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Design at Scale Is Hard: How Business Leaders Can Rise to the Challenge



Photo of a smaller sign that reads "Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations."

Stop me if you've heard this one before...Tech CEO wants the enterprise to become more "innovative." Hires a charismatic design leader, who hires a bunch of new designers. There is excited chatter about "centers of excellence," maybe even a feature in Fast Company. But for some reason, sales refuse to take off. Stock price remains stagnant. Disillusionment sets in. A reorg pushes design off center stage. CEO starts talking about "getting back to what we do best" and being “engineering-led.” Charismatic design leader moves on. Talent exodus ensues.

It's a depressingly familiar story to those of us who have been around awhile. It can make you question your faith: Is enterprise design really worth the investment?

Of course it is. The problem isn't that design is superfluous to enterprise success. The problem is that good enterprise design at scale is hard. Good design requires everyone in your company to develop a customer-centric mindset — not only designers, product managers and engineers, but also marketing, sales, data science, and anyone else who has a hand in shaping the company's offerings and ultimately, delivering value to customers.

What I described isn’t “just” good design. It’s culture change, which is just about the hardest thing a business can do.

This post is for C-suite business leaders* who want to get more value from their design function** but don’t know where to start. It is not an exhaustive framework, but rather a set of simple, yet powerful, questions to help you understand the levers at your disposal and how to operate them.

What I described isn’t “just” good design. It’s culture change, which is just about the hardest thing a business can do.

A few disclaimers…

This advice is primarily intended for enterprise companies with large product teams, but much of this advice may also apply to smaller companies and startups as well.

In preparing this post, I’ve looked at various design maturity frameworks but found most of them were geared toward what design leaders should attend to, e.g., the culture of design, recognition programs, skills building, and the like.

For my fellow design leaders, there's no gentle way to say this: most C-suite executives are never going to care about this stuff (trust me on this).

The advice in this post is for non-design executives, based on my experience leading design functions for more than two decades. Whether you are a chief product officer or a CEO, CTO, or anyone in the C-suite, getting the most out of your company's design function starts with asking, answering, and then addressing these eight key questions.

1.     Do company leaders understand and value design?

Great design is about solving the right problems for your customers and stakeholders, solving them well, and solving them in a way that aligns to your brand and values. How well is this concept understood across the top level of your company?

And why does this matter? Design cannot excel without strong, consistent executive sponsorship. Yet, design sponsorship is often a precarious thing. It doesn’t help that most CEOs don’t know what design leaders do. Why invest in something you don’t understand and can't connect to business results?

ASK YOUR TEAM:

  • How are you working with designers today?

  • What types of problems are our designers working on? (Hint: If they are only working on superficial UI or marketing details, you are not getting the full strategic value.)

  • What results are we seeing from design work?

Depending on what you learn, you may want to create opportunities for your design leader to present in divisional or company-wide forums, sponsor a learning series on design, or even pilot a design thinking training for senior executives. Your goal is to help your peers understand and embrace the strategic power of design. For more on this, check out Audrey Crane's book, "What CEOs Need to Know About Design."

2.     How well do you know your customers?

Great design requires a deep understanding of the people we are designing for, and regular feedback loops so we are continuously learning as their needs change over time. A strong design function is highly skilled at gathering input from current and target customers. How would you rate your company’s ability to understand and learn from customers?

ASK YOUR TEAM:

  • Who are our target customers? (This may sound overly simplistic, but I've been shocked by how many companies cannot answer it in sufficient detail. Also, if you ask five people on the product team and get five different answers, that’s a problem.)

  • What are our customers’ biggest pain points and needs?

  • How do we get feedback from customers today, and how does their input inform our product development roadmap?

  • What are we offering customers that they can’t get from anyone else?

Depending on what you learn, you may want to increase your investment in UX Researchers to own and champion the understanding of customers. A good enterprise rule of thumb is to have 1 UX researcher for every 5 designers. You can also look for ways to better integrate your UX Researchers into the company, including creating executive positions, to ensure that their insights influence company strategy and roadmaps. Ultimately, your goal is to pave the way for a shared understanding of customer needs throughout your company.

3.     Have you right-sized your investment in design?

Over and over, I have observed that product teams with a good ratio between PM:Design:Engineering, are more productive and efficient. But many companies overweight engineering, spreading designers too thin, and leaving overworked engineers to “design” some of their products and features. Hiring more engineers may seem productive, but it often has the opposite effect. Without enough product managers and designers setting a direction, engineers become less efficient. Technical and UX debt piles up, creating more re-work and less time to innovate on new features or products.

ASK YOUR TEAM

  • [For design] How many products/scrum teams are you trying to cover?

  • [For product teams] Do you have enough designers (and researchers) to cover the most critical product needs?

You will want to determine the appropriate ratio of PM:Design:Engineering for your company. A typical rule of thumb for enterprise software is 1:1:8. This is based on my own experience, as well as input from peers at other companies. As a senior executive, your goal is to make “balanced ratios” part of your strategic planning for the next funding cycle.

4.     Does your design function have a strong leader, and a culture that attracts and retains talent?

Design should have an executive leader who attracts talent, inspires the teams to deliver great work, and engages a learning community of designers to become a sustainable force within your company. Do you have that leader in place? Do they have the support from the C-Suite to lead effectively? What types of programs are they putting in place to ensure that the community of designers is connected and has opportunities to learn?

ASK YOUR TEAM

[To designers]

  • How do you learn and build skills?

  • What is holding you back from greater success?

  • How can I help?

If you do not have a strong design leader, hire one! That is job 1. (Stay tuned for a separate post about what to look for in a design leader.)

