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Designers Finally Have A Seat At The Table. Now What?

Companies are finally listening to designers, writes Google Ventures’ Kate Aronowitz. Here’s what designers need to do now.

Designers Finally Have A Seat At The Table. Now What?
[Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images]

About 15 years ago when I started at my first tech company, design was seen by most as an afterthought. Even as a senior designer, I wasn’t invited to meetings to present my work and couldn’t imagine anyone asking me to weigh in on a product decision. Flash forward to today, and many designers hold the coveted seat at the table we’ve long been dreaming of. We’re making key strategic decisions and helping to shape the direction of companies. We got here because we proved design can solve big problems in a way that others cannot. This is a victory, one that we earned through a lot of hard work, and we should be proud of ourselves.

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But let’s not rush to pat ourselves on the back just yet. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a problem emerging. As we shoulder new responsibilities and take bigger design leadership roles, we are falling short. I see us paying too much attention to the “design” part of the role and not enough to “leadership” – defending our own interests without deeper understanding of the businesses and broader contexts we must operate in. I’m concerned that if we don’t step it up on the actual leadership part, we’re in danger of losing the seat at the table.

I for one don’t want to go back to the lonely days of being left off the invite list for important meetings, and I bet you don’t either. So let’s take a look at one way you can step it up – how you set your priorities.

Recently I gave a talk to a group of design leaders, where I presented a list:

  1. User
  2. Business
  3. Team
  4. Self

This list represents, in rank order, how I believe we as designers should prioritize our work. I have written this list on lots of whiteboards over the years, asking teams to set priorities that solve problems for each of these four groups in this particular order.

It was just a small part of my talk, but it definitely landed – and it sparked my first debate with “Design Twitter.”

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These posts all make interesting points. I can see why a sales team might instinctively prioritize this list differently. The same goes for human resources, engineering, etc. How you view this list likely depends on where in the organization you sit. Let’s focus on it, step-by-step, from the design point of view.

1. User: If you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business

If you’re not satisfying a customer need or solving a problem, you won’t be in business for very long. While everyone’s end goal should be to know their customer and make the best possible product for them, no one is as responsible for this as designers. This is because we have a combination of responsibilities and talents that are unique.

Designers are responsible for crafting experiences from nothing more than ideas. We also possess talents for using storytelling and user-centered design techniques to put ourselves and others in the shoes of our customers.

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Combine these things and you’ve got a team with real superpowers. They are tools we possess that can bring understanding and empathy for our users in a way no other team can. Too often, user needs end up playing second fiddle to the business. So let’s step up the use of those superpowers and champion the little guy. Focus on the user first, because most others won’t.

Don’t have anything on your list championing the user? Schedule some user studies and invite the company to watch. Chat with your team members in customer support about knocking off some of their top reported issues. Sketch and share storyboards of the user journeys for your new products.

2. Business: Act like an owner

I understand why some teams would want to rank business as number one. After all, you have to make money to stay afloat and hire good people, right? However, money shouldn’t be the primary objective of the design team.

I’ve both led and participated in a bunch of priority setting sessions for design teams. In these, we discussed our goals and ranked them according to where they fit – user, business, team and self. My team rarely ever saw what happened next, but after these meetings my job was to then “sell” those priorities to other executives and get the resources (people and money) we needed.

But in my little sales roadshow I saw a big discrepancy. Other teams usually tied very specific goals to their asks. Sales and marketing had numbers they had to hit. Finance and HR sought things like compliance training and software upgrades to help the company function better. But designers? Our asks – things like $15,000 for three designers to attend a conference in New Zealand, a writer for a thought leadership blog and unspecified engineering resources to turn all square corners to round (all of which have made it onto my priority lists)–were out of sync with the rest of the company and often went over like a lead balloon. With a straight face, try asking for $50,000 to remodel a design studio after customer support begs for one additional headcount (complete with charts to back up their ask).

Now, I know these designers weren’t coming from a selfish place. But when these requests were placed next to everyone else’s, it gave off the impression that the design team was more concerned with ourselves and our personal preferences than the needs of the business (or the user, for that matter).

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Business is an area where I see designers falling short the most. In a way, it’s understandable. Most designers I’ve met didn’t get MBAs, and we never saw ourselves worrying about things like headcount or budget planning. Yet here we are. We have been given an opportunity to be leaders, which means shouldering new responsibilities we never thought we’d have.

So while prioritizing the business doesn’t rank first, it needs to be a close second. We need to embrace that we are part of a business involving many different organizations that have to work together to achieve our goals.

We must act like owners and:

  • Understand the business model, how the company makes money
  • Understand what drives deadlines and urgency, both internal and external factors
  • Understand how the budgeting and headcount process works, how and when these allocations are made

Showing respect for the business earns respect for us. Not sure how to “understand the business” or never considered how your company’s headcount model work? It’s okay, there are a lot of coworkers who would love to grab a coffee and share their team goals and inner workings with you. I’ve found all you have to do is ask.

3. Team: Putting your team before yourself fosters empathy and creates better products

In this context, a team could be any group of people larger than yourself, such as your immediate functional team, your project team or even your company at large. Unless you are a sole proprietor, you’re a part of a team. You’re accountable to another person, to other people– in both how you treat one another and how you make work decisions. Harmony with team members and with the system in which you design are huge factors in your ability to have influence and success.

At its core, design can be a largely personal endeavor. Oftentimes we dig deep into our own intuition and judgment to create something unique. And sometimes after multiple all-night design sessions, it’s too easy to push for what we personally want–to fall in love with an idea we’ve been crafting and refining. But we’re not artists who can create simply for inspiration.

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The very best designers respect the system in which they design, carefully thinking about their work within proper context, rather than trying to leave their individual thumbprint on everything they touch. In addition, those who place higher value on their team are more generous and thoughtful in both giving and receiving feedback, making those around them better (read: no more jerks in your critique). So make sure you’re prioritizing things that make your group of designers function like a team. Add things like reading a relevant book together (at Wealthfront we’d read about behavioral economics) or make time for people to pair up on projects. Tidy up your critique process, ensuring the team regularly meets to discuss work.

4. Self: The foundation for the rest

“Self” can be areas of professional growth and learning (“I want to get more technical” or “I want more experience making product decisions.”). It’s also personal stuff, like making time to go to the gym or taking vacations. It’s essential to a well-functioning team, and anyone who has worked with me knows this is always a major focus of our goal-setting efforts. In fact I just drafted my goals for the year, which include an hour of focused writing every workday (yay, more posts from me). I also committed to helping a team member achieve her goal of coaching more design leaders from our portfolio companies.

So, if it’s so important, why do I place it last?

Designers who prioritize themselves above the user, the business or the team fall into traps like designing products they simply “like” rather than those that align with a greater goal. They also end up ignoring the opinions of teammates and missing out on ideas that could make their work better. Any great team is built on a foundation of fulfilled employees who are growing both in their personal and professional lives. But there’s a big difference between this and a team of people who are taught to put their own personal needs above everyone else.

Conclusion

So whether you’re a design leader getting ready to roadshow your 2018 priorities and asks, or you’re a designer requesting a trip to a design conference on the North Pole, take your project list and place them against mine and see where you land. Are you solving the problems only designers can solve? Are you using your superpowers to propel the business? Are you prioritizing work benefitting the larger good of your team? Are you taking care to identify the things you’d like to improve? Find meaningful connections in all four buckets to keep the team balanced and keep our place as leaders.

Kate Aronowitz is a design partner at Google Ventures, where she advises startups on design management, team building, and what it takes to be a leader in this field. She has previously worked at eBay, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Wealthfront. 

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