A “to do” list for integrating design into your organization

The good news: whether it’s thanks to the economy or to the iPhone, more senior executives understand that they need to get some design love. The bad news: Most expect that it will be easy. Most execs who want to integrate design into their organizations (or expand the role of an existing team) ask us for help with training, establishing some best practices, or perhaps developing some design tools. Sooner or later, though, real success with such efforts requires attention to five different areas.

  1. Process
    Figure out how design is going to work in your organization. This can’t be treated as purely a design process problem; you have to consider the product development process overall. How will designers work with product managers, subject matter experts, engineers, and others from early problem definition and concept through shipping product? How will you figure out what users and customers need, and what can differentiate your product or service from others? How will you arrive at one or more good solutions, and how will you ensure that they actually are good? How will you communicate, build consensus, and ensure accountability along the way? And how will this approach differ depending on the scale and type of problem you’re trying to address? While of course I’m a fan of Cooper’s own Goal-Directed Design process and think it’s widely applicable, any process has to be adapted to its environment, whether because you need to comply with FDA regulations or because you’re tweaking the product for every customer. Of course, if you’re in a healthy, learning organization, your process will always be something of a work in progress.
  2. Structure
    Determine not just how design teams are structured, but what comprises an entire project team. Look beyond the project level, too; where does design live in the org chart? How will you ensure that designers have close working relationships with their product teams, but still have an opportunity for design mentoring as well as sharing ideas and skills across multiple projects? What reporting line gives design the necessary authority to champion desirability alongside technical feasibility and market viability? What work will you do in-house, and what will you outsource? How many designers do you need, and do you need generalists, specialists, or both? Do you need to pair designers with business analysts or subject matter experts?
  3. Skills
    Having process and structure without the necessary skills is a bit like sitting down at a table full of dishes without any food. What skills do you need, and how will you obtain them? It’s difficult to start or grow a design team without hiring some talent (especially design leadership) from outside. That said, there are only so many trained designers in the world, so some organizations build part of the team by training product managers or engineers who have the right attitude and aptitude. Even if you hire a group of experienced designers from outside, existing product management and engineering teams will need to learn some new skills to work effectively with them. How will you hire? What training will people need to begin with, and how will you ensure that new hires get the skills they need?
  4. Tools
    Although experienced designers can get away with standardized tools, they’re more efficient if they’re not reinventing the wheel for every project. Less experienced staff often benefit from templates that help ensure they’re thinking through the right aspects of a problem, whether that’s a user interview, a description of design behavior, or a usability test plan. Engineers typically appreciate standardized styleguides and document templates so they get predictable output, too. It’s essential, however, that everyone understands the why of their tools; otherwise, documents and forms become part of a rote checklist and cease to be helpful.
  5. Culture
    If you’ve ever bought a house, you’ve probably heard this little mantra: “Location, location, location!” When it comes to organizations that really put design in the driver’s seat, the chant should be “Culture, culture, culture!” I’ve seen clients with lousy process and average (or no) designers beat the heck out of the competition because they’re focused on delivering quality customer experience from top to bottom. Cultural change is the to-do item that nearly everyone neglects, and it’s the one that will make or break your success with design. What does your organization value? Consider what your hiring, evaluation, and compensation practices say about that. What do executives and managers talk about not just in big company gatherings, but also in day to day interactions? Where does the company invest its resources, and where does it take shortcuts? Developing process, skills, and tools without changing the culture is going to result in incremental improvements at best.

    If you try to change an organization without addressing its culture, you may never get where you’re going.

    Of course, you also need a plan for tackling all five of these areas in a coherent fashion. John Kotter’s Leading Change is a good place to start learning about what it takes to move an organization. Changing an organization is much harder than the toughest product design problem you’ve ever tackled; pixels, unlike people, generally do as they’re told.

Kim Goodwin

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