If you have a design leader in place, work with them to set clear metrics for their own success and that of their team. They should also have a plan for helping the designers continuously build skills and grow in their career.

A word about organizational hierarchy: Where design should report in the corporate structure is an argument as old as the discipline itself. Some enterprises have a chief design officer reporting directly to the CEO. In others, the lead design executive might report to a chief product officer, a head of engineering, or the head of marketing.

I don't know that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this conundrum. But I have two observations: To hire the best design leaders, you need to display a commitment to design success. There are many ways to do this, but none are as self-evident as where design sits in your organization.

If your company is not ready to embrace the culture change that great design requires, it doesn't really matter. A CDO can be iced out and marginalized just as easily as a VP or senior director.

And if you really want to geek out on this topic, check out Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner’s book, “Org Design for Design Orgs.”

5.     Do designers have clear career paths?

To create a sustainable design function, designers must have a well-defined career path and opportunities to grow. This is particularly important at companies in complex or highly technical domains. You don’t want your designers to spend 1-2 years developing domain expertise, only to leave you for a competitor. Invest in their careers and give them incentives to stay.

ASK YOUR TEAM

  • Do we have well-defined career paths for designers?

  • Are they well-documented and comprehensive, and do they cover the sub-disciplines of design if appropriate (content, research, UX, visual, service design, etc.)?

  • Do our career paths go up to the executive level? (Hint: They should.)

  • Have we spelled out what it takes to get to the next level in the career path?

  • What is the path for an ambitious designer who does NOT want to get into management?

If you find the career path needs improvement, engage your HR and design leaders to take on this work. Many companies mirror their designer career path on the engineering career path, which is often better understood and more established. If career paths are defined for a management track only, consider creating a technical track for rock-star practitioners.

6.     How is design integrated in cross-functional teams?

Design success requires heavy collaboration with cross-functional partners in product management, engineering, data science, sales, and marketing. All functions must have a common language and ways of working that help everyone get on the same page quickly. This may be the single most important issue in this list. (Read my post: Handcuffed to Aliens to understand why cross-functional alignment is so critical.)

ASK YOUR TEAM

  • How is it going with your cross-functional teams?

  • Do people know when to pull design into a project and how to work with designers? (Hint: Many teams pull in design too late, seeing them as service providers (e.g., We need a widget to go here.) vs. partners. Design should be engaged at the very beginning of a project, to help define the problem to be solved.

Depending on what you learn, you may want to ensure your design leads are at the right level of hierarchy with their PM and engineering peers; this may require promotions or new hires for exec roles. Consider sponsoring a workstream to create one “product development lifecycle” that all disciplines can align to. Your design leader (who you just hired!) can also use your support with initiatives like getting product teams to conduct design quality reviews together before a product ships.

7.     Do you have clear ways to measure and track design success?

Engineering teams are held accountable for things like velocity, quality, and reliability. Product managers are responsible for the success of the product in the market. What is your design team responsible for? Clear metrics for success are necessary to set expectations for your design function and to hold the team accountable. Moreover, it helps reinforce the value of design with the executive team.

ASK YOUR TEAM

  • How do you measure success of design work, and where is that written down?

  • How do you track progress?

If metrics for success are spotty, work with your design leader to define clear metrics, such as customer satisfaction or adoption metrics. (Hint: These should be things that they control.) Then look at ways to integrate success metrics for design into the performance review process.

8.     Are you getting the full value of your design system?

To scale design excellence, your team must move beyond designing one-off components, products, or experiences, and take a systems approach to design. Companies with a mature design practice have a well-established design system that is aligned with the company brand, accessible and compliant, and broadly adopted across the product/experience portfolio.

As a member of the C-suite, no one expects you to understand the ins and out of your design system, but you do need to understand what it is and what it’s doing for your company so you invest appropriately. Not only can a great design system improve the customer experience, it can also be a massive productivity boost for both designers (who are reusing common design patterns) and engineers (who are reusing code). If you don’t know the state of your company’s design system, it’s time to find out.

ASK YOUR TEAM

  • Do we have a design system?

  • Who is using it?

  • What is the adoption/contribution model?

  • What is the ROI on our investment in the design system? Is anyone tracking this?

If you do NOT have a design system, assign a small team to start one. If you DO have a design system, find out how it’s working, and ask for regular updates on its development and adoption. In both cases, you can be the executive sponsor who supports the team and helps remove roadblocks to success.

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Whether you’re a business leader or design leader, if you’ve made it this far, I would love your feedback. What resonates with you? What’s missing? What other actions or questions would you suggest? I’m going to be teaching a workshop to business leaders in Helsinki in March 2024 and your input will help me fine-tune these questions.

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*Business leaders – I’m speaking primarily to non-design executives who have power and influence over funding priorities and strategy for the company.

**Design function – Depending on how big your company is and what it does, the design function may include experts from different sub-specialties of design such as interaction designers, UX researchers, visual designers, industrial designers, UX engineers, content designers, and service designers.

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3 Comments


Ok, first, fan girl moment, squee!


Second, I am really excited about measuring shadow design as a better way to right size design orgs than just a ratio. I.e. run a survey and see how many hours solo design is being done outside of the design org and why. Happy to chat more about this. We found one org with a 12-person design team had 22 FTEs worth of design work being done elsewhere! This survey can be run annually to see how things are going... and there are lots of solutions in addition to growing the design org.


I really love everything here and can't wait to get my hands on your book (and ship several copies to a…

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Katrina
Katrina
Feb 01
Replying to

Thanks, Audrey. I do want to learn more about the shadow design survey. I’ll reach out to you.

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You may want to sync with me re: Measure & Track Design Success before your March 2024 conference in Helsinki. gp AKA: The X-Mentor

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