Leading Design 2022: Live Notes

I’m in NYC for Leading Design 2022, and I’m livebloging the event (taking notes in real time, updated for each talk). You can alos see my notes from the 2021 and 2016 events.

Comments in brackets [] are mine.

1. Kat Vellos – Better Than Small Talk

Vellos is the author of the excellent book, We Should Get Together. In addition to being a design leader she’s a facilitator and community builder. Conversations are a key part of this. But we live in a world starved of meaningful connection, even before the pandemic.

She created better than small talk, a simple system for better conversations, and some cards from this system were given out at the event. The core idea was to get beyond the basic, cliche conversations we’ve learned to have but that don’t really work. Generous curiosity isn’t hard to cultivate. Questions are a doorway to connection. A connection creates relationships that define the quality of our lives.

2. Peter Merholz – The Evolving Design Leader

The Peter Principle: how people get promoted into their level of incompetence. Five years ago Merholz gave a talk on design leadership of Coach, Diplomat, Champion and Architect.

  • Coach: Your job is to get the most out of your team.
  • Diplomat: Creating a space for design to do well across functions
  • Champion: Managing up and out. Engaging with stakeholders and executives.
  • Architect: Putting things in place so good design can scale

Design staffing continues to grow very fast. And that means that leaders and managers need to grow and we need more of them. We are putting people into management and leadership without preparing them. He wants us to get out in front of this incompetence.

“She went too deep too fast” – about a new design director, from a VP of Design. New directors tend to focus on what they are already good at (classic Peter Principle).

He described the path of becoming a design leader: leader, to manager (front line manager), to director (middle management), to VP of design (executive). In each of these stages, you are evolving into a new form.

Generic digital design organization chart

Design leader’s area of attention:

  • Creative: vision, direction, practice, standards (goal is quality)
  • Business: design work aligns with business, cross function and planning (goal is business sucess)
  • People: recruiting and hiring, performance and career development, culture (goal is team health)
  • Operations: Program management, communication, budgets (goal is effectiveness)

How the focus of design leader’s shifts as you rise:

  • Lead -> Manager: mostly creative leadership and people management
  • Manager -> Director: shift to cross functional relationships – less time managing down – sideways and up. Bad middle managers are a black hole, since they are such a pivot point.
  • Director to VP: You are not recieving strategy, you are informing strategy. You define what quality means and how it can be achieved. You are responsible for defining and delivering on value.
  • As you rise your attention shifts to more and more managing up and away from your own team

The org looks to the design leader as their figurehead – the designers want this person to be an inspiration. And they are expected to do everything (design savior). How can we shape design leadership teams so that the burden of leadership is shared?

3. Hayley Hughes – Trust Between Teams

She opened her talk sharing a story about her Mom, who is ill, and needs an entire team of people to give her support. Over years silos have formed and individual experts have their own systems, that don’t work very well in aggregate. She has spent most of her career working on design systems at big organizations.

  1. Team of teams
  2. understanding a team of teams
  3. What holds us back
  4. Removing the blockers

Four archetypes for teams:

  • Command – hieracy is efficient, but least resilient
  • Command of teams: teams work well, until they hit a silo
  • Team of teams: each individual knows one other person on another team

She used to study food systems, how people obtain and are provided with sources for food. She was in Austin during the big storm in 2021, when the power went out and they lost all of their food. Soon they learned through neighbors and text messages who had surplus food. Sometimes systems that are organic and informal have more resilience than the formalized ones.

messy relationships and messy cities are the most resilient

– Erin White

What if we redesigned teamwork to be more collaborative? IBM had a tool called Radar that allowed teams to switch perspectives, changing their view to be less siloed.

Org charts are hierarchical, but there are many other ways to map the relationships between people and teams.

What holds us back?

Common false beliefes:

  • “it will slow us down.” – a fear that if we aren’t sprinting, we must be falling behind. Leads to burnout.
  • “We’ll give you visibility.” – giving visibility can just be theater – if it’s not tied to planning and restructuring.
  • “Management won’t buy in.” – suggests that you need permission to try somerthing new. But often bosses care about the results more than the means.
  • “Our roadmap is already planned.” – this is a fear of ambiguity and change. It is safe to hafe a plan, the reality is that most things don’t go as planned. There must be room for emerging opportunities.
  • “We own this.” – ownership can be the kiss of death for collaboration. Stewardship is a better model.

Eventually we need to redesign organizations to better afford the real goals, instead of what traditional organizational design tends to be good for.

FInal aspiration: she encouraged us during times of uncertainty, crisis and growth to choose collaboration over silos.

4. Ovetta Sampson – The Planck Value of Design

She grew up in Chicago and is an amateur physicist Planck value (or constant) is a fundamental law of how atoms work and it doesn’t stay in the normal bounds of how we think the world works. She started as a designer, went to design lead, then design director and now is a VP. She says Merholz is right in how unprepared people are to be in these roles, and as you rise more time is spent with other roles than with designers.

We can’t keep our insular preciousness about our craft – we have to be collective if our goal of human-centered design is to get good design into the products and services.

Her statement for what she does: “To amplify the beauty of humanity with design while avoiding practices that exploit its fragility.”

“Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaning order to chaos” – Papanek

“Without design leadership you dob’t know where you are going.

She referenced this paper (Core Responsibilities of Design Leaders in Commercially Challenging Environment):

Design is a verb:

  • how a produt is developed
  • How it works
  • How it is experienced
  • How it is improved

Her definition of a good manager: My job as a leader is to have you operate in your jam 90% of the time. 10% is unavoidable BS.

She told a story about working with young children and teaching them a design thinking method. She didn’t use any of the formal language we do. The task was to redesign the classroom. They emerged into a natural and shared approach to problem-solving (collective leadership tenets):

  • They treated the class like an ecosystem
  • Share and rotating decision making
  • People are trusted
  • Success comes from diverse perspective
  • Transparent and effective communication

4. Alice Quan – Designing Your Dream Job(s): The Art of IKIGAI

In this short tlak, Quan offered that she is in her 6th dream job. She grew up in a small town in Illinois and her parents immigrated from China and Hong Kong (they are “asian tiger parents”). They didn’t have much (his family pooled their money to send her father to America) so she learned to make things scratch, and the idea of working with teams in organizations to make things means much to her.

Her father explained that she had three career choices they’d support: doctor, accountant or lawyer. But her best friend from high school studied design and she was intrigued. On her own, she built a portfolio and applied to design school but was rejected. But she persisted and asked for feedback and eventually got in and got a full scholarship. Only then did she tell her parents. (She joked that she catches herself doing the same things to her kids, telling them that e-sports is not a real career).

This was her Ikigai origin story. She was slowly learning how to apply the framework in her own life (she references Karate Kid, and how it takes commitment and patience to find your way. IK = ALIVE / GAI = BENEFIT).

How To Find Your Ikigai And Transform Your Outlook On Life And Business

5. Dianne Que – “I got you”: A Meditation on Radical Inclusion

The first step in inclhsive leadership is to see people as people. She shared some of her personal history (child of imigrants).

Meditation: a practice of cultivating understanding, love and compassion by looking deeply, first for ourselves and then for others.

Incluion: the practice of building the culture of belonging by actively inviting the contriubtion and participation of all people.

Practice is something you need to do regularly and often in order to get better at it.

Story: May 26, 2020. Day after George Floyd was murdered. She was on a work call created to create space for people to discuss their feelings about what happened, but there wasn’t a single person of color on the call. With the support of her manager they created a series of conversations for their creative managers. They started with managers and hiring managers (there was a lot of open head count on the team).

First question from management was: “What outcomes can we expect from these conversations?”

We have a culture that emphasizes:

  • doing over reflecting
  • quantity over quality
  • efficiency over relatonships
  • Urgency over Empathy

It’s common to hear people say things like, “I’m all for giving people a chance. but I don’t want ot hold anyone’s hand” which creates a paradox.

The process and the conversations that can often have the most value and creates the possibility for the desired outcomes.

  • Start to build empathy
  • Start to identify WHY
  • Start an ongoing conversation
  • Start to develop a shared DEI vocabulary

The business why / The moral Why (source Michelle Kim, 2021)

  • DEI is good for business / it’s the right thing to do
  • DEI leads to innovation / I want to help others
  • DEI leads to profitability / People are suffering

“I trust you and will back you up” Is a rare thing to hear from a (hiring) manager. Which leads to a culture of “I got you. We got us.”

In summer of 2020 there was blackout Tuesday. It was supposed to be an act of solidarity. It had an unitended effect of making actual BLM content harder to find. We will make mistakes, but the question is what will we do next. Commit to a life of stumbling forward (Contradictions for while people in racial justice work).

  1. Why: our liberation is bound together
  2. Embrace the process and the outcome
  3. Commit to a lifetime of stumbling forward
  4. Hold multiple truths. Embrace the status quo.

She closed referencing many of the books and sources she has learned from.

6. Samantha Warren, Designing creative collaboration in a virtual world

[Warren is an excellent speaker and I confess i didn’t take great notes because I was enjoying her talk so much].

She wanted to be a designer when she was growing up (which other speakers mentioned was not their path). She observed her father visiting design studios and observed their creative spaces and was inspired by them. And she felt like she was observing unicorns work – and that these were her people.

She had a creative career and worked for a long time, until the pandemic happened. It changed how she felt about work. In March 2021, she wondered about how there might not be a return to design studios. Staring at a box, with little boxes in it, didn’t feel creative. She used to love planning offsites and thinking about how to cultivate safe and fun environments.

The key to workplace creativity is buildng psychological safety. But the nature of work psychology has changed because we are all remote.

She took time off and traveled. And talked to her friends and family. And tried to reframe the problem shw was trying to solve.

“You can take the worst feeling in the world and reframe it so that that terrible feeling becomes its own solution.” – Milton Erickson

It is design’s responsibility to lead broad concept making (low fidelity) to specific execution (high fidelity).

When you don’t have a whiteboard in the hallway, how do you replace that persistent team level open space? They use Canvas, but there are other tools. She explained the design process she used (and how the diagrams for design processes aren’t realistic).

She wasn’t sure in the pandemic that she wanted to continue in design. But in reframing the problem she has found new ways to collaborate and is optimistic about the possibility of connection.

(I misssed the last talk of the day, by Leslie Yang).

8. Cap Watkins, How To C-Level

[Sadly I lost the first half of my notes <shakes fist at ‘autosave’. He did an excellent job explaining why many leaders are indecisive and the basic psychology behind it.]

Symtoms of Indecisveness:

  • Consensus building – people who won’t say yes unless everyone else does
  • TMI – leaders who require too much information or impossible research
  • Reopening doors – leaders who make a decision but then revisit it over and over again

He explained that becoming an executive should be driven by either the desire to do better than the managers you see, or to find the right altitude for the kind of work you like to do.

Major reasons leaders struggle include indecision, lack of resilience and being stuck in the past.

“If you hit a wrong note it’s the next note you play that determines if it is good or bad” – Miles Davis

Good leaders understand good people will make mistakes. Etsy had a “three arm sweater” award to the best (worst) mistake made that year.

His company uses a 4 day workweek. Which many companies talk about but few have tried. His team started it as a two month trial. Immediately people were happy about it. At the end of the trial they decided to extend it another few months.

He’d be asked questions like “how are you measuring productivity?” and his answer was mostly, “we don’t”. His company does make physical products so there are more measurable than the average tech company, but he thinks these questions come from fear.

