It Takes a (Design-Led) Village

by James Lavine
Sep 02, 2020

By this point, "design-led" has become synonymous with successful companies, as well as digital products that outshine their competitors. After many years of treating design and design teams as peripheral to business success, we've come to this consensus that design is a highly influential force that creates massive value for the business.

This is a big win for the design discipline as a whole, and in the last decade, design has been elevated to a status that it may not have enjoyed since the Renaissance. Design teams are reporting directly to CEOs, and designers are reaching C-level positions. Many executives of big, successful companies started out in the design field. At Nike, no other company function is allowed to second guess the design team's direction.

This all sounds great on the surface. Design truly does create incredible value when it's given the chance to lead. But this hero status comes with unintended side effects. Is it possible for design to have too much sway? In a digital product, every nook and cranny needs to be researched, mapped, wireframed, branded, pixel-pushed, prototyped, documented, handed off, then tested within an inch of its life (and subsequently redesigned based on testing). Many of these pieces naturally fall on design to execute. But for the design team to define the product in its entirety — does that really make sense?

Collaborative Design

The hero status sometimes given to design creates this general mindset that ideas and decisions about the experience must come from people in a design role. Airbnb’s chief design officer, Alex Schleifer (look, a designer in the C-suite!), has said that design-led companies can put designers in an unnecessarily privileged role, putting the rest of the company in a position of always having to react to their point of view. Design can lead, but it's only made stronger from collaborative ideation with other people in the company or team.

Companies creating digital products typically have cross-functional teams comprised of people with diverse skillsets and experience, but the entire team is not always taken full advantage of. When design solutions come from a collaborative approach, a shared understanding is formed, of both the problem and the solution. The account owners, project managers, product managers, and front and back-end engineers make up an invaluable pool of knowledge and ideas. They will likely have awesome (or at least different) ideas that the designers would never have thought of, will think of interactions the design team forgot would need to be addressed, will understand how the UI interacts with the data, and more. The reality is that it takes a village to make software.

Shared Understanding

Design-led doesn't necessarily mean agile methodology. In some ways it can even go against agile. When the design team is given the task of creating the requirements and solutions for a product in vacuum, strong collaboration between design and development doesn't exist, reverting back to a waterfall process (even if it's a mini waterfall per sprint). In this situation there is no shared understanding and the team ends up relying heavily on documentation and handoffs.

Designers have the responsibility to nurture a collaborative atmosphere within a company or team. If they consistently call on the other members of the team for feedback, it will become part of the culture, as will shared understanding. Facilitating collaboration can take the form of informal one-on-one chats or sharing of a concept, or be structured as a group sketching or whiteboard session. The key is to include a diverse range of team members. With this approach, everyone understands, and is a part of, the decisions being made. It also means that less time needs to be spent on documentation and handoff, because everyone already has at least a general understanding of the problem and the solution.

Crew Diligence

As technology has advanced and users have increasingly expected more from software, the experiences we design have become nuanced and complex, while still needing to be simple and intuitive to use. This complexity typically requires an immense number of screens, states, and interactions. It's unreasonable to expect that the designer or the design team can think of everything.

The great thing about cross-functional teams, and their inherent range of thinking, is that they are a wealth of constructive feedback. A project manager, front end developer, and back end engineer are all going to see things from unique angles, so get them all in the same room for fifteen minutes. During the design process, getting a few eyes on a solution and simply asking, "Does anyone see anything missing here?" usually unleashes a treasure trove of helpful ideas, and invariably, a missing state or interaction that the design team hadn't accounted for.

Technical Point of View

Engineering has advanced so much in recent years that designers tend to think that anything they dream up can be built. It can be distressing to think that design solutions are limited in some way, and that user experiences can potentially be hindered by things like data structures, API endpoints, and feasibility. This fact can be a difficult pill to swallow, but it's the truth. The only way to get out in front of these unfortunate realities, and mitigate redesigns as a product is about to ship, is to communicate consistently with the greater team throughout the design process.

As mentioned earlier, shared understanding is key to a strong team dynamic, and in turn, great products. The simple act of sharing and getting feedback on design solutions early and often can alleviate big issues down the road. In a recent example, I presented an initial design to our internal project team that included over 20 different interactive charts on one screen, comprised of hundreds of thousands of data points, all of which would be coming from an API our team doesn't control. The engineers in the room brought to the team’s attention that with all this data we'd need a well thought out loading strategy — one that takes into account a possible 5-6 second loading time — to make this a pleasant experience for the user. Having this feedback early on allowed us the time to design and implement a solution without a scramble right before launch, or launching a lackluster MVP.

Myriad Ideas

The biggest benefit of a team that is consistently engaged throughout the design process is the fact that it gives people other than just designers the opportunity to have input. In the words of Amy Poehler:

"As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life."

Creating solutions with the input of a multifaceted team is always going to yield better results than hero-based design. Design definitely has value, and design can absolutely lead, but it's up to designers and design teams to make sure they're not creating a vacuum from which all ideas emerge and can't be questioned or evolved until it's too late.

Photo by Randy Fath on Upslash

James loves creating experiences that users will love (or at least get through quickly so they can get on with their day). When he’s not out on the trails of southern Maine (by bike or foot), he’s designing flexible, research-backed systems using atomic design principles and working with cross-functional teams to make them real.

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