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An interview with a designer - 2

Could you tell me about the company you work for, and your role there?

I work for a company in the finance sector. I joined as the first designer about five years ago, so I'm the solo designer. To give a better picture of the staff of the company: we have 1 designer, 4 product managers, and about 20 full-stack engineers who organise themselves fairly fluidly around 4-5 parallel initiatives at a time.

Is it a global company?

We have four offices. About half of us are in the main office in London. That's where most of our engineering takes place and also where I'm based. About a quarter are in our New York office but this is mostly Account Management and Sales. Then we have two smaller satellite offices, and a few engineers working remotely from their homes in the UK and Europe.

You said you joined as a designer 5 years ago - was the company selling their product to clients before that?

Yes, they had been selling products for at least five years before that.

Did they have any design input before they hired you?

In terms of visual and interaction design, I think this was usually done by one of the product managers who had an interest in design and used Omnigraffle to make mockups.

So there were people who were interested in design, doing the work. Why do you think they decided to hire a full time designer if they had been getting by for five years before that?

I think they knew they'd benefit from a specialist - someone who could focus on it full time, and who also had more experience - but it took them a while to be able to make the case and get the hiring budget.

Could you talk more about who was making the case, and who was approving the budget, in terms of positions or departments at the company?

I'd just be guessing, I'm afraid, since it would have happened before I arrived.

It sounds like there are people in the organisation who realised that full time design input would provide a benefit to the business, and people who didn't see a need for it, though?

I do know that before I joined, the company had a few years of very successful growth, so it could have been unclear to some whether having a dedicated designer would have made any difference. Even I'm not sure it would have made a difference to the success back then.

It's not easy to make a case for spending more money if you're already successful! Are you happy to talk me through the design process at your company?

These Lean UX principles influence the process quite a lot:

I also believe in three modes of design, and try to be aware which mode I'm working in at any time:

My design process is quite intertwined with development. Given all that, a typical project might look like this:

  1. Have a kick-off with internal stakeholders, designer, PM and one assigned technical scout. Here we agree what success is for the project, and make sure it's written down. We also try to define the scope of the project, and use proto-personas to help clarify which types of customers we're trying to help, and which are out of scope for now.
  2. Next I try to come up with a Vision design. This might mean putting together a story map with stakeholders and the PM to map out all the things we think we'll need. This is usually a Sketch file stitched together into a clickable prototype in Marvel.
  3. In parallel the technical scout will be investigating the feasibility of the things emerging from the vision
  4. When we're ready to start proper development with a larger team of engineers, we will make sure there's a clear first slice on the story map, with a good outcome assigned. We'll review the mockups with a technical scout to make sure that we're ready for a full-team breakdown. We may be working from the Vision designs, or I may have already done a more considered specification for this particular slice.
  5. We'll then have a breakdown session with the engineers, who will write user stories - enough to keep them busy for a week or so. Often this will highlight ambiguities in the specification design, which I can then go and clear up. Either solo, or pairing with the PM, or spawning a Design Studio with whoever's interested in participating.
  6. Sometimes we'll want to prototype something to get more confidence in the design. Since we're quite a data-heavy system it's really handy to create prototypes with real code in production - and so developers will go and implement a couple of options in real code that we can evaluate and usability test internally, or with real users.
  7. When the implementation is nearing completion, I'll go into polish mode, and either pair with the devs to finish the styling, or sometimes just make a few tweaks on my own.

In terms of research and customer feedback, this comes from face-to-face meetings that I or the Product Manager attend. There tends to be one or two a week where we either ask them how they've been finding the system, or conduct a very informal usability test with them on something new. We also monitor usage metrics and use that to initiate conversations with users if we see them doing something interesting.

I'd like to clarify a few terms: Could you explain what you mean by "technical scout" and "slices" on a story map?

Ah yes. A Technical Scout is just one engineer (or maybe a pair) who are assigned to the project early to help uncover any big risks. They also help form a technical vision for the project by consulting relevant experts, to try to ensure that new software that's built aligns with the overall technical direction of the company rather than undermining it. As for the name, it's an extension of a military metaphor we've used over the years: Commando, Infantry, Police (See here for more information on this concept). I believe we added the concept of a Scout -- someone who goes ahead of even the commandos, to scout out the territory and minimise surprises when the commandos arrive.