They created resiliency and flexibility in how they manage people. Their retention numbers have remained steady from before and through the pandemic. The four-day workweek helps, but their culture is likely the greatest factor.

He thanked all leaders for what is a very difficult and lonely job during a time when it is very hard to do.

In Q&A he mentioned an exercise from Designing Your Life, where you track your activities and note if you feel energized after or drained. It can help a manager learn if they should stay in leadership roles or would be happier in a different role.

9. Returning to our maker roots, Baxley, Black and Walter

Baxley, Black and Walter are friends who started a podcast called Reconsidering, which explores larger questions about life. What keeps me here, with these people, doing these things?

Baxley read an article that Walter wrote and they became friends around 2014. Baxley had worked with Black at Pinterest in the past. Black was an early guest of the show who shifted into a producer role.

As you get distant from the thing that got you into this profession, you tend to feel disconnected. Play and curiosity often gets beaten out of us.

Baxley offered that software is an unusual medium in that you rarely get to see people use your work in the wild. But the podcast has been satisfying in that it’s a different medium.

The fact that they do it together makes it easier to do all the reading and it feels like less of chore. They hold each other accountable.

They shared stories about how in the last few years they’ve reconsidered how they structure their lives. Black and Walter acknowledged that their career has taken up a disproportionate part of their lives, something the pandemic has made even clearer.

They ask each guest: what advice would the 24-year-old you give to you now?

“Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re making a difference. And don’t worry so much.” – Judy Wert

“Choose uncomfortable expansion over comfortable diminishment” – Oliver Burkeman

10. Tutti Taygerly, Make space to lead

She grew up with an Asian tiger Mom. She wanted to be a poet and a writer, but she was enrolled in a private boarding school. She learned she received love and attention when she achieved. She worked her way up all the rungs of the career ladder. She thought she had it all. A husband and two kids. She had a process of ruthless prioritization. The “punishment culture” of always expecting more from yourself.

She shared the story of her husband telling her their marriage was over and a few minutes later having to meet with her boss to do her performance review. And she broke down. She learned that she did really well but didn’t care at all anymore. After a few years of processing and grieving, she left the company.

She learned the lesson she valued people and processes more than products. Now she’s a leadership coach and helps people find their north star. She coaches like a designer.

The patterns we use keep us safe and they are ways to get through. But these patterns can then become our identity and that’s where it can become dangerous.

Imagine a crit scenario where the leader is too commanding and controlling. Armor can be a way of being. Imagine another crit where there are questions and explorations. Doing is climbing up the ladder.

“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” -Stephen Covey.

ME = Community + Projects + People

She shared a story about a woman she coached who was told to be more assertive (which can suggest bias). But she was a quieter person. She had to work to find ways to make her “weakness” a superpower. She was never going to be loud and assertive. Instead, she found ways to prepare for meetings and help other people to prepare (by creating pre-reading and other tasks that would improve how the meetings went).

She offered the method of tracking your activities and noting what gives you energy and what makes you feel drained.

We all work with some difficult people: focus on the 10% truth you can agree with.

Experiment: What is something you heard today and try it. Let her know how it goes.

A big update on my last few months

This is my first blog post in almost six months, the longest lapse I’ve ever had. Hi! How have you been? I’ve had a rough year but I’m doing better now and wanted to catch you up on some things.

  • In June of last year my right vocal chord was paralyzed. During a simple surgery on my neck some nerves stopped working for reasons not entirely understood. I was still able to speak, but I was suddenly a very quiet person, unable to raise my voice. I was told it was likely permanent and if I recovered it could take up to a year. This had a profound effect on my mental health, as I wrote about in my newsletter. I thought my public speaking career was over but more profoundly had the first identity crisis of my life. Every social interaction was now a major challenge. Two months later my voice did slowly start to recover (it’s nearly 100% now), and I can’t express how grateful I am for this turn of events.
  • Ironically the audiobook for How Design Makes The World released days before all this happened. I didn’t get a chance to promote it as my professional life entirely shut down just a week later. But still, the cosmic absurdity of these two events did make me laugh.
  • For months I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression and PTSD. I’ve never had serious issues with mental health before, but this crisis sent me into the darkest of places. I lost all interest in reading and writing, two of my most favorite things to do. I found watching movies (another favorite), or listening to music (same), too triggering and my ability to communicate in person or over the phone was significantly worse. My sense of isolation and brokenness was profound. Peak tragicomedy was calling the speech therapy clinic on the phone to make a first appointment, the only way to contact them, but they couldn’t understand what I was saying.
  • I’ll write more about this entire experience someday and what helped me on my path to recovery (there is so much junk mental health advice out there). I’m doing much better now but still have more work to do.
  • I returned to FT work a few weeks ago, rejoining Automattic. In this crisis, I lost most of my motivation to work on my own and to pursue writing books. This was shocking: given my ambition for most of the last 20 years was to write as many books as I can. I discovered a deeper need for connection and teamwork, something I’m sure the pandemic contributed to. I wrote about Automattic in my 2013 book The Year Without Pants, an early book about remote work, and it has felt so good to return. My role there is as a product and design coach to the company, helping teams to make better products. I’m grateful to Matt Mullenweg and everyone there who has welcomed me back.
  • I’m grateful to everyone who reached out. So many of you wrote me long emails or sent messages checking in on me and trying to find ways to show support. I don’t know that I’ll ever find a way to repay you, but I do hope to be writing and creating more soon.
  • I’m doing much better now. If you follow me on Twitter you’ve noticed my activity is back up as I’m able to read and write again, something I never imagined I’d lose the ability to do. I can’t express how grateful I am to the universe for this turn of events.

I’m not sure what’s ahead for me. This has been a profound and unexpected time of reexamination. I’m old enough (I turn 50 this year) to have felt I knew myself well, but now find I have more questions than answers. I promise to do what I can to share what I learn.

One thing I’m sure of: I’m grateful for the writing and speaking life I’ve had so far and I have you all to thank for it. Thank you.

I’m for hire for FT role (an explanation)

These last three months have been a wild ride. If you’re on my newsletter you’ve been getting updates about what has happened. My voice was injured during a routine surgery making it harder to speak, which was rough. Fortunately, after two months, my voice did recover. Which has been great news!

Yet I’ve felt over the last few years that the solitary work of writing books hasn’t been as interesting to me as it used to be. Then the pandemic hit and like everyone, I’ve felt more isolated. And now with this experience of losing and recovering my voice, my passions have shifted. I need to be part of a team again, which is why I’m looking for a job. I need to be part of a group working together, something I’ve missed for too long.

As far as what I’m looking for, looking back over my career (LinkedIn) there are two strong themes. I’m hopeful I can find an organization that needs someone to influence the direction of UX, PM, innovation or remote work, the subjects of my books, through coaching or leadership. Writing, speaking and teaching are all in my wheelhouse. Or perhaps I’ll return to something more in line with the PM roles I’ve done in the past. I’m looking first for a great culture where my skills can have value.

I plan to continue writing, teaching and tweeting, but there will be some adjustments along the way.

Please do get in touch if you have something interesting in mind for me. Thanks.

Watch this short video if you want to hear my voice – I’ve missed it and I’m so glad to have it back.

The Greatest Design Lessons: Tue. June 8th (live)

Two weeks from today tune in for this live presentation on the greatest design lessons I know. It’s a free event and all are invited.

There are many important lessons to learn about good design but I’ve picked the five most important and powerful ones. This interactive session is aimed at everyone who makes things for others, from UX designers to team leaders to engineers and managers. Surprisingly the fundamental mistakes we all make are often the same, but the real lessons run deep and are easy to overlook, and that’s where my advice comes from.

When: Tuesday, June 8th, 1pm PST / 10am EST
Who: All are welcome – designers and anyone interested in good design
Register: Free at this link

These lessons come from insights I’ve learned from studying over 100 design books, my 20 years of experience and what I’ve learned since How Design Makes The World was released. It’s the best single small package of design advice I can possibly give.

It’s the perfect event to share with your team and organization. Both for design teams and for everyone designers work with every day.

Why Bad CEOs Fear Remote Work

Remote work expert David Tate wrote that when fearful CEOs talk about workplace culture, they’re really talking about workplace control. Their insecurities demand that the way work is done by employees is always visible, highly regulated and uses the methods executives prefer, rather than what’s best for everyone’s productivity. Remote work is seen as a threat to many CEOs simply because of their fear of change and resistance to progress. That fear leads to an irrational rejection of remote work, instead of a thoughtful examination of where it has succeeded and what can be learned.

In her May 6th Washington Post opinion article, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work, CEO Cathy Merill makes two fundamental mistakes common among fearful executives. First, it shows an ignorance of alternatives, as many organizations have worked remotely for years before the pandemic and have solved problems she considers unsolvable. She may not prefer these approaches, but her lack of awareness of them is incompetence. Second, she is infantilizing her employees by presuming they are not capable of and motivated to be productive and collaborate even when the CEO can’t see them down the hallway. 

We are over a year into a pandemic and an era of great social unrest and uncertainty, yet Merill has chosen remote work, and not other likely psychological or cultural factors, as the singular reason why workplace performance has declined. And if this wasn’t enough of an oversight, her evidence against remote work consists mostly of examples from executive friends of their self-described management incompetence. 

She offered the story of an anonymous CEO with a new but struggling employee. Yet none of the leadership team did anything about it:

 A friend at a Fortune 500 company tells of a colleague who was hired just as the pandemic hit. He struggled. He wasn’t getting the job done. It was very hard for the leadership team to tell what the problem was. Was it because he was new? Was he not up to the work? What was the specific issue? Worse, no one wanted to give him feedback over Zoom when they hadn’t even met him. Professional development is hard to do remotely.

This is simply a management failure. Does this company not have telephones? Or email? Have they never worked with a vendor or client that wasn’t in the same building? They are responsible for helping this employee regardless of what technologies are available or not. This is inept management hiding behind technological fear.  

Merill estimates that 20% of work is helping a colleague or mentoring more junior people, extra work that she feels is impossible to do remotely. This is despite dozens of popular collaboration tools and mentoring programs that work entirely online. It also denies the dozens of remote corporations like Automattic and Citrix that have vibrant work cultures where these “extra” activities are successfully done remotely.

Merill and her peers might not like these alternatives, but she never explains why. She even goes so far as to suggest that remote workers should be paid less and lose their benefits, since in her estimation they will never be able to contribute in these extra ways. She effectively threatened her own staff through the article (she apologized later after her staff revolted).

If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes

One quality of a great CEO is the ability to look into the future and show their organization the way forward. Instead of blaming employees, they take responsibility for solving problems. For every serious issue that arises they ask themselves what can I do or change in my own behavior that can lead my staff to a better place? They diversify their network to ask “who has solved the problem my organization is facing somewhere else and what can we learn?” Or perhaps most critical of all, they invite their own employees to participate in both defining the problem and exploring ways to solve it, instead of drawing lines in the sand and assuming the only way forward is the one that makes them the most comfortable.  

Technology is often seen as a silver bullet, oversold as the magic solution that can solve hard problems. This overestimates what a technology can do, as often it’s the management culture that is the real cause. But in the case of Merill, her CEO peers and remote work, technology is being used as a scapegoat. It’s the safe target to blame as it requires no introspection or accountability. Leaders that do this become fear-driven, allowing their competitors an advantage simply by exercising curiosity and seeking new knowledge. Smart CEOs chose to invest in their work culture and grow it for the future instead of hoping for the past to return. 

