Preparing Organizations to Become Design-Infused

by Jared M. Spool

Imagine what it’s like to have every co-worker, in every meeting and discussion, keeping the conversation focused on how to make your product or service deliver the best experience possible. With every hard decision you face, your team encourages you to do what’s best for your customers and users. Where the executives seriously consider delaying a release because the design isn’t the best it could be.

Sounds like an ideal world, but for a growing number of UX professionals, it’s becoming a reality. These folks work in design-infused organizations, where every individual contributor makes great design a priority in their work.

Spreading the Knowledge of Design

It takes a long time to become a design-infused organization. Many have yet to make the transition. Some organizations are approaching it. These organizations value design enough to hire and embed designers in every project. They see how design is a competitive advantage.

Getting a UX designer embedded on every team is a fantastic achievement for most organizations. It shows commitment to producing great experiences and is very difficult to accomplish. However, there’s still room for the organization to grow.

Becoming a design-infused organization is the next level of maturity. These organizations realize that everything affects the users’ experience. If the technology is chosen poorly, the user will be frustrated by poor performance or limited capabilities. If the wrong functions are implemented, or too many are shoved into the design, the user will become frustrated by the complexity of completing their objectives. Everyone on the team needs to think about how they affect the experience.

A design-infused organization is one where every decision is made with design at the forefront. When choices are available to the team, they’ll all choose the one that provides the best experience.

Reducing the Need for Advocacy by Spreading UX Expertise

Embedding a team with a UX designer ensures that design expertise and knowledge is within easy reach at all phases of the project. However, that designer is still in the role of advocating for good design.

Teams mature when that advocacy is no longer necessary. The natural inclination of every team member is to work towards a great user experience as their primary consideration, even if it means choosing a harder path than one with a lesser experience.

To get to this level of maturity, the team needs to spread the knowledge and expertise of design beyond that designated designer. Every developer and product manager must become literate in the differences between bad design and good design. More importantly, they must also be literate in the differences between good design and great design, so they strive for excellence at every opportunity.

These non-designer team members must be fluent in the techniques and tools of great design. The re-emergence of design systems and pattern libraries are a great example of this. If the team is fluent in their design system—knowing how to use it and why each element exists the way it does—they’ll produce more cohesive designs faster.

Including Influencers into the Design Team

To truly be design-infused, the organization must ensure every influencer of a project has that same design literacy and fluency. When they don’t participate in the design decisions in the same way as the rest of the team, the resulting conflict produces less-than-desirable experiences.

Influencers are those organizational members whose behaviors and decisions affect the resulting user experience. These can be product owners or stakeholders who have final authority over the product or service. Influencers are also outsiders, brought in to ensure compliance, such as the legal team, or execution, such as local branch general managers.

Many influencers don’t realize the power they hold over the user experience. To overcome this, the team needs to seek out and include these influencers as part of the design team. Knowing that, somewhere along the way, the influencers will render a decision that affects the user experience, the team needs to prepare those influencers to make that decision in the best way to create a great experience.

To prepare those teams, including the influencers, we’ve uncovered three essential steps an organization has to embrace.

Step 1: Embrace Regular and Frequent Exposure to Users

Bad design (and often good-but-not-great design) happens because those people making essential design decisions didn’t foresee how their choices would play out in the users’ experiences. Providing consistent exposure to the users’ experiences is a major step to solving this.

Seeing someone use your design tells you whether the choices you’ve made helped or hurt the experience. It’s surprising how many organizations fail to provide this feedback back into their process, even when they say how important good design is to their success.

Design-infused organizations don’t skip this part of the process. They ensure their team members, including the influencers, regularly and frequently watch people using their products and services.

Watching someone use your product or service (or a competitor’s product) for two hours every six weeks is the bare minimum we recommend for exposing team members. (Many great organizations now do even more frequent and regular exposure.) This can be one person for two hours or four people for 30 minutes—it doesn’t seem to matter.

The two hour minimum ensures the observers see enough of the experience. Every six weeks is critical, so that the team members have a fresh memory of the users and how they’re trying to succeed with the product or service. It’s a fantastic moment when a developer describes how they’ve changed a design because they saw a user become frustrated the week before.

Making this happen is a heavy commitment for an organization, not to be treated lightly. They must put infrastructure in place to ensure everyone can observe as frequently as possible. They have to adjust schedules for regular observation. It’s a big cost to make this happen.

