Q&A with Nick Cochran, Design Practices Lead at ExxonMobil

two chairs set up for interview conversation

Nick Cochran, the Design Practices Lead at ExxonMobil, spoke at Agile India 2018, co-hosted by Designit and Cooper in Bangalore, India, March 7th, 2018. Nick has been designing websites and applications since the early days of the web. After working as a developer for several years at ExxonMobil, he realized his passion for crafting great experiences had a home and a future in the world of design. In 2015, he turned this passion for design into a role as head of the fledgling User Centered Design team. Less than 3 years later, the UCD mindset and practices have permeated the culture of the IT division, and the principles of design thinking and human-centered problem solving are making significant inroads into all major business units. He now has his sights on an even larger goal: teaching people the proper way to pronounce GIF. Nick currently resides in Spring, TX with his incredible wife and their three delightful children.

Nick presented Better Experiences & Faster Development with an Enterprise Design System with an Enterprise Design System at Agile India 2018. Click here for conference details.

Q: How did you find design?

A. I came to Design in the mid-90s as an early practitioner of web design. I found designing useful and intuitive web applications to be so enjoyable that I began freelancing while still in school.

Q: Describe your role.

A. I just moved into a new role in October that I would describe as leader of design practices for the organization. I lead a small team with a mission to make design’s value clear (evangelism and education), make design work in ExxonMobil (practices and process), and make designers more impactful (tools, careers, and community). Our customers are those people in the company practicing design, either as their full-time gig or as someone aspiring to incorporate design thinking behaviors into their existing work. This also includes elements of “Design Ops” such as managing our internal design systems.

Q: How do you and your colleagues generate creative ideas?

A. We practice what we preach — Design Thinking. We learn about people’s needs and goals through research. Armed with empathy and insight, we explore for ideas inclusively using simple techniques like brain writing and constraint-driven ideation. We iterate on concepts with user feedback through sketches and prototypes. We rely heavily on critique, because we often see our ideas improved by sharing and being open to the questions and insights of others. And we aren’t afraid to challenge familiar first ideas.

Q: How do you encourage collaboration between teams?

A. We have weekly design critiques in our design team. This was challenging to get started at first, but has been incredibly valuable to increase collaboration and improve designs. When it comes to distributed design teams, we facilitate a global design community in the company with regular face-to-face and virtual events. With regard to design and development teams, we encourage collaboration by including developers on research trips and by co-locating designers and developers. Finally we have seen that creating and adopting an enterprise design system built in code has helped with communication and understanding between designers and developers.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders attempting to create an innovative workspace?

A. Always be learning. Experiment openly. Celebrate the successes of others. Give people problems to solve, not solutions to implement.

Q: How do you see the design business evolving over the next years?

A. We’ll probably all still be debating job titles and how to pronounce “GIF” properly. Just kidding! With the emergence of Design Thinking as a more general set of tools for problem-solving being embraced throughout companies, I expect traditional craft designers to have more of a facilitation role than in the past. I think the holistic, end-to-end work of service design will also grow in prominence. Finally, designers will have a huge task of helping to define the new design paradigms and interaction patterns for emerging technologies like IoT, AI, machine learning, and AR/VR.

Q: Tell us about your talk/workshop.

A. My talk is about our experience introducing an enterprise design system in ExxonMobil. We learned a lot in the last 18 months, both what works and what to avoid. It’s been really rewarding to see the positive impacts in our design and development processes. I’m looking forward to sharing our journey and some of the insights gained along the way.

Q: What types of Agile processes have you implemented before?

A. Our design teams have experimented with both Scrum and Kanban processes. Much of our IT organization is still relatively new to the Agile Mindset, so we haven’t gotten everyone aligned yet. But we are learning a lot and iterating on our approach constantly. It will be important for my team to be proactive in helping to show the broader organization how design and Agile work together.

Q: What is your idea of an Agile mindset in the context of UX Design?

A. Collaborate. Be transparent. Bring developers and stakeholders in to participate in user research.

Q: How have you evolved the Agile process in your department? How does it impact your engagement with development teams?

A. As I mentioned earlier, we have experimented with Scrum and Kanban. We are constantly iterating and refining our approach. No project yet has been perfect! But by having honest discussion in regular retrospectives, we can learn and improve.

Q: How can one utilize the Design Thinking approach in an Agile environment?

A. We’ve seen many different ways that design thinking can be utilized in Agile environments. In some cases, we have seen a generative, strategic design thinking engagement produce a vision that guides a program of Agile software development activities. In other cases, we see designers deeply embedded in Agile teams, helping to drive an approach based on human-centered design. In these projects, we typically see some generative user research and conceptual design preceding the start of Agile development (similar to a sprint 0) and ongoing design participation in sprints throughout development. Generally speaking, there are numerous design thinking behaviors (e.g. asking why, framing the problem, seeking empathy, building on ideas, including diverse perspectives, giving/receiving critique, and experimenting) that can be applied to all anyone’s work. It will be important to continue to show how design thinking is not only compatible, but complementary with an Agile mindset — both emphasize experimentation, iteration, and learning, for example.

Q: What is the hardest part about being a leader?

A. For me the hardest part is knowing when to be dogmatic and when to be pragmatic. Sometimes you need to stand up and fight for better design choices, but you don’t want to be known as an unreasonable design leader. Finding the balance between partnership and advocacy is tricky. And making a miscalculation on when it’s okay to compromise can discourage your design team or damage product quality.

Q: What is your favorite part?

A. Working with amazing people! I truly consider it a joy to work with such talented, passionate designers. I have learned so much from them and am constantly challenged and inspired.

Q: What advice do you have for young people?

A. Always be learning. Talk to people outside your company’s walls — you’ll build valuable connections and you’ll learn a ton in the process. Invest in your storytelling skills.  Don’t focus on titles or promotions; focus on finding great people to work with and delivering great experiences together.

Nicholas Cochran

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