating understanding. Tying points together into a meaningful narrative helps teams remember and reiterate information much better than raw information.

Clear and digestible verbal and visual documentation produces the compounding impact that verbal communication does not. It does so in the following ways:

  • It provides helpful context behind teammate inter-operations and standards set to every layer of the product’s design
  • There are fewer occurrences of time zone hand off issues for remote teams, cross-cultural or -linguistic misunderstanding, personality conflicts, as well

Orienting teammates around stages of the user journey has several benefits. It:

  • clarifies to everyone how teammates fit into the big picture
  • breaks down the mental barrier of reaching out cross-departmentally to specific teammates
  • makes it much easier for teammates to discover and address organizational blind spots
  • reduces the chance of items falling through the cracks along the user journey

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