The Lost Designer

We know that designers are hired to change things, as no one hires a designer to keep everything the same. The challenge is that we want those changes to happen on our terms, using our ideas, methods and beliefs. This is a big problem, as the way we understand design is different from how ordinary people like clients, coworkers and executives do. This means it’s no surprise designers often feel ignored, misunderstood or even lost. Yet somehow we’re not prepared for these feelings. And over a career it can lead to disappointment and resentment because we expect things to be different from the natural way people and organizations tend to work.

Design culture makes us prone to cognitive dissonance, where two competing ideas exist in the same mind. For example, many designers want to feel special, because in some ways we are, but yet we’re surprised when other people do not understand us or find us pretentious. We want other people to use our ideas, but don’t feel we should have to explain or persuade. We want privileges like power and control, but don’t want the politics or relationships required to earn and wield them. Logically we can’t have it both ways, but often we behave as if we should. It’s true that all people are prone to cognitive dissonance but as an uncommon profession, it hurts us more than most.

The problem is not so much that we’re lost in these competing expectations, but that we’ve been encouraged to expect someone else to save us from them. Design education and design culture set many of us up to expect a different world than the real one. We often complain “I shouldn’t have to”, “why don’t they” or “they just don’t get it” which can be healthy venting. But we forget that the word should is an appeal to an authority, like a parent or boss. It presumes they have the wisdom to know better than their current behavior. This is our mistake, as who exactly is this magical authority we are asking to do the right thing and why do we expect them to know what is right? Or even if they know, to have the right incentives to want to do it?

We forget that our knowledge isn’t common as we are experts in a specialized field. If we can’t convincingly explain the basics of our profession, why should we expect anyone in power to already grasp them? Where would they possibly learn them if not from one of us? Our job is literally to make things simple, effective and beautiful – if we can’t do that in explaining design itself, whose fault is it? It’s like we’re linguists landing on an alien planet and are angry that they don’t speak our language. We can decide it’s a stupid planet, which might be true, and leave, but if we choose to stay? What if we think all the planets are dumb? Whose problem is it then?

This realization isn’t fun, the big ones rarely are, but it’s a better explanation for why situations we experience as “designer hostile” are likely just design ignorant. They really just have no idea and don’t know what they don’t know. Or the organization has major dysfunctions that prevent everyone from doing good work, not just designers (which means we may have more allies for change than we think if we look for them).

It’s helpful to take design out of the equation when trying to understand what’s really going on in most organizations. Instead, ask who makes the decisions I should be making? What assumptions led to this? How can that change? Whose help do I need and how can I earn it? The power designers want has to come from somewhere, but we should realize most people who have power have little motivation on their own to give it away.

Somewhere in our education was the silent assumption design appreciation is everywhere. That we can just show up to a new job, sprinkle ideas around and watch them grow. Design schools are centered on design. So are design books, design conferences and design friends. But this is a subculture. The vast majority of important design work is not done in subcultures or in design magazines. Instead, it happens in the thousands of businesses and organizations in the world whose goals and values aren’t centered on design. This becomes obvious if you look at who starts organizations and why they start them or the design quality of things made by many successful companies.

Yet somehow we’re surprised, or even offended, when we face design ignorance. The truth is the more important the work you are doing, the more ignorance of design you will face. We should see it as an opportunity for progress, rather than an annoyance to avoid. All designers should be good at explaining the basics, but we’re not.

To stop feeling lost we have to first be honest about where we are. Few organizations are going to shift to our language, unless we learn theirs first. We have to stop waiting for someone to “save design” in our organizations. We have to open our eyes to human nature and how organizations work (or don’t work). We may have to admit it’s influence that limits us, and that it’s probably not that our design talents aren’t good enough. What good is more design skill if it’s ignored? Maybe there are other skills we need to improve first? Ones that chip away at the real roadblocks we face? Accepting all this isn’t easy, but it’s healthier than choosing to stay lost, and bitter, waiting for the fantasy of a design-centric company or a design-literate world to magically appear in front of us.

We forget that every place we read about where designers have the level of respect we desire was shaped by a design pioneer who led the way. Who are the real design heroes? It’s probably not keynote speakers or design luminaries who make us feel good and preach to the choir. Instead it’s leaders who get less public attention who persuade, teach and gain the influence required to set up their design teams to succeed. If the workplaces we find ourselves in leave much to be desired, it simply means there is more pioneering to be done. Who is going to do it?

I’m doing all I can to help designers find their way. I believe you should have great faith in design. I wrote a book designed to solve this problem, that you can give to your team to teach them how to appreciate the important work designers do. If you feel lost and alone, or want to help with this mission, get in touch.

Management of the Absurd

Do you wonder why we obsess about categories and labels for things? It goes back to Plato, Aristotle and the birth of Western philosophy. They pioneered ways to use language to understand the world, but there were some unintended consequences.

Richard Farson wrote:

“The great contribution that Eastern philosophies can make to our own thinking is that they have little difficulty embracing the co-existence of opposites. That’s because they were very little influenced by Aristotle. He had the idea that things should be categorized; that if something was true, then it couldn’t be not true. He left that mixed legacy, that unfortunate dichotomy, to us Westerners and we honor it to the present day.”

We’re aware of eastern philosophies like Yin and Yang, how dark and light forces can stay in balance, but we rarely internalize those ideas as deeply as other cultures do. Instead we think the goal is for one force to dominate the other (e.g. good vs. evil), rather that dualism where both forces are needed (day and night).

One of my favorite business authors is Richard Farson, who wrote two books that explore these ideas in the context of work, Management of the Absurd and The Innovation Paradox. As the titles suggest, there are fundamentally strange things about how work works, or doesn’t work, that we tend to to ignore. We struggle to process absurd realities about life and avoid even talking about them. Part of the popularity of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the West is it’s paradoxical premise that the best way to win is to never have to fight.

Generally books like these don’t tend to be popular in the U.S. They’re too weird to most people and do not promise easy answers for how to be productive or succeed. And yet it’s these kinds of books that are my favorites. Books that don’t quite fit in a category and don’t promise conventional satisfaction, like Shlain’s Art and Physics or Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. They provide the deepest experiences by capturing what’s puzzling, weird or simply hard to explain, and helping us to hold on to thoughts and feelings over time. These ideas stay with us longer because of their mysteries, because of what’s left unresolved that keeps us curious for years or even a lifetime.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Management of the Absurd.

‘There is a difference between absurdity and stupidity…  Paradox and absurdity keep us off balance. In so doing, they produce the humility, vitality and creative surprise that make life so worth living. But they cannot be controlled. They will always defy the attempt.”

“Some senior managers who have been at the job 30 years don’t necessarily have 30 years of experience. They may have one year of experience thirty times.”

“Technology helps us in countless ways, but it always backfires. The term for this phenomenon in medicine is iatrogenic, meaning “physician induced.” Examples are complications from surgery, side effects of drugs, infections that result from hospital stays. There are more than a thousand different diseases that would not exist if not for the practice of medicine and the existence of hospitals. Half the time any hospital staff is spent treating iatrogenic disease.”

And from the Innovation Paradox:

The price of success too often is a loss of focus and daring. The tendency is to try to protect one’s accomplishments by shifting into cruise control. This syndrome gets played out repeatedly in the television industry. One network climbs to the top, begins to play it safe, repeats what worked in the past, slips behind, then gives may to a competitor on the bottom who’s taking creative chances because it has no reason not to.

According to an old military axiom, the weakest point always follows success. At those times it’s hard to resist the temptation to loosen up, take a breather, and abandon the intense concentration needed to fight your way up the next hill. Once a battle is won, soldiers are liable to ignore the sound of a twig snapping beneath the boot of an approaching scout, or overlook the glow of a distant campfire. Like soldiers, mountaineers say the most dangerous moment of their ascents is after they’ve reached the peak of a mountain. That’s when they’re most likely to fall into a crevasse or slip on a ledge. Surgeons, too, can find it difficult to stay focused once an operation has apparently succeeded. Until then, the demands of operating absorb their attention so completely that the scalpel seems almost to move itself.

Success is at least as hazardous as failure. It means redefining our sense of self around being a success rather than an unfinished portrait (This is a much tougher task that it sounds to those that never had to try.) We also no longer have failure to blame for feeling unhappy. If success can’t make us happy, we then must ask, what can? If we don’t feel successful and our life is problematic, it’s easy to see a connection. Obviously we surmise, the reason we have so many problems is our lack of success.

In the 1950s it was thought that the success of television would lead to radio’s demise. Instead, radio reinvented itself as a talk-show drive-time medium and roared back stronger than ever. Far from wiping out the market for fresh produce, as was feared, frozen vegetables whetted our appetite for fresh ones in countless new varieties. Convenience foods fueled a renaissance in gourmet cooking. Fast food inspired a passion for leisurely dining.

The Insider’s Guide To Evangelizing Good Design

Do you wish you had more influence on product decisions? Or that more of your talents were put to effective use on projects? This is for you.

The tech world often uses the term evangelism but you should avoid it. No one likes to be on the receiving end of evangelism. The self-righteousness inherent in deciding ahead of time to convert other people to your views without knowing anything about them has a dubious history and is often self-defeating. The first lesson is to use a wiser approach.

I realized this years ago and wrote How Design Makes The World to give designers and UX pros more constructive ways to show regular people the value of what we do. If you want lessons on this approach, join my free live event on Wed April 7th, I use stories and questions as the primary methods and they are central to the book and my advice. These are the most powerful tools for engagement that we have. The advice in this post comes from the same spirit.

A common mistake repeated at events and in articles is to start by teaching design theory. Or starting methodology warfare. Grand theories are intimidating just like overly complicated user interfaces. They don’t meet people where they are. We fall back on jargon and methodology-speak because it’s a place of confidence and we presume it will convince people of our authority, when in most cases we don’t have any (if we did, we wouldn’t be reading articles about design evangelism).

Convincing people is a social process. It’s not based on intellect or superior arguments, and if you start there it is likely to backfire. No one likes to be told they are wrong. Instead you must first learn about the goals and problems other people have and find ways for your ideas to be useful on their terms.

