Enabling Design Influence at Scale

by Chris Avore

This article was originally published at

Achieving a design-led work culture is often a problem of scale: the design team must increase influence, increase its responsibility, and increase its reach throughout the organization, all while still continuing its day job of designing products or services that meet customer and business goals.

But to do that requires another problem of scale: preparing the organization to understand and apply design methods typically associated with the design team, and ultimately allowing those teams to solve their business and customer problems by putting those approaches to work.

At Nasdaq, we calibrate, tune, and refine what else we can be doing as a design team to help the rest of the organization benefit from our approaches and our methods. These are a few of our latest explorations into establishing the company as a design-aware organization.

Share the same story

Before scaling design influence across the organization, it’s important to first establish a general shared understanding of the design team’s work and successes.

Create a simple presentation that describes your team’s charter and mission statement, as Russ Unger advocated at MX2015. Include the projects you’ve worked on (and perhaps the ones you do not work on), the methods you use, the locations your team works from (be specific with remote team members too), where your team sits in the larger organization hierarchy, and why design is important to the company.

You and your team may end up delivering the presentation so many times you practically memorize it, but creating a common understanding of design responsibilities and expectations across people and teams, designers or otherwise, is the first step to establishing a culture of design and preparing non-designers to follow your lead.

#Protip: Each time you deliver the presentation, make a note of what questions are asked, and consider adding your responses to the shared story.

Make the deck accessible to anyone on the design team—not just the design manager. Allowing a junior designer to relay your team’s story to a new product manager or new developer who is asking questions about design’s role can be incredibly empowering to the design team’s reputation and that junior designer.

Share research at work

Too often design research can be used as a tool to forward an agenda, sometimes by management, but also sometimes by design teams. And simply dismissing a non-designer’s idea with “We tested it, and customers hated it” or “We already asked about that and no one was interested” makes design research a tool only for designers and no one else.

Instead, make design research less voodoo and more transparent to not only the product teams (who should be participating in the interviews, observations, etc), but also management, sales, and marketing as well.

#Protip: After getting an interview participant’s permission to record the session, write down the timestamp of when the participant mentions something worth sharing with the teams to help track it down later. Quicktime provides simple splicing tools you can use to edit and share clips in only a few minutes.

Post the clips and a brief summary of why you’re talking to customers and you’ll quickly see a change in expectations when you mention next time that you need to talk to customers first

As Jared Spool argued in The Redesign of the Design Process, “the user researcher’s role has changed. It used to be about running studies. Now it’s about growing the team’s understanding of their users”. Even quantitative-minded senior staff will have an interest in hearing first-hand that search works so much easier than before, instead of just being reported that 74% of participants mentioned search positively.

This may seem like you’re cherry-picking only the good stuff, and you are—but that’s okay. Sharing positive reactions with sales and management is not the same thing as vague research called upon exclusively to torpedo a non-designer’s idea. Instead, you’re showing customers or potential users are excited about your work, and that you actually *are* talking to your customers.

Non-designers doing design things

Just showing the rest of the organization what your team is doing isn’t enough to scale design—it’s just giving you the credibility and visibility you’ll need when other leaders ask who to turn to when their own businesses or teams want to begin an engagement.

To truly scale design, you have to put the methods of designers into the toolkits of the people who don’t report to you—product managers, to development teams, business analysts, marketers, account executives, and management, and maybe even the customers themselves.

Share resources

As the @NasdaqDesign team has grown from one designer to almost 30, and our work expanded from one product to many, we had to formalize the assets we used across projects and teams. Now we’re putting these resources in the hands of others throughout the organization.

Style guides, fonts, icons, and pattern libraries come to mind as the most reusable components that other teams can put to work with minimal documentation.

But many of the assets and documentation we may produce in the discovery phase and even post-launch are incredibly valuable to teams looking to articulate and clarify their missions.

For instance, we recently began sharing a modified persona template that focuses only on values, goals, and problems. We’ve shared how to write a vision statement or north star that emphasizes problem solving, not naming features and functionality. And we’ve modified our DaqLibs post-interview document that uses the familiar fill-in-the-blank script to gather the most important elements of an interview when the memories are still fresh.

#ProTip: When providing templates or scripts for non-designers to use, remember to use their tools, not ours. Rely on Word and Powerpoint, not InDesign, Illustrator or Keynote.

Nasdaq senior product designer Tami Evnin’s barometer of what is an effective tool or template to share is simple: Can the exercise be done on a sheet of paper? Does it require any materials that would likely be on any professional’s desk? If the exercise requires collecting materials, facilitation, and extensive prep work beforehand, it may not be the right fit for a novice.

In this case, this standard meant shelving card sorts, mental modeling, task analysis, and other tasks the product design team can facilitate alongside the interested teams.

We even compiled resources of articles, presentations, and videos so management could read up on why design is so important to business and its rising stature in organizations. To not-so-subtly imply our own team is trying to lead this charge, we highlighted our own contributions to to the conversation, so as to distinguish those from other practitioners and leaders in the greater design community.

Evolve from practitioner to coach

Sharing design methods spans further than pointing a product manager from Sweden to a resource website and instructing her to download a persona template.

Instead, we should position those people to be successful by helping them use the problem-solving methods we as designers regularly use, so that afterwards they can go out and do those activities on their own.

Among the most successful workshops we’ve held include:

  • facilitating milestone meetings, including kickoffs and retros
  • conducting an effective customer interview
  • arranging a design studio
  • exploring customer journeys
  • delivering actionable critique (our Director of User Experience pretty much wrote the book on it)
  • writing effective user stories
  • usability testing with customers

Coaching offers you the opportunity to listen where there is disconnect or ambiguity in the methods and reasons. If some people doubt the benefit of focusing on problems before defining solutions, design studio may be a great collaborative exercise that can be equal parts strategic and tactical.

If naysayers assume they know what their customers want, organizing interview workshops can show that the approaches of a good discussion can identify new opportunities to address latent or unmet needs.

What happens if you don’t?

For many companies who have experienced some design success, the toothpaste is out of the tube and it’s not going back in. So what happens when organizations want to leverage the design success of one team and apply their approaches to other businesses or departments?

If you’re not prepared with a plan to scale, there are likely three predictable paths you may find yourself on:

  • The departments or businesses will use their budget, call HR, and begin hiring their own designers
  • The departments or businesses will turn to outside agencies to work on their individual project
  • The departments or businesses will simply grow frustrated with trying to apply design methods, and will just continue with business as usual

In each of the distinct scenarios above, the larger organization suffers from higher costs, no institutionalized or reusable best practices, and fragmented experiences.

Meanwhile, the products or services will likely continue to frustrate their users, while continuing to be expensive to maintain and support.

Instead, embrace the demand and interest in your design team. Maintain your focus on your primary mission, and enable others to put your methods to work for the benefit of the larger organization. You’ll be that much closer to a company culture that embraces design as a competitive advantage, while still doing your day job as a practicing designer.

About the Author

Chris leads the product design efforts at Nasdaq, where his team designs the vision of a more elegant, useful, and profitable portfolio of products for the global stock exchange. You can follow Chris on Twitter at @erova.

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