It's an amazing time of change for design organizations, whether you work in a design agency or in-house team. Design is hot. But design organizations are not without their problems. In my previous post on agencies, we addressed the challenges and the upside design service firms face. Companies are repeating the same bad habits that they've learned from their design agency counterparts.
As an industry we're leaving a lot on the table as our collective stock rises in organizations. Companies' knee-jerk reaction to become design centric have left many design organizations scrambling to figure out how to put the pieces together. Designers are still mopping up implementation problems — still shaking the label of window dressers. Quite frankly, we've gotten really good at these problems and service firms have perfected the art of making money on this effort. We're designing for deliverables, not necessarily better business or customer results.
The current approach is short sighted, especially in a connected world where design work is so temporary. Companies need to re-think how they approach design when most of the work quickly becomes obsolete. If we're only left with design artifacts, most of the design thinking becomes lost. Pixels or artifacts don't effectively influence future decisions for users or organizations. Design organizations must stop designing for artifacts, as this produces only temporary results. We must instead shape the entire organization's collective understanding of the design problem to improve the next result for the people we serve.
We need to rethink the role and purpose of the design organization. We must move from creating artifacts to designing for influence.
The Design Organization Re-Envisioned
Design has changed greatly over the last decade, and in that time, companies have started to set high expectations for designers. Since our beginnings in 1998, we haven't had the collective influence another industry might provide — we've had to continuously work hard to earn respect. The direct benefit of this struggle is that we've learned, through trial and error, how to create more impact with our design work. At ZURB, we use progressive design in our design work to shape organizations and the way they think about design.
In our learning, we've come to the conclusion that companies have over-productionalized the entire design process. A lot of what is valuable in design is discovery of the problem, which allows designers to move through solutions. Along a design process, there are inflection points that shift the path or force another approach to be taken. It isn't clear until working through a design solution that something that seemed viable may not work well enough.
As designers and knowledge workers, we need to embrace a hybrid approach that creates consistent results, but enables us to think through design problems. Our design work should produce results that are consistent and repeatable, and not limited by a design-production process driven entirely by the constraints of an organization. Financial planning, office politics or organizational structures shouldn't drive the design process. We must design for continuous influence, as pixels no longer carry as much value. The pixels are only tools for influencing future outcomes as they will be replaced very quickly — the real value gets carried in the collective thinking of the organization.
To overcome these organizational hurdles, as an industry we've inserted concepts like UX to focus on users, but these efforts aren't usually in harmony with dealing with technological feasibilities and business goals, or least how most businesses try to integrate this thinking into their organization. Only when we have balanced these, can there be a sustainable focus on the people who use our products and services. We should focus on the people who use our products and services as a guiding light. As we've written before, design-centric companies outperform the market.
Facilitators of Change Through Education and Repetition
At ZURB, we design to influence users, our teams and companies. Collectively this influence drives new ideas forward. Big reveals no longer provide the influence necessary to carry stories through an organization. The artifacts of our design work don't produce lessons or help us synthesize new directions and possibilities. People do. We must recognize that people help us drive our work forward through design collaboration.
Now this is hard because people don't easily accept change, but we must aspire to shape design solutions for people. The job of designers is to shepherd a better and different future by making change palatable. The way people adapt to that future happens through our influence. We must acknowledge that people are part of this process, even though they may not fully embrace the idea of change. We must be compassionate and help guide people through our progressive design process.
If people are the core, then education is what pulls them into a design process. At ZURB, we use progressive design to create momentum and educate teams as we work through a design process. It requires that the entire team play a role in driving design decisions, as design is no longer the domain of just designers. Everyone is a designer. We must embrace and invite people into our process, whether it's our team, customers or organization. We must lead them by design.
Companies need designers to think more holistically about how their ideas affect the organizations they work in and invite teams into the process. Providing know-how helps get everyone on the same page — it's the reason we've focused on creating a learning organization at ZURB. When we inspire teams and create consistent results, we're fostering system thinking in the organization. This is a good thing and helps people in the organization use design patterns to solve problems.
Influence Outcomes Through Design Leadership
In order to continually push companies to be more design centric, we need design leaders. There's a gap though. Companies need designers to lead by design, which will help support design organizations. If we are to do that, we must understand how to manage design. To influence people in a design process, we must tell people what we are going to do, show them how it benefits people and organizations, and reiterate those benefits so that we can create momentum.
It may be obvious without stating, but sitting in front of a computer tweaking objects in photoshop makes it extremely difficult to shape outcomes through design. Goal-oriented design requires that you put people and outcomes first — it's an approach that requires giving guidance to people while iterating on design work. By continually delivering iterations that drive the organization toward a goal, designers remove uncertainty and build trust.
As designers, it is our responsibility to understand the effect of the work we put into the world. We must strive to help create a better result for the people we serve. We must capture and learn from this design thinking and understand that it is up to us to follow through on our goals. In this regard, designers are leading through influence and don't have to be limited by a position in a company.
Our influence is felt through the consistency of good work and the compassion we have for the people who interact with our work. If we embrace our organizational goals and commit ourselves to a thorough understanding of technology, we stand to help shape and lead people to amazing results.
Top-Down, Bottom-Up Strategies Create More Impact
Influencing outcomes from a design perspective doesn't necessarily mean that a top-down approach is needed. Yes, pushing a strategic agenda probably requires a management role, but the tactics used to get people on board with design decisions doesn't change. Designers still need to influence people to get ideas to stick.
Designers need to embrace a hybrid approach that utilizes the benefits of top-down and bottom-up strategies to deliver their work. Designers need more cross-functional skills to facilitate the movement of ideas across an organization — even if that means abandoning the focus on one layer of the problem, like the interface of a product. That interface will never shine without a bottom-up approach that balances a solid understanding of implementation principles with persuasion to move the product design decisions forward through an organization.
UX departments have tried to insert their design influence in organizations. But after a decade of experimentation, these groups typically fail to capture all the value for a user and the organization. That's because they're tactically positioned. This value needs to be captured at the organizational level. This is where most design agencies fall down as the work they produce might be finished at a high level, but they're not going to influence the final outcomes without shifting the thinking within an organization.
Designers Must Step Up
The role of a design organization will continue to shift over the next decade. It's going to happen out of necessity because companies have to solve ever more complex problems. Focusing only on button consistency and the output of a design process will surely stunt the growth of any design organization. And, more importantly, prevent the power of design from truly helping the entire organization. Designers must influence organizations through sound decision making and accept not only the successes, but the failures that come along with driving an organization.
Designers must step up and place these burdens on themselves to transform organizations for the benefit of people they serve. They must lead by design and take on more ownership of the business outcomes. At ZURB we've used progressive design as an opportunity for designers to drive this change — something we'll continue to share with the design community to harness all the trapped value we could produce in an organization. Designers need to influence through design and let go of our obsession with pixels.
(Thanks to Thomas Vander Wal for his insights on the post.)
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998