Here are my ten lessons:

  1. A better model is to be an ambassador. Unlike evangelism, an ambassador has to learn the local culture and language. They are better designers of their message since they learn about who they are working with before they try to influence them. Ambassadors are not passive: they have an agenda. But they see charm and positive action, not venting and bitterness, as the way forward. They study the locals before acting and see their fluency with local culture as a key advantage. They know that earning the ear of powerful people is one of the most effective ways to get things done. Being a leader is a good model too, but for that you must earn followers.
  2. There are three tactics: broadcast, personal and situational. Broadcast is when you give a big presentation: wide reach but shallow depth. Personal is when you talk to someone individually and try to persuade. The most effective is situational: your team faces a problem and you help solve it (using knowledge you hope they will adopt more in the future). You need them all, but situational is the most important as it’s the only direct credibility you can earn. Broadcast becomes more effective when you can refer to personal and situational evidence of success, but it can also be the way you learn about people and situations to focus on.
  3. Aim for small wins, not conversions to a belief system. No one transforms their beliefs all at once, except in movies. Instead of grand theories, find clear places where your idea solves a problem for one specific person. Pick the person who is most receptive to you (or least against you) and has some decision making influence. Ask about their problems. Find one your skills can resolve and offer to help. Provide value on their terms first and build from there.
  4. Common organizational situations UX design can contribute to solving are “how do we know what the right features are?”, “how can we save engineers time?”, “how do we improve customer satisfaction?”, “how can we increase revenue?” or “how do we earn customer trust?” Enter these conversations or initiate them, but use their language and goals first. If the title of your meeting request or first sentence of your advice is is one of these things, people will give you their attention. As opposed to “Give designers a seat at the table” or “You’re wrong because of the design thinking law of transverse usability matrices which dictates we re-initialize the project’s flux capacitor.”
  5. Allies matter more than ideas. Once you solve a small problem for one person, they are an ally. Everyone likes people who solve their problems. You can enlist an ally to help you convince someone you don’t know, but they do, to let you try and solve a similar problem for them. Eventually when it comes time to convince a leader, it’s your allies on their team that will make all the difference. Moving upstream in the decision process depends on allies more than your ideas or your charisma. Sometimes people have the same problem you do and they can become natural allies (who is equally frustrated by their lack of influence? Can you help each other solve the problem?). And don’t forget: your boss should be your biggest ally and share your goals.
  6. Your bigger goals require more powerful allies. Who has the power to make the organization change the way you want? It’s likely a VP, a director of engineering or a general manager. You often need smaller allies to gain medium ones and medium ones to gain big ones. But at some point you will need a relationship with whoever has the power to make the changes you desire. They have to know you personally and trust you. Before you try to persuade a powerful person, have two people that report to them already on your side (or who make the pitch for you).
  7. Design maturity grows one step at a time. Organizations only grow at a certain pace. If you expect to jump from level 0 to design nirvana in a month, you will never even get to level 1. Ambassadors are patient. They study the pace of change in their culture, and other similar cultures and define stages of progress (you should have a design maturity model). It’s demoralizing to the people you are trying to convince if you often express, even passively, how backwards you think they are.
  8. Engineers have more power than you realize. They have great influence over which defects they fix (including UI issues) and what the work estimates are on project tasks. They are a great source for small wins. Having even one engineer as an ally can make all the difference. How do you start? Express curiosity about their work, earn some trust, find out their frustrations and see if your skills can reduce them.
  9. The messenger matters as much as the message. We judge messages on how much we trust the person giving them. It’s hard to influence someone who barely knows you. Match the size of what you are asking for with their level of trust in you so far. As you grow trust, the size of your requests can grow with it.
  10. Like good product design, don’t blame the user. We’d never let an executive say “it’s the customers fault they can’t figure out how to use or product.” We should apply the same design ethos to our internal efforts as we do in products. Of course there are organizations that are so dysfunctional or poorly led that progress is improbable, but resist this judgement. You may have simply not found the allies you need yet, or developed the ambassadorship skills, to turn things around.

Often people ask me “Why should I have to do all this?” to which I say, you don’t! I agree that often designers are set up to fail by leaders of organizations. But recognition of this doesn’t change anything on its own and can be self-limiting. If you feel it’s unfair that your knowledge isn’t presumed to be valuable that’s fine, but do ask yourself, where does this feeling come from? Why do we expect regular people to know anything about good design or how to manage designers? How will they learn if a designer doesn’t teach them?.

The question is: do you want progress or not? Designers and researchers will always be minority professions. There aren’t that many of us. The word should implies there is some authority out there we can appeal to that will take responsibility but I don’t think there is one. The question is do you want progress? If you do, it’s up to us. If that’s you, I’m here to help.


Thanks to Tony Santos and Melanie Hambarsoomian.

Credit for arrow image: pixbay.

Event: Beyond How Design Makes The World

Did you enjoy the book? Or own it but haven’t read it yet? This session is for you.

To help you get as much value from the book as possible, this session will give you a fresh perspective on what you learned. I’ll give a quick recap on the core ideas, with new advice on how to apply these lessons in your work and your organization. I’ll share some new and behind the scenes stories as well as answer your questions on how to put the book to work for you.

When: Wednesday, April 7th, 12pm PST
What: Beyond How Design Makes The World / Design Evangelism
Register: click here or on image.

Are You a Self-Limiting Designer?

self-limiting – an organism or person that limits its own growth by its actions.”

Do you want to make plans or decisions? There is no wrong answer, and perhaps you want both, but the question is rarely asked. The profession of design is rooted in craft, with one person working with their hands and ideas to make something. This is the way most design schools teach designers: that you will be in control of your projects. However in the working world to be a designer is often to be a plan maker, or plan proposer, where someone else decides the goals, and how the plan will change when it’s executed. This might be a project manager, an engineer, a VP or a client, but they have the power to change the plans and decide the fate of the real design that will go out into the world.

For many designers there is a a bright yellow line between work they think counts as design and work that doesn’t. The kinds that count often involve visual creativity, exploring ideas, using maker’s tools and refining work until it’s high quality. The kinds that don’t are often just about anything else. Since general decision making roles, like project leaders, aren’t seen as creative, many designers avoid them. And learning how to be persuasive is seen as equally uninteresting. The trap is that this guarantees the decision makers will primarily be people who know little about good design or its value. And it’s those decision makers who decide when designers get involved and when they don’t. This self-limiting situation gets set all on its own.

I’m not here to tell you to change your job or your preferences for what kinds of work to do. Perhaps you organization is fundamentally dysfunctional and you have every reason to just throw plans over walls and call it a day. Or you don’t mind following people’s foolish whims if they pay you well enough. However, I am challenging you to ask who set the boundaries for you for what counts as design work? What made you want to be a designer in the first place? Did you dream of making plans that are mostly ignored or was it to make decisions that define what goes out into the world?

If you are passionate about the outcomes then you owe it to yourself to reevaluate what design talent means. Many designers feel disappointment at the mediocre work that their organizations produce. They feel their talent is wasted. And yet when it comes time to develop their career what do they do? They invest in improving the same kinds of skills that are already being ignored. It’s another self-limiting trap. This one is failing to see that what holds them back are other skills, ones they don’t have, or don’t like, or don’t consider as part of design, that they need to grow to achieve what they want. Leadership and influence are skills anyone can get better at, including designers.

The only way organizations that produce mediocre work improve is when someone with design knowledge either becomes a decision maker, or improves their skill at influencing decisions. This means facilitation, persuasion and relationship building can be just as essential to good design as design plans themselves. But when these skills are frowned upon or stigmatized, the self-limiting idea of a designer holds back entire teams. Perhaps even more challenging is when the director of the design department is neither good at these skills (so can not set the example), nor chooses to make it a strategy for the future of design in their organization. Design managers can be a self-limiting force too.

In the end this means there may be clear reasons why you feel limited or that your organization limits you. The tough news is that it may only be you who sees the problem for what it is and can do something about it. And to get others to see the problem requires the ability to influence them.

If we want a better designed world, there are only two paths:

  1. Widen what it means to be a designer to include the ability to influence
  2. Encourage more designers to move into decision making roles

Is there another way? If so, help me see it. If not, help me spread the word. If you want to learn how to be more influential, get in touch.


The Best of My 20 Years of Writing on Design

If you’re familiar with my my books and talks, you know I’ve written about innovation, public speaking and other subjects, but back in 2000 I mostly wrote about design. If you’ve followed me long enough to remember uiweb.com or the crazy live design competitions I did at events, thanks for still being here.

I worked for years as a PM on UX projects like Windows and Internet Explorer, but then became the design advocate for Microsoft. It was my job to teach and help promote good design and usability practices across the company. While there I wrote a UI design column for MSDN’s developer magazine. I thought someday I’d write a short primer style book on good design, I just didn’t anticipate it would take 20 years until I did it with How Design Makes The World.

For this best-of list I picked articles that were popular but are still relevant today. I hope you find something you like.

Most of my writing is free, but if you find value here, please support me by buying a copy of How Design Makes The World or my other books. Thanks for your support.

Here’s my best writing on design from 1999 to 2020:

My most recent essay, How To Put Faith in Design, is my best design essay so far this year. You can also visit all 170+ posts from the design archive. Or my best posts of all time.

Have a question on design you wish I would answer? Get in touch.

Leading Design Festival 2021 – Live Notes

Here are my notes from Leading Design Festival 2021, liveblogged (recorded in real time and updated as I go). My notes from the 2016 LD event can be found here.

Comments in brackets [] are mine.

1. Julie Zhou – The Many Facets of Design Leadership.

[Note: I was disappointed design ethics did not come up at all, given her 14 year history at Facebook. It’s the toughest design leadership issue we have and her insight would be valuable. I looked but couldn’t find if she’d written about this before.]

What she thought would make her a great design leader was just being a great designer. If you don’t know what good design looks like, how can you know who to hire? While it’s great to keep your skills sharp. the flavor of what it means to be great at design changes. it’s not your execution skills, but how good your eye is. It’s the difference between being a creator and an editor.

She referred to the book No Hard Feelings, and this diagram.

What I thought would make me productive - what actually does. | Do  exercise, How to run longer, Motivation

Which she redesigned to be about design.

She offered that design is still a growing profession. It’s at a place where the industry knows they need more designers, but they may not understand design or how to empower it in their organization.

Designers aren’t helping in our jargon world. We discuss abstract topics, but our peers, engineers and others, often don’t understand us. Great design leaders need to translate their concepts into words others understand. She’d get huffy about it and get frustrated. And they’d stare at her blankly. She’d point fingers at the environment and say “is this place hostile to design?” She didn’t have control over the environment, but she could learn to talk in analogies. “stop talking about clutter and space, and talk about the impact on other people”.

Too much clutter = lets reduce choices people have to make.

Catch yourself with jargon and remember to translate. Translation is different from good communication skills. It’s more targeted and specialized.

Excuses stop mattering. She referred to a story about Steve Jobs: Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO reasons stop mattering (why is this a mess? Is not something you can blame on others). And that’s where you are as a design leader. As you become more senior this expectation rises. The heart of it is the business: how will this organization be viable in the long run? What keeps the CEO up at night? The business is the context. Designers get a seat at the table because they understand the wider context of the company and how design can solve those problems.

Diagnose with data. Treat with design. It’s great that we have more information about what people actually do with our products. It’s also a way to keep us honest that our intuitions have the results we expect them to. If I showed you data that said 20% growth year over year, is it a great product? Great is subjective. Great compared to what? To last year? To our competitors?

Team process is design. How do you consistently get great design outcomes? It’s a kind of design problem. There is no formula. But look at poker. There are patterns and habits you can learn. You can’t just wait for a great hand. Move from design, to creating environments so others can design well. What is the meeting cadence? What is the psychological feeling the team has? It’s up to design leaders to decide and to help their teams win more hands.

Andy Budd asked “How to balance a company’s desire to a/b test everything?” Zhou replied that instincts are good for finding gaps with particular designs and good for novel ideas. In the v0 to v1 phase you have to start from first principles. But in second phase, after product market fit, it’s about optimizing. And that’s where instincts start to fail and a/b tests surprise designers (micro-levels). But always trust your instincts even when some data shows improvement, but you suspect it may create other problems. It’s a sign you’re past the point of low hanging fruit and should move on to bigger objectives. [Andy pointed out that a designer’s intuition improves by comparing it regularly against the data, insead of being afraid of it].

