Design leadership

I build teams, grow teams, direct design projects, lead initiatives, and bring about organizational change. A few things I focus on as a user experience (UX) and design leader are as follows.

  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Accessibility is usability
  • Fostering content-driven design
  • Implementing content-driven design
  • A multi-disciplinary design culture
  • Design ambassadorship
  • A practical design process
  • Shared resourcing and co-design
  • Speed/quality
  • Flexible agility
  • Applied research
  • Cultivate personal and professional growth
  • Life/life balance
  • Surround yourself with smarties
  • Be mission-driven

Diversity and inclusion (D&I). Diversity and inclusion are about hiring the right people for the job. If it’s a homogeneous one, even a team staffed by superstars can’t really meet users’ needs. Homogenous teams don’t reflect the makeup of a rapidly changing population, one which the census says will be wildly different in 2045. Diversity is inclusive of ability, belief, ethnicity, gender, race, and sex. UX is about empathizing with, relating to, and understanding real people. In reality, people are diverse.

Accessibility is usability. Web accessibility – that is, ensuring that digital information and tools are equally available to all individuals who need them – fits squarely within the UX discipline. Wherever possible, accessibility experts should sit within an organization’s UX team. Part of an accessibility expert’s role is educating all members of the team on how to become accessible designers. This is an important step toward accessibility as an organizational commitment and practice. Being accessible is not only the right thing to do, it’s great for business. Missing accessibility goals brings huge financial and organizational risks. Being accessible attracts and retains more customers, with disabled individuals in the U.S. alone offering $500 billion in spending power.

Cultivating content-driven design. Every design serves the purpose of viewing, reading, or interacting with content. Understanding and embracing this can be a personal and cultural shift away from “what words should go in this component?” to “what components support this content?” What “content” means can differ. A table full of numbers is content. (Really, any list of things is content). Pictures and videos are content. A complex set of SaaS interfaces – the purpose of which may be moving things around, creating new things, setting up or changing things – is content. The consumer experience of signing up for something, buying or selling something, making a reservation; these are all content too. In these cases content is more of an interaction than a thing, but it doesn’t matter. Content is the purpose of the page.

Implementing content-driven design. Someone who understands words and stories (this isn’t solely the domain of writers) is best involved at the inception of any design effort. These content designers should be paired with other members of the core design team, which also includes visual and experiential designers, researchers, and accessibility experts. Sometimes content design means actively whiteboarding or wireframing. Other times it means validating and proofing templated approaches. The formal, followed design process has to be structured around this approach.

A multidisciplinary design culture. Anyone can be a design thinker. Design thinking is required of a design team, but it extends to organizations. A design leader should empower people outside of the design team to create or contribute to the creative process. This can happen while still ensuring it’s the writers who write, UX/UI designers who design, researchers who research, etc.

Design ambassadorship. A design leader gets organizations excited about design. They advocate for their people, and work to ensure budgets, processes, roadmaps, and other business stuff include design as an essential consideration. A design leader is easy, if not fun, to work with. Within these qualities is the ability to interact with leaders effectively. This helps leaders consider design in their decision making. People are inspired by people, not principles.

A practical design process. The right design process includes research, discovery, content design, UX/UI or service design, internal review, revision, client feedback, delivery, and QA. As individual tasks move across a “board,” the pitstops within that board ensure that every element of a solid design has been addressed. How the team organizes itself and acts around these pillars is unique to each team. Sometimes these individual pillars need to be addressed in guerrilla fashion, to keep the project moving, but they still need to be there.

Shared resourcing and co-design. Most UX teams serve multiple internal (or external) “clients.” There is a balance between giving each of these teams its own designer while also ensuring that any team member can take over the work if needed. Regardless of how team members are assigned, it’s essential to have group design reviews and ad hoc sessions to ensure every UX deliverable benefits from the group’s expertise and reflects its unified approach.

Speed/quality. UX and service design are about making needed things. Designers should take the appropriate amount of time to do something right (which sometimes can mean an iterative draft or a minimum viable product) without getting mired by perfectionism. A design shouldn’t take so long as to be out-of-date by the time it’s done. However, speed should never happen at the cost of something being good. If you break big efforts into little pieces, you want to make sure you don’t end up with a bunch of pieces.

Flexible agility. I believe in agility, and part of being agile is making sure that rigid and literal adherence to a given manifesto doesn’t become a roadblack to the very principles an agile approach is trying to foster. The time spent debating over what is or isn’t agile is time that could be spent making great things.

Applied research. “Learn, do.” Gather knowledge that enables you to make things. Every piece of learning should tie directly to a design feature, a recommendation, or a practical outcome of some kind. We learn in order to do. In practice, leaders help researchers balance their excitement over learning itself with the need to make stuff. And of course, they make research an essential part of the design process. I also work to ensure that research is available and digestible for everyone in the organization.

Cultivate personal and professional growth. A manager’s job is mentoring and opening up paths for their employees, while also helping them do their very best work in their current roles. Team members should feel confident sharing their future goals and feel supported in reaching them.

Life/life balance. If employees are getting their work done with the highest quality, and being available and reachable when they should be, that’s all that matters. Life is more important than work, so to speak, and work should be a fun part of life. When you feel healthy and fulfilled personally, you can personally believe in the value of your profession.

Surround yourself with brilliant people. A manager should have a practical understanding of what each member of the team “does” without needing to have those actual skills. In fact, if I can do everything each member of the team does as well as they can, I probably don’t have a very well-rounded team. I should have enough knowledge of their respective disciplines to serve as an effective strategist, creative director, and mentor, where needed.

Be mission-driven. Unless your organization designs torture devices, builds nuclear weapons, engages in super villainy, or generally conducts itself in horrible ways, it has a valuable mission. Figure out what that is and help your employees get excited about it. Also remind them that the way they do their work is a mission. We spend a lot of time at work. Be cool to people. Workplaces are ideal places to bring people together. Shared projects lead to the realization of shared values and shared humanity. Sharing is nice.