After experiencing user-centered design (UCD) embedded in software teams at Pivotal Labs, and seeing the benefits it offers, many teams want to scale the practices of UCD to more and more teams. Scaling design in software teams can be challenging: How do you support designers on software development teams? How do you grow a design practice?
Scaling a design practice is complex and can take many forms. Regardless of your company’s unique situation, there are some key factors to every healthy design practice.
Plan for Growth
Plan for how designers will grow in their craft. How will you budget for their growth and learning through classes, books, workshops, and conferences? The design industry is rapidly evolving, and staying on top of the latest tools, technology, and methods helps designers create better products.
As designers grow in their careers, it’s also crucial to consider: What are their opportunities? Will there be openings in people management, practice leadership, or advising others? Don’t wait until you have a team of senior designers. If there isn’t a growth plan in place, you’ll end up with talented folks with nowhere to go except into other disciplines or other companies. A brain drain of senior talent can set you back years as new designers gain the experience and business context necessary to operate at the level of senior designers.
Build a Community of Practice
Communities of practice foster an environment that encourages designers to grow and share with their peers. The first step toward a design community of practice is a weekly design critique. Designers need feedback from people who speak their language and understand their tools. Critique is also a time for designers to get unfiltered feedback from fresh eyes–eyes that understand the work is unfinished, and therefore won’t expect to see these exact designs in production.
When introducing new roles into teams, it’s necessary to identify people who are dedicated to building a community of practice. This gives them the accountability–and the capacity–to coordinate meetups, discussion groups, and to find content for the community to discuss. Eventually, a community of practice may be organic and self-sustaining, but at the start, being intentional will help to establish the pattern.
Pair and Rotate Designers
Design pairing–two designers working together on a product team–has many benefits. It ensures you have the right skill mix on a product team, encourages exploration and evolution of many design ideas (a core principle of good design), and is the best way to upskill your design team with new skills.
While it may seem redundant to have two designers working on one product, if you dig into all the specialties of design, you’ll see how diverse a pair’s experience can be. User research, usability testing, interaction design, content strategy, visual design, experience design, front-end development, animation, illustration, branding, and graphic design are all elements of designing products. No single designer can be an expert in all these, but a complementary pair can have most, if not all, of these areas effectively covered for a product team. Pairing designers on product teams also means that if one designer is sick—or wins the lottery—the team won’t be blocked on design, they’ll move forward without having to ramp up someone new.
Rotating designers across product teams regularly (though not too frequently) has additional benefits. Designers will be exposed to a variety of problems, which builds context and helps them design better solutions. It gives designers the opportunity to apply their skills to different stages of a product’s lifecycle, which benefits products as well. Design rotations also create natural collaboration among product teams, as designers see common problems being solved across many products. This recognition leads to efficiency in solutions, and is often the precursor to design systems.
Establish Key Relationships
As design is integrated into the software development process, establish key partnerships with teams outside of the software organization. These partnerships will ensure the growing community of designers in software teams have a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with their colleagues in adjacent disciplines and help the company realize the full potential of software products.
Brand and Marketing
This group owns the voice and personality of your company and how it shows up in the marketplace. To understand the company’s voice, tone, and brand, establish open communication between brand, marketing, and product teams. It’s crucial to know how individual software products fit into the larger narrative, so that customers don’t experience inconsistent messaging from your company—which leads to distrust.
Reach out to customer experience professionals to understand the broader customer journey, and how software products fit into that journey. Customer experience researchers, designers, and strategists also often have access to vast research findings, both qualitative and quantitative, which are a boon to product teams seeking to understand their users.
Software product design is going to influence operations by changing how users accomplish tasks, how employees use software to help customers, or how information flows in and out of your company. Working with operations to be transparent about changes is crucial to understanding how those changes will impact others upstream or downstream from your product.
Start by ensuring your product doesn’t unintentionally disrupt the existing process without the impacted parties knowing. This will establish trust, which can expose opportunities to be creative with how you solve problems together. Working with operations to change a process can result in vastly improved user and customer experiences.
While there’s no one solution for every organization, these patterns will help you begin to grow a self-sustaining and ever-evolving design practice. Design is key to the translation of ideas into real products, and a healthy design practice will enable your software product teams to efficiently deliver value to users that achieves business outcomes.
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