How to bond teams while remote? Have 5/10 minutes time at start of meetings where people play simple games (someone suggested https://skribbl.io/). We’ve lost the natural fun that happens between things and need to put it back in.

Question on personal growth. Start by asking how individual want to grow? Build out from that conversation to discover what kind of help they need and what can be discussed in one on ones.

Don’t forget about yourself. It’s easy to get lost in exclusively serving others. The role is about helping others, but still make investments in yourself, in mentors and network, and time to reflect for yourself.

2. Up next. Aaron Irizarry Leading Successfully Through Ourselves.

In order to help our teams, he suggests sometimes we have to learn first ourselves.

Leadership is not about being in charge, but taking care of those in your charge.” Simon Sinek

We need to get better about EQ.

  1. Self-Awareness. How do I show up? How do I recognize and manage my moods? What is my ritual for getting into a mental space where I can manage and lead?
  2. Self-Regulation. How do I control or redirect disruptive impulses or moods. He has used note taking as a way to keep in control of his thoughts before he acts on them.
  3. Intent. A passion for work that goes beyond money or status.
  4. Empathy. It’s a buzzword, but the ability to understand the emotional makeup of a person or situation makes us observant and more productive. If we don’t have empathy for our teammates and partners first, we’re kidding ourselves.
  5. Social Skills. Introverts sometimes have better social skills as they’re more measured. It’s not about extrovert/introvert, but more about how to read the room and find ways to connect. This should be modeleld behavior.
  6. Lead with vulnerability and transparency. Not assumption driven thinking, but with clarity and candor. So people feel like they know where we are going. Show your team you trust them enough to share their concerns. It’s a balance to not overwhelm people with being too transparent, but not being too closed that they’re not connected.
  7. Communicating Openly. Collaboration is rooted in trust.
  8. Adapt our communication styles and leadership approaches. Everyone is different with different needs. There are foundational things, like meeting cadence, but as he engages he tries to be contextual.
  9. Make an effort to recognize how communication style impacts other people. I’m a high strunk guy. I always engaged and I talk too much. I work with others who may not work that way and want me to slow down.
  10. Take the time to consider how different perspectives affect perception. I’m in so many meetings and the vibe at the end of one meeting carries over into the next. It impacts everyone especially when they are back to back.
  11. Be intentional in planning for ambiguity or confusion. When he is in partner meetings with his reports, it can be confusing about how things are messages or what is nailed down or still up in the air. Be an agent for clarity.
  12. Take note of team members and partner communication styles. Help people feel like they have been seen and heard.
  13. Lead through autonomy and enablement. He tends to be a hands-off leader until he isn’t. He has set up guidelines for free space and put your imprint on it. Other times he’s more open about assignments. It’s a balancing act and sometimes he gets it wrong. And he wants to get better at it.
  14. Model an autonomous working style. How much does he need from his boss? When does he ask for clarification and when does he pave the way?
  15. Get out of the fucking way. This is still a problem. How to balance facilitating without slowing things down.
  16. Create a vision statement that is a north star. This helps people be autonomous and keeps the manager out of the way.
  17. Check in on a regular basis. What is working? What isn’t? And where they need you to show up.
  18. Establish personal norms. Our vibe sets the tone. Imagine how not sleeping, being too tired, spread too thin, so the vibe is off. How he shows up sets a tone for their day and their ability to show up. Sometimes it’s just how it is, but he wants to be mindful of it.
  19. Manage our time well. If I’m in 15 meetings a day how can I possibly be there for my team?
  20. Invest in our own personal development. He’s planning on watching all the other talks.
  21. Establish healthy routines. He realized his choices at events like this weren’t always great. But that the he needed to make adjustments so he’s refreshed and recharged when he needs to be.
  22. Get a therapist. If he has someone he can talk to on a regular basis about whatever is going on he does much better. Get a personal board of directors (but that’s more business focused).

“I’m a leader struggling to lead my people. This is a good community. Reach out”

3. Kristin Skinner — Co-author, Org Design for Design Orgs, Founder & GSD

[Kristin went fast with dense slides. There were a few references that went by too fast to catch.]

How teams work is as important as what they make. She told the story about how the Golden State Warriors basketball team transformed over years to be a balance of talent and good management.

Three key areas define effective teams:

  • Foundation
  • Output
  • Management

She identified a list of common problems.

This means we need continually redesign our organization. And you can use these lists to help score and rank the issues that people experience. Which helps everyone feel responsible for identifying and dealing with change.

Common goals to strive for:

  • realize investment in design
  • attract talent
  • plan for growth
  • and find roadmap detectives

“People spend 60% of their time on what they call the work about the work – trying to figure out who’s doing what, when and why” – Chris Fainacci, COO Asana

Common issues design teams face (from survey she did?):

  • Limited time or resources
  • Involving the right people or teams
  • Lack of proven value

She referred to a Harvard Business article about the value of metrics and measuring outcomes. Then she explain how this translates into what designers can do.

The Design Management Framework: People, Practice and Platforms. A framework like this helps make sure you have happier designers, better designers and more effective teams.

Organizations change every 30 days. It’s always shifting in different ways. And many efforts to do deliberate change (she offered three models of change but too quickly for me to catch).

She offered a stat about how 90% of organizations (from the McKinley survey?) about design leadership expressed that it had little impact on design maturity growth in those organizations.

What can leaders do?

  1. Know your maturity. How is your team partnering with the rest of the organization?
  2. Design your Design org at all levels. Org health and team health are not the same. Org health is the environment and conditions.
  3. Approach designing your org as you would any other initiative.
  4. There is no “end state” to org design. it will always be evolving.
  5. How will you know you if you’re successful? You need some measurements to track and compare over time.

Talks continue tomorrow.

4. Doug Powell: Sketchbooks over Spreadsheets: Designers as Leaders In A Complex World

He opened with a story about how Randy Hunt wrote a simple diagram during a meeting explaining, in a passed sketch to the CEO, how the organization currently worked. It helped the CEO to understand how things were working and suggested how things could change. Powell considers this an act of clarity, alignment and velocity.

He then referred to a talk Kate Aronowitz gave where she reported that there were 66,000 open executive design jobs [I think he misspoke and its design leadership, not strictly executive roles, as she explained in this article – he didn’t provide a link so this is the best I could find. Also without comparison to how many engineering, marketing or other unfilled leadership roles there are it’s hard to frame if this is unique to design or not.]

Who are the people who are going to fill these roles? What skills do they gave? Will they be ready? The demand for people to fill these roles has exploded. What are the missing skills required to effectively play senior business leadership roles in complex organizations, and how to designers acquire them in the middle of our careers?

From a summary paper from MIT Sloan management school [which I had to dig up since he didn’t have a reference. He had other unreferenced quotes From Harvard Business and Forbes]. Only 12% strongly agree that their leaders have the right mindsets to lead them forward. [Note: w/o context of how many moderately agreed it’s not really clear how big a problem this is. And the summary paper does not share the complete survey results, I looked, which is always concerning.]

He suggests chasing after the established methods of current business school methods, which he believes are behind the times, is not what we should be doing. But instead think about what we need for the present and the future.

He refers back to the summary of the MIT Sloan study, which says:

“we identified a number of leadership teams that are embracing new ways of working and leading. For example, many of them are increasing transparency, demonstrating authenticity, and emphasizing collaboration and empathy.” 

He argues that most designers actually possess the skills to effectively lead in this transformative era. Leading to a reframing of his core question: How do we retain, enhance, and maximize unique differentiating skills as designers?

He returns to the opening story. Randy knew his CEO responded to simple and direct messages. He quickly made a prototype and delivered it in a way Anthony could consume. He considers this a design act.

He shared a story from Raquel Bretenitz, head of Aperture Health, who noticed “We were sitting in the same office, but the design, data, tech, and social media teams were completely siloed.” And she led her team to pick up their stuff and moved to the dev team’s workspace. It was cramped but it made a huge difference. He sees this as a a use of her design skills.

He sees that there are surprisingly simple skills designers have that have greater value than we think. We can turn business challenges into design problems.

In his role he facilitates meetings between design leaders and the senior business leaders, or GMs. They’re called design program reviews and they happen annually. He’s found it’s good to approach these meetings as a UX design problem with the GM as the primary user. They know GMs are: busy, data-driven, opinionated, competitive and no BS

This informs a 6 slide review deck template used in these program reviews. He believes it works, and quoted an anonymous GM – “This review has helped me understand the need for design resources… We can double this design team with no problem.”

5. Jane Austin — Chief Design Officer, Flo Health Inc., The Three Ages Of Leadership

In the words of Cap Watkins: “Congratulations. You got promoted – now prepare to suck at a completely different job.”

She explained that every time she got promoted she made a new set of mistakes. And that helped her see that there were three ages or levels of management.

There is an emotional rollercoaster in doing this kind of work that from the outside seems expected but when it’s you can be hard to deal with. And that has led her to this talk, which is about how to suck less in these stages.

“Do you want to become a manager, or do you want to excel in your craft.” – Peter Merholz

She calls out how it’s uncommon for individual designers to continue to get rewarded as they become more senior, and they often leave to become freelancers. Some American companies are exceptions.

In deciding what level of management to pursue, she offered three ways to think about it.

  • Heart: What gives you flow and excitement
  • Tree: How do you want to grow professionally?
  • Star: How do you like be rewarded in private or in public?

While there is status that comes with being higher in the org chart, that’s a bad reason for moving up. You might need some experience in management before you discover if it’s right for you and at what level.

“If opportunity doesn’t knock – build a door” – Milton Berle

She discovered (after making the mistake of waiting) that to move into management she had to volunteer to help with things like team retrospectives and speak at events to grow into a leadership status. It was hard to do all this without feeling like she was showing off (British humility). And this led to Age level one.

Being promoted over peers was a tough emotional shift. She can’t believe this now, but she apologized to them (which destroyed her credibility). She didn’t create the emotional distance and didn’t know about coaching. She was miserable.

What not to do: too hands on, micromanaging, being autocratic, working super hard (all aspects of keeping knowledge to yourself instead of teaching). Antonio Stradivari didn’t teach others what he knew, so he when he died his knowledge was lost.

What to do: she learned not to try to be perfect but to be better. She didn’t need all the answers but to ask good questions (including ones no one else was asking). She learned to coach instead of tell. And that everyone didn’t have to like her (as she didn’t like all of them!).

Paul Graham’s essay Maker time vs. Manager Time. A different way of framing the problem.

She explained how emotional intelligence is talked about but not often practiced. Yet it’s the reality of the culture around EQ that makes good work possible. It’s the managers job define a healthy culture. She joked about the three kinds of managers that don’t:

  • Shit funnel – makes things bad
  • Shit fan – makes bad things worse
  • Shit umbrella – protects people from the other two

She shared a joke about being in an earthquake and tweeting about it. A designer responded and asked “Are you OK?” and a PM responded with “size?” which confirmed (in a joking way) that designers care about people but PMs care about metrics.

Biggest mistake as a director was underestimating her power. She didn’t realize that with the seat at the table she could disagree and change the conversation. If you make your case well you can shift important things that define the culture, something no one else in your organization can do.

6. D. Keith Robinson – Leading From The Middle, Lessons From The IC Track

Being a senior IC (Individual Contributor) can be squishy. What it’s shaped like will vary significantly. The role and the skills involve can vary depending on the kind of organization you are in.

