At its core, product design is a functional practice that prizes utility as much as good looks. Since a product’s success will often be defined by the business, it led us to wonder: whose responsibility is it to map design outcomes to business goals?
Recently Abstract’s CEO, Kelly Watkins, sat down with Mia Blume, the founder and CEO of Design Dept. Mia is a design leader who’s previously built products and teams at some of the most innovative companies around, including IDEO, Square, and Pinterest.
Mia notes that designers have long been vying for their seat at the executive table. Their desire to be there is less about ego and more about ensuring that design leaders can represent their teams and their craft at the highest level. It’s about earning credibility within the organization and making a wider impact.
And while there has been a lot of progress made on this front over the years, there still seems to be a little hesitation about how designers can evolve into becoming design leaders.
“It’s not like I was super excited to teach business,” Mia mentioned good-humoredly, “but I believe in the power of design and what can happen when we get designers in executive roles. We kept coming back to these conversations about, well: Why do people want the seat? How do you get it? What's actually happening at that table?”
Here’s a master class on design leadership courtesy of Mia.
Do design and business folk need to speak the same language?
There’s a common belief that designers and business people need to learn one another’s lingo. While that can certainly increase empathy, clarity, and collaboration between teams, Mia says there’s a bigger mindset shift that design leaders have to make.
“One mindset shift is recognizing that we all are here to serve the business, and that the conversation at the table is really all about business,” she says. In other words, beyond building up your vocabulary, you need to be building up your overall business acumen.
A well-versed design leader has a fundamental understanding of how their discipline (design) affects business outcomes, but they’re also aware of all the other factors that could potentially affect a product’s success in the market. Factors such as: sales strategy, the market landscape, finance, risk tolerance, etc.
Mia offers an important reminder that this mindset shift isn’t about, “taking away from that human-centered way of working and thinking,” it’s more a matter of understanding that getting buy-in starts with winning over your internal customers first.
Future design leaders: learn to slow down to speed up
Everyone’s been part of projects where the team gets caught up in the momentum of building things, and at one point someone stops long enough to ask the dreaded question, “Why are we doing this again?”
In the early days of your career you may be prone to moving too enthusiastically. Design leaders know how to temper this inclination. “It’s because you moved so quickly into that solutions phase that you skipped actually doing the strategic work upfront,” says Mia.
What can expedite the process of setting strategy? Learning how to work collaboratively with your partners across disciplines from the very start.
Extending design leadership past the design phase
“We build our organizations with all these disciplines and we believe that these disciplines add value, but the way we operate isn't always reflective of that,” says Mia.
A lot of times teams that work in silos or follow a waterfall process will tend to make decisions in a bubble. When it comes to passing off the project to the next group, it’s that group’s job to retrofit the product to their needs.
A common place this happens is with marketing, where teams are brought in at the very end of the process to tell people about all the wonderful things that were built. The problem with that approach is that it doesn't leverage the diversity of thought, perspective, skill, and experience of other leaders.
“If we were more effective at bringing those cross-functional partners and teams together at the beginning, when we're figuring out what we’re trying to solve and why — rather than what we’re building and how are we going to tell people about it — then we would probably get much better outcomes,” says Mia.
Mia says that how an organization makes decisions can tell you a lot about how they value different voices, how they navigate differences of opinion, and how they find alignment.
So another way that designers can provide leadership is by showing others how to use design thinking as a framework for making decisions.
Impact beyond quality: translating success across the board
Every design leader will run up against the question of how to measure impact. Mia says that it’s important not to try to reinvent the wheel here. Beyond measuring satisfaction and engagement, the true metrics that matter are the ones attached to the business. You likely don’t have to be an expert in those metrics, but you should be aware of them.
“The question for designers then becomes: are we mapping our work back to [those goals] in effective ways?” says Mia. Those kinds of questions lead to much healthier conversations around objectives and standards.
Speaking of conversations, design leaders are usually masterful at facilitating them. They also need to be able to translate what their teams are doing in terms of investment and return (ROI). For example, you’ll have to learn how to make arguments for expanding your team if you decide to build more functionality. But you’ll have to position your proposal in terms of the relative value to the business as a whole, not just to the quality and design of the product itself.
This should get easier as you build your business acumen. Remember that, especially with startups, budgets are finite even if it may seem like they have a lot of money. “So, you have to learn how to make really hard trade-offs and decisions and balance user needs with business needs,” says Mia. Sometimes the only way to do that is trial by fire.
Tips and resources for honing your skills as a design leader
When is it a good time to start building your career as a designer leader? While earlier is usually better, Mia advises not jumping in “at the cost of you being able to develop your craft.” It's really important to find control over your craft, whether that’s interaction design, product design, brand. The more steeped you are in your field of expertise, the better you can contribute to the solutions once they've been identified.
If that’s too vague for you, Mia mentioned that “there's a tipping point somewhere around mid- to senior-level.” If you level up to a management role or go further in depth as an independent contributor, you may start getting called upon to be a strategic partner on projects. “Own your craft,” suggests Mia. “But at some point transition to building up your business acumen.”
For some self-study, Mia encourages you to better your understanding of financial structures. A good place to start is a book called The Personal MBA which walks you through a lot of general business words and concepts.
But what’s more important than books is the conversations you’ll have with your cross-functional partners.
“Draw your business ecosystem together,” says Mia. “Because that helps you understand all the different people and components, and the value exchange from each of those is a really powerful way to truly understand and start that conversation.”
This post is part of an ongoing series featuring snippets from Same Page — our event series that explores the design process. Explore In the Margin to see full-length recordings and more content on the design process.