Design-infused organizations make it a priority and put the infrastructures in place. Many go so far as to include regular observation as a base criteria in performance evaluations. An organization that says it is design driven must have exposure to users as core responsibility of every team.

Step 2: Embrace a Solid Vision of A Future Experience for Users

Design-infused teams create a shared understanding of what a great user experience is. More importantly, they know which great user experience they’re heading towards. They have a solid vision of their aspirational user experience.

A vision is like a giant flag on a stake, pushed into the sand on the horizon. Everyone can clearly see it, but it’s obviously so far away that it’ll take years to reach. Because everyone can see it, they can follow a simple order: “March toward the flag.” Regardless of where they start or distance from their members or organization, if everyone starts marching towards the flag, they’ll eventually converge.

This is how a vision works. Everyone is marching towards the same goal. The key phrase there is “same goal.”

When a team has told me they have a vision, I like to conduct a little experiment. I ask the team members to take a sheet a paper and divide it in half. In one half, I ask each person to write the milestones of Hansel & Gretel, in bullet form. In the other half, I ask them to write the key milestones of what their vision of the user experience will be five years from now.

It’s amazing to see teams that can accurately describe what happens in Hansel & Gretel. Every team member has the same description of that story. Yet those same team members don’t have any idea how to describe the experience of their own vision. Their vision also must be told repeatedly.

Coming up with an initial vision is straightforward, especially for teams that have embraced regular exposure to users. Creating a journey map of the current users’ experience will show highs and lows—points where the users are delighted and points where the users are frustrated. Teams can craft their vision by just asking how they would eliminate all the frustrating points. Put that in story form, from the perspective of the user, and you have a user experience vision to aim for.

Of course, you can change that experience later. After all, the vision is just the flag stuck in the sand. Pull the flag out of the sand and move some place else and, as long as everyone can still clearly see it, the orders remain the same: March toward the flag

Design-infused organizations bring the entire team, including influencers, in on the vision from the beginning. They ensure everyone describes the vision story the same way. Those team members can now apply a razor to every design decision they need to make: Which option gets us closer to our vision?

Step 3: Embrace a Culture of Continuous Learning

“What have we learned from our last efforts and how will this affect what we do in the future?” This is an oft-repeated refrain in an organization that has embraced a culture of continuous learning.

The United States Digital Service has adopted the unofficial motto of “Make New Mistakes.” Their idea is that it’s likely things won’t go as planned, but they should learn from each one. A mistake repeated means that education didn’t happen as planned.

Another popular saying is “Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgements.” Many organizations talk about failure as a component of that work, but the best ones talk about learning as the important outcome of that failure. While teams can’t be risk adverse (which means they won’t have a chance to learn from mistakes), they also have to mitigate the risk to prevent it from being too expensive or public.

Establishing a culture of continuous learning forces the organization to create sandboxes and experiments where the opportunity to gain new information happens in a cost-effective and safe way. The organization invests in capturing that knowledge and sharing it, to help other teams prevent similar mistakes.

Reflections, critique, and retrospective sessions are the basic tools of continuous learning. Opportunities to look back at what people have tried and evaluate how effective their efforts were are essential to gaining that new knowledge and experience.

Everyone on the team needs to be part of that learning experience, including the influencers. As the influencers see what’s been tried in the past, they can adopt their perspectives to ensure the future decisions are more likely to get the team closer to its objectives.

Becoming a Design-Infused Organization

It’s the combination of these three steps that brings out the best in the organization. Exposure to how users experience the design informs the team on where they are currently. Creating an experience vision describes where they want to be. Continuous learning happens when the team experiments with moving the needle from today’s experience to the one in their vision.

Keeping users at the center of the discussion is essential for becoming design-infused. If everyone, including the most distant of influencers, are involved in those discussions, it’s hard to avoid making a better user experience.

None of these steps are expensive or complicated in their own right. However, for organizations that didn’t start with these steps in their basic operating procedures, the shift to new behaviors can be challenging.

It’s worth the effort, as the returns from embracing these steps will dramatically increase the experience of using the organization’s products and services. Better experiences result in significantly more customer delight, which increases the word-of-mouth marketing that drives more business. It’s a virtuous cycle with a high return on the investment.

Preparation is key.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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