He sees that management can be a trap – when it’s the only way to get promoted people go into management for the wrong reasons. Or people leave when the way they want to grow as an IC isn’t rewarded.

Feeling Stuck. Common complaint. Leads to “how do I become a lead or manager?” as a result. You may have to let go being strictly a maker or crafter. As you take on more of a leadership role the skills are less tied to being able to make artifacts.

Expectations. When you have many years of experience, it’s harder to set expectations. You may need to lead the way in defining what your boss and others expect of you.

Partnering > Mentoring. As you become more senior people become closer to peers than to superiors or mentors. This is done by sharing goals and measures.

Managers often want senior ICs to have strategic impact. To be influential in how important decisions are made. But it’s difficult to be strategic when you are not in the conversation. Which means relationships and persuasion become more important. Including owning cross-functional relationships. A primary function is people influence and work with your manager to create opportunities.

“I like doing the work, you know? Not so much the meetings and all the talking.” This is probably not going to happen if you want more seniority. You’re going to be in more leadership situations which will be less about making artifacts. You’re going to have more relationships and more meetings.

Top complaint from Senior ICs is they don’t have enough time. This is about being overcommitted. But you have to learn how to say no to things and focus on what’s most important. Practice saying no so you can say yes.

You need to learn to think about scale. Your best work may be through other people by crafting a vision and helping others carry that work forward.

7. Temi Adeniyi —  Design Leadership For Imposters

She started with a personal story about feeling like an imposter since 1999. Her love for HTML/web design as kid and her love for NSYNC combined in leading her to make an ungodly number of fan websites. She developed her design and coding skills and that led to her studying it in school. Even as she succeeded she felt she was still so far behind. The term imposter syndrome actually helped her feel better as it gave a name to what she was feeling.

She refers to the Ira Glass’s gap between good taste and good ability. And how all go through this in our careers.

She was surprised to discover as she moved into leadership that it was really a different job. It’s scary to go from feeling secure as a senior to feeling low confidence. And impostor syndrome returns.

Part of the challenge is how different being a good leader can be depending on the situation you are in. It’s easy to feel like you don’t fit but that can be an illusion if your idea of what you should be doesn’t match what the team needs you to be (which may be much simpler).

The alternative is to trust in what you know. If you’re good at articulating design decisions, that translates well into articulating many things. Many design skills, like facilitation, have more value than we realize.

Imposter Thoughts:

  • Wait – am I doing this right? Build relationships that help you get better data on how you’re doing (boss, mentor, coach). In getting feedback, ask about what you’re doing well in addition to where you need to make changes.
  • Do people take me seriously? There are no shortcuts to credibility. Trust in your skills but accept that you will have to earn other’s trust.
  • Am I good enough to be here? Embrace the way leadership looks to you. Find fellow works in progress and exchange experiences.

She closes that sometimes she still feels like an imposter. It is going to take awhile to get to where she wants and that’s OK.

8. Michael Yap, Mostly Clear, Partly Sunny: Creating the Conditions for Design to Flourish

He shared a personal story of unexpected management at Etsy. He never had a desire to be a people manager. His path was not a steady progression of promotion – he was actively trying to avoid it given how managers are often seen as out of practice and out of touch. He’d see this when he worked at a boutique agency. While there he did more and more recruiting and training. He hired many people with raw talent and trained them in his image. It didn’t scale. And the more people he hired the less time he spent doing the design work he loved.

When he joined Etsy he wanted to be solo again. He worked on signature initiatives. But the organization was looking to hire a VP of design for a long time. FUD, Fear, uncertainty and doubt become common. When he was asked to take the role he looked for someone else to do the job. He admits he was afraid of failing in a visible way. but eventually said yes out of duty.

At the time there were few resources on design leadership (that he could find). He felt he needed more than fortune cookie advice. The demand for design leaders has grown and the importance of design leadership knowledge has grown with it.

In 2019 McKinley surveyed design leaders and less than half felt that CEOs understood their role. 90% of CEOS didn’t regularly involve their design leaders in developing strategy [I don’t believe the report says how these numbers compare to other roles – so it could signify that CEOs only involve a handful of roles in strategy and is not specifically design exclusion].

He read from traditional business management texts and recognized how antiquated it was, based on command and control ideas.

Three basic questions:

  1. How do good leaders conduct themselves towards others?
  2. How do good leaders acquire, keep and apply power?
  3. What personality traits must a good leader possess?

One way to answer is what styles to adopt. In his research he found some foundational references:

  • Lewin’s Leadership style: Autocratic, Democratic, Lassez–faire
  • Mouton’s Leadership Grid: Country Club, Team, Impoverished, Product or Perish
  • Primal Leadership: Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting, Commanding

Each style prescribes certain characteristics. The problem is that character isn’t something people can just put on when they get dressed for work. He turned to design ways ways of thinking, seeing and making. In particular, systems thinking.

He suggests thinking about leading design orgs, and orgs in general, as self-regulating systems. That have feedback loops. They work on a loop of Sensing, Comparing and Acting. These systems are everywhere, like in thermostats.

[Note: for the rest of the talk he presented interesting concepts individually, but I was lost on how they tied together, or how they should be be applied to the challenges of managing. I did my best with what I could understand].

You can think of design as series of three nested loops. The user interacts with an object in a loop of acting with and responding to. And the next loop of the designer has a similar loop with both the sign and the user. And then there is a meta loop for the meta-designer who interacts with all the conditions [I looked for a paper from Dubberly that this references, but I couldn’t find it].

[I think he was implying that there are similar loops for managing organizations]. If we think of management in terms of conditions, he offers that there are five to consider: people, tools, process, operations and environment. The bulk of leadership literature is focused on people conditions. What’s less clear is process at scale. How to design at an organizational level.

It’s not hard for him to recall when the double diamond was a foreign concept at Etsy. And that it took time for it to be accepted.

Think for a moment of your design org. How do you prioritize and focus on people, tools, process, operations and environment? This is one useful way to think about what managers do.

He is no longer head of design at Etsy. And some of the work he does as an IC is investmenting in process.

9. Christine Pizzo — Mythbusting Millennial Management

[Update. She gave a thoughtful apology in the event chat room. ]

[This talk was problematic with some unfortunate commentary about millennials. but there was generation bashing here and I imagine any Millennial would be upset by it. She did not offer context/research from experts on generations to support or contextualize her opinions]

She compares Millenials to flowers. Environment matters. You need to talk to them quite often. They have a different level of needing to be heard [compared to?] and they’re going to give you opinions whether you like them or not.

She offered this shit list about designers:

  • I don’t know shit
  • Scared shitless
  • Don’t give a shit
  • Want to be the shit
  • They’re good shit

She offered that whatever your list is, there is no one size fits all. You have to tailor who you are since you can not approach each scenario in the same way.

Myth: they want trophies for minimal work. This is just everyone, she suggests. But they do need outward recognition.

Her organization provides a skills matrix and levels documents to help them understand how to grow.

She offered that growth and promotions are probably the number 1 misalignment. Three years in their first job the want promotion to senior. The maturity to separate technical skills growth vs. pure time and experience is often lacking. “The definition of 5 years or 10k hours is the definition of mastery” is something she heard at a past Leading Design event and she felt this helped frame the goal for Millenials.

Myth: Obsessed with social. They are passionate and stand firm about the brands they follow. They are a generation that utilizes technology to the best around them. She referred to selfless collaboration. How the platforms like github, youtube, Dribble, Creative Market, are free and they see as a ‘right’ to use. These tools and crowdsourcing platforms are assumed to be useful and they’re surprised when they’re not used.

Myth: so many feelings. It can be hard to explain to them why they are given certain assignments or not. She explained that it can take effort to help them understand certain decisions that are about the og and business.

Passion=engagement. They get bored quickly. You will quickly know how they feel about the work they are doing.

The best way to get them more maturity is to give them mentorship roles for someone else. They start to see what it’s like to be responsible for someone else and generate some self-reflection.

Her summational advice was to buddy up, motivate their world, and get ’em working.

She closed offering a note about how “If you give a millennial even an inch they are going to take it 20 miles (!?) or they are going to use it for the next 5 years.” Which I wasn’t sure how to take.

10. Abi Jones — The Manager’s Guide To 1:1’s

She has done 1000s of 1-on-1s and her advice is based on that experience (which will also be a forthcoming book).

She’s quick to point out that 1-on-1s are not a panacea and that she lives in California and has a west coast bias – YMMV given how different cultures can be.

Last year during the storms in CA there were lightning storms near her home. Over the week the sky turned orange and it was scary. And it was not clear how to stay safe. They heard bulldozers and other equipment not far away setting up fire barriers. Eventually they got personal door to door information about what was going on. And that made a difference.

She reported a staistc about how employees respond to confliting information. And that 1-on-1s is one way to ensure people hear things directly from you.

Job embeddedness: the totality of how we feel about our workplace and why we stay. How connected they feel with their team and the larger organization.

1-on-1s help you understand embeddedness. The links, fit and sacrifice they feel about your organization.

1-on-1s are also an early warning system. This include turnover shocks. events that make people say “should is stay here?” These events are why people leave – it’s usually triggered. For example: spouse gets a great opportunity, a person gets passed over for a promotion, or a pandemic transforms people’s lives.

1-on-1s should be early warnings to you team. Communicate shock in advance and create/maintain a direct channel. Create clear invitations to your team about why these matter and how they can best use the time.

“Students least likely to go to office hours are the students who would benefit the most” – Anthony Jack

Preparation, Attention, Curiosity and Takeaways. Only 50% of people report knowing what to do at work. Setting expectations is the manager’s job and we should tell the truth. Make clear why it’s important and what can be covered.

She listed a set of challenge questions, and radical questions. The specifics don’t matter it’s about make sure the right context is set. She creates a 1-on-1 doc in advance that’s driven by the employee. Abi believes just the act of writing it out itself helps people think more clearly.

Preparation: set expectations, share a thinking space, be positive. Be ready to help and listen.

She challenged the audience to consider how many tabs they had open. And how distracted out attention was. And how bad a habit it is during a one on one to have divided attention. Walking 1-on-1s, or any context that is passively active but allows full attention is a great habit to keep attention. Doing audio only can help too as it does actually increase focus (since you’re not obligated to awkwardly stare at each other). Turn your phone off.

Curiosity: She recommends Humble Inquiry, by Edgar H. Schein. It teaches a better way to think about questions and how to use them. Moving from ! to ? First step is you are a manager, not a forensic investigator. You’re job is to ask question to help them realize the solutions to their problems. That’s more valuable than telling them answers. Best way is to stop problem solving, and shift into being curious.

The goal is to have clarity after a 1-on-1. That both people are clear on how they other person feels and what their opinions are. They don’t have to agree. She believes in takeaways. When 5 minutes left, ask “What are you taking with you as we wrap up? Or what are your priorities for this week?”

40-80% of information given by doctors to patients is forgotten (missed attribution). Imagine what is forgotten after 1-on-1s?

11. Timothy Yeo —  Design Leadership For Introverts (Iso-Edition)

As an introvert, he finds too much social interaction exhausting, even if it’s something he likes.

Introversion != Shy. Instead it’s about how you tend to respond to social stimulation. It’s also true that introvert vs. extrovert is not binary. There is a spectrum of tendencies, including ambiverts who depending on the context have different preferences.

he talked about Susan Cain and the cultural stereotype that leaders needed to be extroverts. He asks how can an introverted design leader succeed?

