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#DesignMatters Event Series: It’s not just pixels

Designers have fought many years for a seat at the table, seeking to shape the direction of their respective companies with their unique perspective. Though design has come a long way, it’s important to understand how to advocate for design from a business perspective— not just a creative one.

How do design leaders in the San Francisco startup community advocate for design across a broader company context? How do they ensure their teams feel connected with the bigger picture? As design evolves, what trends are emerging and how can teams hire to stay cutting edge in a competitive landscape? 

Those questions answered and more in this summary of discussion from a recent design panel breakfast held at our San Francisco Office.

Emphasize the end-user

“The common thread between the whole of the organization is the customer. When you talk about the customer as a “person” and let that inform design decisions, your ideas will resonate across the business,” says Courtney O’Connell, Chief Design Officer at Rocket Lawyer.

“I spend most of my time with the C-suite, so if they’re my user, then understanding what’s valuable to them, and creatively articulating how to bridge that gap between where design is at and what they want to accomplish is key. (Or how can we tell a story that achieves that output?) It’s not just pixels,” says Scott Johnsen, Head of Design, Alto Pharmacy.

Ask the right questions

Helping company leadership understand your process can go a long way to demonstrate the value of design thinking. How you relate the creative side of your work to the questions your cross-functional peers are grappling with not only helps them understand your work better, but will also help raise the profile of the design team. 

“The types of questions you ask will reveal how you think, and if you’re showing that you’re thinking strategically about the customer and about the business, it shows that you’re interested in other peoples’ point of view. As designers, we have this incredible talent for synthesis. As you’re listening, you can redraw a picture for them in real time and that will immediately help people sharpen their thoughts and articulate what they were trying to say,” says Angel Steger, Director of Product Design at Dropbox.

“If you're at a bigger company, it's about helping executives imagine the possibilities through design. Try to understand and amplify the core customer value, and tell a narrative of how it ties to the business impact. With my previous team at Weight Watchers, I did just this by creating rich prototypes of what “could be”, and presented them to the C-suite, the board, (and then to Oprah),” adds Vlad Margulis, VP Product Design at Human Interest.

Help your team align on priorities 

Retaining designers and keeping them engaged is a top priority for most design leaders in the Bay Area. Here at Robert Walters we speak with countless candidates who are looking for new opportunities because their work feels disconnected from company goals. How can you keep your team engaged and happy?

“I work with individual designers on my team to coach them towards a mindset of outcomes rather than outputs. If we can speak a common language across all the crossfunctions, understanding specifically what we want the user and business outcomes to be, then I find that's a natural point of alignment for having really productive discussions. I think it also demonstrates an acumen for the business that can be really user-centered and friendly for designers,” says Brian Beaver – VP Design at Turo.

“We use the PR FAQ process. Before we create anything, we write a press release from the future about that particular product, (including their associated FAQs). One of the areas we focus on are metrics. We think about user experience and how we want to measure success,” adds Ana Varela, VP Design at Brightloom.

Making design decisions

Despite what some colleagues might think, design is not a long process of contemplation followed by a moment of great insight. Laying out a long term strategy and having input into the product roadmap are key ways that design can help lead to company success.  

“User research is a must-have necessity. The idea of intuition-based decisions feels risky and it’s hard to get broader product teams onboard for. I typically find that it’s actually a collection of inputs that helps move designs forward, so quant-qual strategy— these are the things that we can have strong conversations about. Then we go through proper discovery to identify those things,” says Scott Johnsen.

“If you focus only on the next thing, we start to go in very disparate directions, because there's not an overarching mechanism. If you have three opportunities, strategy will help you decide which one to pursue,” he adds.

Scaling a small or already established team

Every manager is faced with the challenge of balancing multiple priorities and that is no different when hiring for your team. At Robert Walters we advise a range of clients on how to build their team, from startups hiring their first designer to more established organizations looking to scale. Understanding your needs and the end goals for your team are key to building a cohesive unit. 

“Have a hiring plan. Understand what your team needs are, what are you missing, what are you hiring for, and why. You should have a good understanding of where your team is growing. I find it takes about 3 months to close a candidate from the moment you reach out to them to the moment they start at the mid-senior level,” says Pete Petras, Director of Product Design at Trip Actions.

“Figure out how to balance the various backgrounds and skill sets of the team. It’s about finding people with the aptitude to be able to do the job that you need them to do, and you'll have to spend time, energy, and effort to train them to be in the place where they are most valuable in the organization,” adds Tim McCoy, Senior Director of Design at  Pivotal Software.

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