5 ways to get the most from in-house designers

Over the last two years, we’ve heard from increasing numbers of executives who want to bring interaction design in-house because they’ve realized how critical it is to product success. There are plenty of challenges involved in doing this, including hiring and training the right people. One of the challenges companies may not expect, though, is in deciding how to use those resources once they’ve been found.


1. Determine how you want to work together

To avoid disconnects in the working relationship, it’s important for managers to determine what role they want their designers to play and to be explicit about that expectation at the beginning of a project. Edgar Schein describes three roles for consultants:

Pair of hands

The manager knows exactly what she wants done, how she wants it done, and expects the designer to execute on the plan without a lot of pushback. Many managers are comfortable with this approach because they retain maximum control and it fits the existing hierarchical manager/staff relationship. This approach may be appropriate if the manager has a great deal of expertise and the designer is not very experienced. Using this approach with more experienced designers is not to the manager’s advantage, though, because it doesn’t leverage the designer’s expertise.

Expert

In this case the manager says, "You’re the expert, so go solve the problem and tell me when you’re done." Many seasoned designers prefer to work this way because it’s very efficient and it lets them focus on doing design, rather than communicating about design. This approach can be comfortable for some managers because it doesn’t take much of their time but can be uncomfortable for others because it may feel like an abdication of authority. There is also a risk that the project could go off track because the designer is not taking full advantage of the manager’s expertise.

Collaborator

In the collaborative scenario, the manager and designer negotiate how the project proceeds. Product direction and trade-off decisions are in the hands of the manager, but the designer is free to articulate what he needs to make the project successful and how he’d like to go about accomplishing the work. In addition, the designer is encouraged to point out organizational problems that may stand in the way of success, even if this is not a comfortable topic for the manager. This relationship takes full advantage of each party’s expertise and, in my experience, tends to lead to more successful projects. A collaborative relationship may be uncomfortable for both parties at first because it requires more frequent and open communication than the other approaches, and because it differs from the more hierarchical relationships that prevail in most companies. This approach does tend to be slightly less efficient than the other two but is generally more effective.

2. Start every project with a “contract”

Start each project by negotiating mutually agreeable terms, then writing them down for future reference. This is not to allow for the blame game later on—it’s to ensure clear communication and to establish the collaborative nature of the relationship right from the beginning. Together, you’ll want to define

  • What the designer is supposed to accomplish, in what timeframe, and with what resources
  • What success means for this project, whether it’s a decrease in support costs, a reduction in task time, or just an interface that looks better in the marketing brochures
  • What the manager needs from the designer, such as weekly check-in meetings
  • What the designer needs from the manager, such as a certain turnaround time on decisions or a public declaration of support for the initiative
  • Your plan for solving the problem, so you both feel comfortable that the right issues will be addressed.

3. Provide access to the right people and information

Your designers will need access to everyone who touches the product and every piece of information you have about it. At the beginning, they will need to get perspectives from the development team, sales and marketing, support, and the highest level of management that will directly affect the product (usually at least a VP), as well as face-to-face time with customers and users. At critical checkpoints throughout the project, they will need to present their findings or recommendations directly to the entire group of stakeholders.

4. Be clear about constraints and trade-offs

There’s a saying that you can build your product right, fast, or cheap, but you can only have two of the three. When your design team says it will take two weeks to interview enough users to be certain you’re headed in the right direction, be explicit about whether you’re willing to trade certainty for speed. Be willing to articulate why certain things are constraints and be open to discussing just how firm some of those constraints are.

5. Have the designers report to a top manager

When designers report to the head of engineering or the head of marketing, it can hamper their objectivity and their ability to be a bridge between marketing and development organizations. From the developers, a top manager learns what can be built. From the marketers, he learns what can be sold. The designers provide a third useful perspective, which is what it will take to satisfy users over the long term. Due to the nature of their work, designers often raise trade-off issues (functionality or design versus cost or timeline) that can affect the bottom line. These decisions don’t belong in the hands of any single discipline but rather in the hands of executives who have a broad perspective.

And don’t forget: change takes time!

If you’re struggling with how to integrate this design thing into your org chart, your processes, and your culture, you’re not alone. Bringing a new discipline into the development process is a significant cultural change, and it may take years to accomplish—all the more reason to start now.

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