Being more extroverted is not the answer. He tried it and it doesn’t work. Instead he asks how can we use our introverted ways as a superpower?

Remote work has been a challenge for him. He felt he was good at reading people and rooms in person, but will that work in this new world? The answer is yes, with some caveats.

He recommends arriving at virtual meetings early. You get to meet the other punctual people and talk to them one on one or in small groups. The small talk is easier and people speak more freely. It’s an opportunity to connect at a more human level and you get information you might not get otherwise.

Not everything has to be a meeting. So many other ways to communicate and express a message. You can record a message on your own time and share it. It’s the same amount of time for others but you gain more control over your message [as long as you keep it short].

Respond on your own time. You don’t have to respond to every Slack message immediately. Schedule messages to be sent. Asynchronous communication is much better for everyone.

High stakes meetings are often pre-decided. Senior leaders often arrive already knowing their opinion. You need to influence them beforehand. Try to engage with them before their minds are made up. A containership takes a long time to change direction – you have to start early.

It’s good to hire butterflies. People who are natural connectors and communicators. This helps introverted leaders. It doesn’t absolve your responsibilities, but it helps balance the social load.

He referenced a study by [will find reference later] about how it can be a contrast of styles that works best. So if you get the chance to choose who plays management roles, the best mix might be not what you think.

He sees social media as a gift from the introvert gods. You have access to respected people and can engage with them in a way you can control.

Networking combines all of the things introverts do not enjoy. But remot events can make it easier. You have more control over who you interact with and what you can learn about them first (see what they posted last on social media as a way to start a conversation), as opposed to awkward impromptu conversations a conference events.

Trick: pretend networking is user research. Who are these people? Why are they here? Small talk questions through this lens are much easier. Just don’t go to far and make it an interrogation.

What we can learn from vaccine website failures (Fast Company)

There’s been plenty of news about Americans struggling to register to get vaccinated for COVID. I noticed a story missing from the news: no one was asking about the problem from a design perspective. So I wrote this piece for Fast Company that explains what we all can learn.

It’s easy to dismiss news like this and shake our heads. But it turns out the mistakes made here weren’t just about web design, but about management, planning and lip service policies, issues many organizations in the public and private sector struggle with too. Few organizations ever do usability studies and, like the vaccine websites, they have the results to prove it.

How Design Makes The World: Typos and corrections?

Did you read How Design Makes the World? Thanks. I’m glad you did.

If you found any any typos or mistakes along the way, I apologize. But I’m asking you to report them here so they can be corrected in a future edition.

The first edition of the book has 130+ footnotes, 60+ recommendations and dozens of properly attributed photo and media credits. I work hard to get it right, but alas mistakes do happen.

Please leave a comment, and a page # if possible. Much appreciated.

Here are the known issues:

Print edition

  • pg 41, Hundertwasser was Austrian, not German
  • pg. 80, had a great a great
  • p. 99 “insights that makes” -> insights that make
  • p. 117 “…going to difficult” -> going to be difficult
  • p. 151 “that devil live” -> that devils live
  •  154 –“hate traffic when that are in it…” -> hate traffic when they are in it
  • p. 157 “guide to us making” -> guide us to make
  • pg. 160 – all questions should appear on own line
  • Pg. 188, Maurice Sy -> Marice Sy

Unique to Kindle / Digital

  • pg. 50 / Chapter 7 – fonts missing (Kindle only)

UX Design: The most difficult concepts to explain (list)

Last week I asked on twitter which concepts were hardest for UX designers to explain to their teams. As promised here are the responses with some commentary.

The risk with lists like this one is it’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming others for what are our limitations. This violates our own advice:

Designer hypocrisy: to preach "don't blame the user" but then blame coworkers for not understanding design principles and process that designers expect them to use.

It’s true that some people we work with should have learned these by now, but it’s wise to err on the side of improving how we teach rather than blaming the students. All experts forget that what is basic to us isn’t basic to everyone else.

Which makes Christian Crumlish’s comment perhaps the most valuable:

I prefer learning and understanding my coworkers’ and bosses’ concepts over explaining mine. 

My concepts are working materials that will show up in my framing and discussion and ideally speak for themselves. 

They don’t need to learn my jargon unless they ask to.

The list of difficult concepts

These were the three most common responses:

  • You are not the user (#).
  • The difference between UI & UX.
  • It’s not just what it looks like… it’s how it works too. Perception is often that UX is just a lick of paint (#).

Here is the rest of the list (I trimmed duplicates):

  • Some of the most important UX research that’s conducted has nothing to do with deciding where to put a button (#).
  • Designers learn through the act of making (#).
  • Doing research up front will not slow you down, but will save you time (#).
  • That vision work and deep thinking through longer term complexity takes time and that time trades off against filling the timeline with reactive/nearterm work (#).
  • For me, it’s that there’s a difference between knowing the space and knowing how users experience the space(#).
  • That we can’t make the currently being worked on feature the most discoverable. No matter what you’re currently working on, it has to be in the context of the overall journey(#).
  • Not everything is a visual deliverable(#).
  • Looks good ≠ is good (#)
  • That I am not the source of ideas. That I can’t work in a vacuum and produce user experiences. That UX is not a single input at the start of a pipeline of work, or a checkbox on a project list (UX is a process, not a deliverable)(#).
  • That we dont have all the answers. Our job is to help uncover the answers (#).
  • Design coherence. A solution is not simply a collection of features or functions, it is the way they fit together in a sensible, useful way. Adding or removing an element may be easy to do gracefully, or very hard, depending on the overall design (#).
  • That a single change often has cascading consequences — that parts are (or should be) always related to the whole (#).
  • UX vs. UX Theater (#).
  • If you aren’t designing the right thing, you can’t design the thing right (#).
  • You must define functionality before implementation. And probably draw a map in between (#).
  • Pretty and efficient aren’t mutually exclusive, but pretty ≠ efficient (#).
  • In the case of software especially, we have to consider not only how it feels to do a task once, but how it feels to do that same task ten times a day, every day (#).
  • The “user experience” is not owned by a company, but by people. It’s actually people trying to live, tackling their problems or striving for their aspirations. Their experience is bigger than any single touchpoint or brand (#).
  • The complexity has to live somewhere. You can’t make something powerful and infinitely flexible for power users ALSO be intuitive and simple for beginners (#).
  • That a feature is not a user goal (#).
  • That I usually should not (and often can not) provide off-the-cuff design advice without understanding the context of a product/feature/service (#).
  • Reminding people that we have to avoid shipping the org chart (#).
  • The user experience doesn’t start and end at the confines of a screen (#).
  • Defining the problem and the outcomes is key – the same design can be done 10 different ways but each of those 10 options are solving for different problems and lead to different outcomes (#).
  • Reframing. The thing they think they want turns-out not to be the best opportunity, but once they have that thing in their mind, it’s impossible to convince them it won’t work (even if something else will work better) (#)
  • That UX is not just doing what customers want but that it is the process of understanding what customers need and combining with the business goals to deliver best experience (#).
  • Research is (MUCH) more than usability testing (#).
  • The easier it looks, the more work it took to get there (#).
  • Metric tradeoffs: why sometimes it’s worth it to take a short term hit in a key metric in exchange for an overall experience improvement that harder to quantify (#).
  • The fact that designers and everyone who intervenes in perception have an ethic responsibility to those humans first, not to the business. As designers we have a responsibility to be congruent & empathic and to hold the people we design for in unconditional, positive regard.(#).
  • Even the best UX design can’t fix messed up organizational structure or people problems (#).
  • The difference between strategic work (decision-making) and tactical work (hands-on crafting), and how designers must be good at both (#).
  • That UX debt (the many small decisions that lead to inconsistencies and bad behaviors) will cause major negative consequences both for internal teams and customers down the road. It’s worth it to put in more effort to avoid it even if it takes more time (#).
  • The fact that ‘It depends’. Context has a huge influence on what could be the best solution to a problem, but my experience has been that often people expect the UX designer to have answers based on abstract rules instead. Yes: there are best practices, but still … it depends (#).
  • Progressive Disclosure – a design should only be as complex as they are ready for at the time (#)

Have one that isn’t listed? Or a great way to explain one of these? Leave a comment.

How To Put Faith in Design

Anglerfish are famous for the glowing lure they dangle from their heads that they use to catch small fish. But this is not the most interesting thing about them. Their most fascinating trait is how they mate. Males of the species, who are much smaller, lack a functioning digestive system. To survive they must combine, or fuse-mate, with the females. This means they bite into the female’s skin, releasing an enzyme that bonds them together for life. In exchange for the nutrients they need to live, they provide her with sperm. If this sounds desperate that’s because it is: only 1% of males live long enough to find a mate.

If the equivalent of the shiny lure atop the anglerfish were part of a tech product, deceiving people into making bad choices, we’d call it a dark pattern: a deliberate deception that causes harm to one party but benefits the other. But we don’t use this label to apply to nature because… well I’m not sure why. Evolution is about good design for survival and we can learn from its history, even if we don’t agree with its morality. But the history of design most UX designers know starts with the Macintosh. We have a narrow view of how design fits into the world, even into the world of business, and that works against us.

Corporations, like anglerfish and other living things, are designed to survive. They evolve and use tactics that manipulate perception. Consider how the tail of a male peacock is a kind of advertising. Or how that ultraviolet light in orchid petals, crafted to attract insects for fertilization, is part of its “plant marketing strategy.” There’s perhaps nothing wrong with trying to get others interested in what you have to offer. It seems fair and natural, doesn’t it?

Yet there is also the Cuckoo bird. It lays an egg in other bird species’ nests without the mother knowing. When the young cuckoo hatches, it pushes its unhatched step-siblings out of the nest to fall to their death. It’s a killer baby bird! We’d call this immoral, or homicidal, if humans did it, but we struggle to rationalize our morality with the natural world we’ve evolved from and are still a part of.

Founders, as a kind of creature to stay with the metaphor, don’t start companies to “make great user experiences.” Instead their goals, as explained to investors, are to generate profits, growth and value for shareholders. How society, the environment, customers and employees fare is often secondary. They may make things that improve our quality of life, but they are not generally altruistic. They hire people to help with their stated goals, and not for any other reason.

Remember that we had to shame automobile companies for years to put in seat belts. We had to fight for decades to get the makers of cigarettes to admit they were unhealthy. These were among the most profitable industries of their eras, and Big Tech has parallels to Big Auto and Big Tobacco. We might want a better designed world for everyone, but the literal design of corporations, the nature of their species so to speak, makes them creatures with more selfish ambitions.

In Mark Hurst’s recent essay, Why I’m losing faith In UX, he explains how he sees a decline in the last 30 years of User Experience design. He calls out how Amazon Prime’s cancellation process is now 6 pages long. And how leaders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple have lied under oath about the harm of their products. He calls out how ” design thinking” as popularized by Stanford’s d.school has empowered Silicon Valley to exploit people. He offers that in Big Tech the meaning of UX has changed from user experience to user exploitation. There’s merit to what Hurst is saying, but he’s missing the larger picture of the animal he is grappling with.

Hurst references Erika Hall’s popular tweet that offers a diagram (shown below) about the relationship: “This is all too often how UX design is considered and practiced.” I think she’s saying that while some designers do good work on the (small) things they control, they contribute to a negative net impact on the people they are designing for, given the dubious ethics of the underlying business that pays them (actually the meme implies customers will be eaten alive! But smarter predatory businesses want you to be a zombie, who buys things in ads and has good cash flow).