And by "slice" I'm referring to a horizontal strip on a Jeff Patton-style Story Map. He calls them "releases", and we sometimes use that word too - but I'm not completely comfortable with it since we are always trying to release incremental value so often do several real releases per strip.

The ratio of designers to developers at your company seems unusually low (Ignoring companies that don't hire ANY designers!) - do you find yourself overworked?

I don't generally find myself overworked. While there are usually 4-5 technical projects in flight at once, it's unusual for more than one of them to be a UI project, since some of our products are just APIs and algorithms without a UI. At times there have been two UI projects in-flight, and that has been a struggle. I also try hard to not make myself a bottleneck. It's not a requirement that everything goes through me. And involving developers in design means they have context, and are empowered, to make design decisions in my absence.

It sounds as if design is quite well regarded by everyone you work with?

I think the answer is Yes, but for different reasons, depending on the person. Technology and Product people probably see that the design mindset to problem solving is useful and effective and has made our software more usable as a result. People in other departments probably still don't understand exactly how I add value though - they are likely to focus on the fact that our software looks prettier now than it used to.

Do you think this culture for appreciating the usefulness of design already existed, or are there things you did after arriving that seemed to have made a big change there?

Oh, good question! - that's got me thinking... It's possible that people already appreciated the usefulness of design, but in a limited scope (mostly just visual). I believe that in my five years people have gradually come to see design as a wider scope, higher-leverage activity - one that has a large influence on the direction and potential success of a project. I think a lot of that has been down to me invoking Lean UX, Lean Startup, and Design Thinking principles to help better define our goals, and generate a broader range of options, which demonstrate that design is more than just visual.

During those five years, when introducing those concepts, did you find that they were easily accepted, or did you have to work hard to get people to show an interest?

I found that developers were very accepting and excited to be invited to have input into the design. My local product managers were also very accepting. To some degree I was stepping on their toes, talking about hypotheses and metrics and stuff, but luckily there's not much protectionism here so they saw me as a partner rather than competitor. I have at times struggled with two salespeople who were acting as product owners, and had their own visions for what to build, either based on demands from their clients or based on their personal experience of selling similar products. My desire to question everything, and redesign from first principles, in small batches just-in-time didn't go down well with them, so I've had to find a way to work better with people like that. That's partly what caused me to recognise this mode of design called "vision" where you're trying to do broad scope design to inspire people. I also try to find a way to show that my questioning of their proposals is accompanied by suggestions of ways we can make something even better, rather than obstructing their progress.

Has that process of involving the sales people in the vision of the product smoothed everything out, or do you still get resistance from time to time?

Yes I'd say that involving them in the vision (even if it subsequently changes) has helped smooth those kinds of things out. At least they know that I understand their concerns and am not working in a way incompatible with them. But occasionally there are still pieces of the big puzzle that sales aren't satisfied by me saying "we'll figure it out later". Then I have to do some design for the more distant future (which feels like a distraction from my current focus) to show that we do have a plausible path for getting there. The risk here is that they may think these designs are commitments and start making promises to clients based on them. That's another reason I'm careful to distinguish "vision" design by using that word.

It sounds like you've got a great design process going for the most part. Could you expand a little on any areas where you'd like to see the design process improve at your company, no matter how difficult it would be to get there?

A few areas come to mind:

If you wanted to try to make those changes happen at your company, who would you approach about it, and what response do you think you'd get?

The first two are mostly within my control so just involve collaborating with my product manager to do more, and he's easy to work with so that would be fine. The last one is a bit more tricky. I'd approach my manager or his boss, the head of product. But I've already raised it with them as a puzzle in the past, so I'd need to come back again with stronger reasoning or somehow motivate them to help figure out the reasoning with me.

Do you think there would be resistance to hiring more designers, to giving the role a bigger place in the organisation?

Yes I do. Not ideological, just practical resistance. The company has profit targets and I've only seen people hired to backfill leavers rather than new roles created. In fact the headcount has shrunk during my time here.

Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share about how design is seen/used at your company? Any observations or lessons learned that other designers could use in their own organisations?

My advice to someone working in a similar environment to me, would be:

Thank you for your time!

You're welcome!

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