Relationships, like products, need to be designed.
Product Design Executive at Trebellar
Relationships are hard. They take time to grow and commitment to make them work. But relationships are also essential to great design work. As SVP of Platform User Experience at Salesforce, I’ve learned that design leaders are the designers of the relationships on our teams, with executives, and across our organization. It’s one of the most important aspects of our work.
Over the last 22 years, I’ve created and delivered strategies, products, and services across various platforms in a multitude of industries and countries. These experiences have taught me volumes about how to be thoughtful and compassionate when fostering relationships. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my mistakes and triumphs in trying to build better relationships so design can thrive inside organizations.
3 ways you can cultivate relationships to design better products:
- Prioritize differences when building teams
- Extend the hand of collaboration across your organization
- Advocate for the value of design with executives
Prioritize differences when building teams
We are naturally drawn to people with similar experiences and backgrounds, but that is not necessarily what is best for our teams. To stay nimble as industries shift, we need to prioritize candidates who may have “less” experience or unconventional backgrounds. We need to look for hires that challenge our ideas or ways of doing things. If we don’t, we risk becoming stagnant and incapable of innovation.
Look for hires with “less” experience
I’ll never forget a moment about 11 years ago when I was in the Bay Area seeing a large tech client. I was leading a small design team tasked with rationalizing their design pattern library. Over a few days, we audited hundreds of interactions across their mobile and desktop UIs. When we reviewed the phone number input fields, I asked why they were split into three fields. The client said that was how phone numbers in the US were organized. As someone who grew up in the UK, I wondered, why should everyone be forced into this US-centric convention? Although the client said changing the fields would be too much work, I insisted that we look up some open-source code. We were able to solve the problem by the next release.
I was younger then and possibly more foolish, but also more courageous. I was also coming from a different culture and brought with me a different perspective. Altogether, this created an opportunity for me to solve problems differently.
Now, 11 years later, I’ve learned that we need people who have less experience, like my younger self, to come in and ask the basic questions again, challenge the status quo, and sketch new ideas. People who will ask the “dumb” questions that are actually not dumb.
Typically when we think of “less” experienced, we see a young person, but it’s more about finding people who are not informed by years of working in the same industry, at the same company, or in the same cultural context (like me, all those years ago). Sure, they could be right out of high school, or they may be ten years your senior. Ultimately, it’s about putting all these different people together in a room to ideate, challenge each other, and consider problems through different lenses. It’s about finding fresh perspectives, a willingness to question norms around the ways things are done or ways of imagining.
When looking for “less” experienced hires, it’s important to:
Look for environmental factors that can bring diverse ideas to the team: diversity in socio-economic background, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, and more.
Remember, this isn’t about meeting diversity quotas: all these perspectives will help your team empathize more with their users as you’re creating products for everyone, not just you.
Cultivate fresh perspectives
I’ve found that the younger generation is learning how to create with a new set of tools like games and programs that help kids learn programming concepts and code. These creators can focus more on the outcome of using their tools rather than learning the tools themselves. This empowers them to just make cool stuff.
Me watching my daughter make cool stuff.
Take my eight-year-old daughter as an example. I showed her GameSalad to make and “code” her own game. Within just a day, she had created her own game and launched it on a phone. It was a simple game, but at eight years old, she was able to make an object move around the screen and collect gems. It was phenomenal. I sat with her and helped at first but then she totally got it. I give it a month, and she’s doing it on her own. In a short while, she’ll be coming up with unique ideas, new stories, and games that she’ll be building and deploying on her own.
The best way to keep imagination nimble is to infuse it with new ways of thinking, doing, being, and seeing the world. We need to identify characteristics in candidates who may not have all the formal certifications but have the creative spirit, analytical tendencies, or inquisitive personality to grow with a rich input of skills and capabilities.
When cultivating fresh perspectives, it’s important to:
Ask yourself, “Does this candidate for my team have a different perspective than me?” If they do, explore how that might be exactly what your team is looking for.
Listen to your current team. Ask yourself, “What do they need from me as a leader in the hiring decisions you’re making?”
Encourage your current team to help you find candidates that complement them and their skill sets.
Extend the hand of collaboration across your organization
Leaders need to extend the hand of collaboration to other teams within an organization. Take the basic premise of designing and building a new office block. Engineers, architects, and builders have to align as the building is conceived, as those plans are developed, and throughout the building process. They must collaborate to ensure the right aesthetic goals are met, the functional premise of its rooms and utilities work, and that it’s constructed to code. To make a successful product (the office block), they must work well together.
In my work, design, product management, and engineering each bring a unique skill but are pursuing the same goal: building the best product for users. Therefore the value of each of their voices, ideas, and expressions of that role make for a more engaging and rich product development process and ultimately outcome for users. Often we conflate two important parts of our roles in large organizations. The first is the skills you have, and the second is the team you are on. For instance, a product manager has skills in writing compelling product requirements documents, pitching new product roadmaps, and managing the budget for a product. However, they also have the same role as the designer, delivering the best product for our users.
When extending the hand of collaboration, it’s important to:
Move together as an organization towards shared goals. The Salesforce V2MOM process is a good example of this. It’s a living, moving document that is created together across all skills in the company. It defines the vision, methods, measures, and obstacles.
Create space for healthy discord. If we’ve nurtured diverse teams, then it’s our responsibility to listen twice as hard to the different perspectives.
Adopt language like “yes, and” in response to new ideas.
Invite others in a debate to share their ideas about a point of view shared by someone else.
Advocate for the value of design with executives
In the design community, we are all bought into the transformative power of design. We can agree that understanding users and their needs is essential to our product’s success, but not all executives will be on the same page. This is why building relationships with executives who might not fully understand the value of design is pivotal in activating its power.
To build these relationships, effective storytelling is essential. A well-crafted narrative unlocks the value of design for non-designers, CEOs, and executives. As a design leader, it’s my job to guide my teams to communicate the value of their work by telling the best possible story. And good storytelling means understanding your audience and identifying the elements that are most relevant to them.
Let’s take great food as an example here. When a chef presents you with an intricate and delicious dish — do you want them to painstakingly describe every ingredient and step that went into that dish? Probably not, unless you happen to be a chef yourself. Similarly, executives and CEOs are not necessarily designers, and they do not want to hear about our fancy design process — they just want to find the best solution for the problem and run their business in the most efficient way possible.
Holding onto the north star helps tell a more clear story about the value and purpose of design work. It can be remarkably easy to sell a process, and many executives will take comfort in a well-structured approach. But focusing on process instead of outcomes can lead to problems down the line because, as we know, even the best plans change. When you think about articulating a project plan, it’s essential to always start by reiterating the goal and outcome before talking about “where are we on the plan”.
So you see, it’s design leadership’s responsibility to consider the audience, narrow the message, and allow great concepts and solutions to shine through.
When advocating for the value of design with executives, it’s important to:
Point to the “fire burning,” which is the customer and/or user problem you’re looking to solve.
Highlight the business outcome you’re seeking. Why is this important to your business growth? How is this aligned to broader company objectives?
Create a sense of urgency — What happens if we don’t do it? Why is it essential to act now?
Explain how the work you’re doing might appear in the market. Never forget what “first-time” looks like, whether that’s evolving current products or launching a new one.
Relationships need to be cultivated with intention and compassion, so that shared ground can be found and generative connections can be established.If we don’t carefully consider how we build our teams and engage within the broader organization, then we are stuck in the bubble of uniformity with little to no original thought and outcomes. And we run the risk of losing opportunities for innovation and ultimately fail to meet our users’ needs.
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