Angler fish labeled "business model". Lure labeled "UX".

This should not be a surprise. We know that often the user is the product, but many of us have absorbed that cynically into the equation of UX work. Sometimes it’s confusing though. Hurst doesn’t mention that you can have a great user experience in one sense and be exploited, or exploit others, at the same time (e.g. Uber, Facebook or even cocaine, at least at first). Maybe we shrug now and then, saying “I’m just the designer” and it’s not our jobs to define the business or defend its ethics. Or that working for a questionable company, given our personal situation, is the only option that we have (like the lonely male anglerfish). For many reasons it’s easy to feel like we’re attached to a larger creature, hanging on, along for the ride.

One mistake we make is thinking this is specifically about UX. It’s not. Advertising, marketing, branding and even engineering are more likely to be the lure, as entire apps and services can be the free temptation hovering above a darker business model. It’s far more a diagram about predatory businesses than anything else.

Somewhere in Hurst’s story, and in the design community, was the latent hope that UX was going to reform capitalism. Or be immune from it. That sounds ridiculous, but there is no other explanation for our surprised outrage that these businesses do what they have always done, but now use UX as part of their tactics. As if we are so special and our knowledge beyond appropriation.

I don’t think Hurst’s lost faith is actually in UX. User Experience design is primarily a set of skills. You can’t lose faith in UX design any more than you can lose faith in carpentry. Instead he has lost his faith in the willingness of predatory (big tech) corporations to do the right thing. Placing faith there was the mistake, given what we know of the species. To believe most corporations, given their history, would, without regulations and against the wishes of their stockholders, invest in good design and ethical practices above other considerations is about as foolish as hoping anglerfish will go vegetarian. Even the billionaires who choose to do good do their philanthropy through foundations, not corporations.

This is depressing and I’m sorry. It’s not entirely your fault that we’re in this situation. Design culture has always been self-aggrandizing. Something rarely mentioned in design schools or books is the possibility that good design may have little impact on why some businesses succeed or not. There is a reason why Norman doors, for all of their usability flaws, are still popular in the world. We laugh at them, and countless other obvious “unusable” designs of confusing microwave ovens, tech gadgets or the latest trending social media app, but the joke is on us. We think we are seeing incompetence, but instead it’s evidence there can be successful businesses where our services aren’t important and we’d prefer to stay in denial.

Hurst overlooks that Amazon customers are happy even with bad UX. It is one of the top five most loved and respected brands in the United States, despite the design and ethical issues he rallies against. Google, a common target of distain from UX experts, is among them too. The truth about Amazon customers is they care more about cheap prices, two-day delivery and a great return policy than anything UX designers are likely to improve. In the places where this isn’t true, perhaps Alexa or Kindle or their next new service, they likely will invest more in design. Currently Amazon’s strongest revenue growth is in AWS and it’s possible their consumer businesses won’t be as important in the future. There’s a logic here, we just don’t like it.

Should customers have different priorities? Including concerns about how poorly Amazon employees, and suppliers, are treated to achieve those low prices? Should citizens demand corporations do less damage to society? I say yes, but my opinion is irrelevant to Amazon. And Walmart. And the stock market. And it’s irrelevant in a way to all of us who want the growth stocks in our mutual funds and 401ks to rise, while we rarely ask what the real cost of that growth might be. I want this to change but that can only start by being honest about how things are.

Returning to the anglerfish, for no particular reason at all, certainly not for any metaphoric relevance to where I’m headed, there’s another fascinating fact about its biology. Females accept multiple male sexual partners. And when each male latches on, it slowly loses organs it no longer needs. It loses its eyes and its fins, its kidneys, even its precious heart gets reabsorbed into its new host. It is no longer a creature itself. It is just a sexual appendage. It hangs on, sensing its fellow men but unable to see them, surviving day after day with no purpose and no function, except to provide parasitic underwater sex on demand.

For a typical business, UX design is seen as a specialization. Businesses have many specialized roles they hire for. They fit into a larger strategy for profit and growth decided by people who are in generalized roles. Even if you work on a large team, under a Director of UX, many of the important design decisions you have to work with are likely not made by designers. The budgets, schedules, and requirements come from people who know far less about making great/ethical products than you or your team does, in part because making great products isn’t their goal. Unless someone influences their thinking, that is the way it will stay.

Your faith in UX, as promised in the title of this essay, comes in an unexpected form and it starts here. You must trust that you are good at UX design and that your focus, for a time, must go elsewhere. If most of the big design decisions are made by people who you think are bad at design, or are unethical, you need to broaden what you think design is. The VP, the PM, the engineer, if they’re making decisions that “should be yours” or are “terrible”, then they’re designers too and powerful ones. This means there are only three reasonable choices:

  1. Move into a role where you make the important decisions.
  2. Become better at influencing decision makers.
  3. Find a place to work that has higher standards (or start your own).

Unfortunately the most common choice might be #4: complain and/or do nothing. It’s human nature to prefer the familiar, even if disappointing, to the unknown. It’s a safe choice because many make it. It’s less scary than the alternatives and it’s often immediately rewarded as others will complain with you. They may also tell you #1 is a betrayal. That you won’t be a “designer” anymore, despite how if you do it you’ll be making the decisions you felt you should have been yours all along (as well as paving the way for the next “designer” to have more power). For #2, some will say “Why should I have to?” and the answer is you don’t. You don’t have to do anything. However if you want something to change, participation is required.

The day you were hired you likely knew more about good design than most of your organization, including the executives. Put your faith in your UX knowledge and use it as a foundation to stand on, instead of a weight holding you down. Ignore the standard design books, design conferences and design media for a time. Don’t keep sharpening the sharpest tool you have if it’s clearly not the one you need.

Instead learn about how consultants persuade. Studying business for designers is good, but even better is to immerse yourself in a founder or product management community. Study their arguments and their theories on their turf. Ask questions. Learn to speak their language, so you can be a better translator. Maybe you can do it locally, if there’s someone on “the other side” in your org you get along with well. Ask them to mentor you. Make them an ally. Treat the powerful people you want to influence as if they were your users: you want to study them, charm them, so they can be users of your ideas.

It can seem insurmountable that one individual could ever gain much influence. If the host creature, or organization, is large and powerful, what hope could there ever be to redesign how things work? This is how we must imagine the sad male anglerfish feels as he rides along, playing the same small role for all time. But what he can’t know, that you can, are other stories. What he can’t do, that you can, is make new choices. You are free to change your relationship to your organization, to your work and to yourself.

Consider, for example, the abilities of the emerald wasp. It’s a fraction of the size of the creature it needs to influence (a roach). It’s so small it’s not seen as a threat. It’s underestimated, but it has studied well and perfected its skills. Once it finds the right place and time, in an instant it strikes and lets the design of its persuasive chemistry do the work. Soon it has control of the mind of what once was its superior, pulling it gently along, without even a struggle, to do its bidding. Now imagine if our emerald coated friend wasn’t working alone, but had allies with a shared mission? What might be achievable then? In nature, and design, anything is possible.

(Note: American corporations should be better regulated to act more as members of society, and penalized for profiting from behavior that damages the greater good, but this is a systemic issue beyond the scope of design which is why I didn’t address it directly in this essay. I’ve received constructive feedback on this omission and wanted to address it in some fashion. Added 2-6-2021).

(Minor edit: “being honest about where things are”, 20/2021).

Scott Berkun is the author of How Design Makes The World. You can read a related thread on #designethics on twitter.

Thanks to Bryan Zug and Phillip Hunter for draft feedback.

Do you teach with my book? Get in touch for a custom video

Over the years it’s been rewarding to see how many courses use one of my books. I write to teach and it’s great to know I can help teachers do what they do.

If you’re someone who uses one of my books in a class, you should get in touch.

Now and then there are bonus materials I produce for my books (like this Speaking Checklist for Confessions of a Public Speaker). If I know you use my book, I can notify you when this happens.

How to get a video made for your class:

  1. Tell me the name of the class
  2. Include a link to the syllabus if you have one
  3. Name a topic or question you want me to talk about
  4. Get in touch with the above information.

These are fun for me to do and it’s a way I can give something back. I’d like to thank you. These are fun to do and helps me learn and often gives me ideas for new things to write about. I appreciate what you do and honored you’re using something I made.

For example: here’s a recent video I made for Dr. Lisa Gundry at DePaul University for her course on Innovation. A quick lesson on how design and innovation go together, but it’s trickier than it seems.

My answers to the Proust Questionnaire: What Are Yours?

They say the web is decaying all the time and it’s true. When sites redesign they break hundreds or thousands of previously working links. I discovered this fun interview from 2008 by Sara Peyton at O’Reilly Media had disappeared.

I recovered it thanks to the Web archive and reposted it here. It’s based on the Proust questionnaire, a parlor game by the eponymous author. You should give it a try.

12 years is a long time and I need to reconsider my answers to some of these questions, but for now I’ll stand with them as they are.

Scott Berkun Answers Proust’s Questions
By Sara Peyton, June 2008

Having proven his range as a writer, speaker, and now on CNBC’s The Business of Innovation TV show, O’Reilly’s bestselling author Scott Berkun ponders happiness, friends, and other concerns in the O’Reilly Proust Questionnaire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

An evening spent drunk as a loon, looking up at stars, sitting by a bonfire, laughing with friends.

What is your greatest fear?

Waiting to die with a mind full of regrets.

On what occasion do you lie?

This is the first lie I’ve ever told.

What is your favorite journey?

Wherever I’m going next that I haven’t been to before.

Which living person do you most despise?

It’s a tie between Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

My friends would say its mother*****r. But I don’t think this word can be overused.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Mind-reading is hard to beat, but I’d settle for time-travel.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

The willingness to let myself make more mistakes.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

Open their eyes.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?

If a thing, the most perfect object in NYC: The Chrysler Building. Or maybe Central Park (is it cheating to call that one thing? I like to cheat). If a person, I’d like to be me again.

What do your consider your greatest achievement?

Writing every day. Ok, that’s a lie. I don’t write every day. But just trying to write every day is hard enough.

What is your most treasured possession?

My mind. I dont care much for material things. Besides, you never have to worry about someone breaking into your mansion and stealing your mind, you know? It’s the only thing than will always be only yours.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Watching someone innocent suffer for your own carelessness.

What is the quality you most like in a man?


What is the quality you most admire in a woman?

What do you most value in your friends?

Brutal honesty, dark comedy, and trust under fire.

Who are your favorite writers?

George Orwell, Henry Miller, George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Bertrand Russell, Peter Drucker, Loren Eisley, John Gardner, Ray Bradbury, Hubert Selby Jr.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

How can you top Don Quixote? There’s no way.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Don Quixote isn’t real? Are you sure?

How would you like to die?

Drunk as a loon, looking up at stars, sitting by a bonfire, laughing with friends.

What is your motto?

Be amazed by everything.

Sale Today: 50% off paperback edition of How Design Makes The World

You can now get my latest book, How Design Makes The World, for 50% of the paperback price here in the U.S. It’s just $9.99 on Amazon in the U.S.

This deal will last through Friday. The book makes a great gift for anyone curious about design, or who you wish understood how good design actually happens. It’s full of great stories and written for just about anyone.

You can learn more about the book, including reviews, sample chapters, the short film and fun social media images here.