Are you looking to ship the next successful product? Or wondering why years of investment in your current product eventually started feeling like a death march? Are you wondering what you missed, and where things went wrong?

Perhaps what you missed was a balance between the three parts of a great product: the business, the technology, and the experience. A successful product should have 3 main inputs: a business leader, a technology leader, and a design leader, working together from day 1 as peers, otherwise you will may end up with a substandard product.

Certainly, there have been products that are so amazingly advanced that one of more of the triad could drive the whole process, but those are rare. Typically, the success of a product lies at the intersection of these three perspectives. We call this the BXT (Business, eXperience, Technology) approach to product development.

In my experience, it’s a myth to say that a product should be design-led — meaning design leads and everyone follows. Every aspect of product design is a compromise. Great products happen when you have great people working to make the best compromises. No discipline can work in a vacuum.

In a team with strong business and technology leaders, design leadership is frequently the missing piece that can make or break a product’s success. But only putting a design leader in place is not enough. You need the right leader, infusing the business with the right approaches and mindset.

What are the right approaches and mindset? Below are 4 activities a strong design leader personifies that are paramount to the success of a product.

 

1. Share an understanding across the company of who you are designing for

A product is always built to serve customers. If no customers buy your product, you lose. End of story.

A good design leader implements a practice that is user-centered from start to finish, and can infuse the company with a unique competitive edge with problem solving skills that are empathetic at the core.

In the age where customer delight has become a key competitive edge, customer empathy can make or break your business. This is what has allowed companies like AirBnB or Apple to make a grab of a larger portion of the market share. A strong design leader shares an understanding of who you are designing for across the company, illuminating their needs, wants, and pain points, so the entire team gets a shared set of priorities.

It then becomes no longer about someone’s opinion of what should be done, but about what is the right thing to do to better serve the customers. The customer becomes the highest authority. He is the arbitrator of the decisions the team needs to make.

We once designed a product for one of our clients, Dezignable, that allowed interior designers to digitally create design proposals and submit them to their clients for approval. The business and technology teams thought that design proposals could be a simple page of photos showing different products: a sofa, a carpet, a side table. They felt that merely having the photos would check-off the main requirement of having all products as part of the proposal. Our research on how interior designers design, and how clients consume design proposals said otherwise: both designers and clients wanted to see products in a layout that closely represented the space where these products would live. This helps designers create better proposals and helps clients better imagine the proposal in their space, leading to more sales. Thanks to the understanding of who we were designing for, the design decision became obvious. This did require some additional development work, but turned into an essential feature for the success of the business, so it was worth the compromise of the additional development effort.

A design leader, working together with their business and technology peers, defines what’s the best alignment between what customers need and what the company has to offer. No wonder that Thomas J. Watson said way back in the day that “good design is good business“. It still is and always will be, as long as we are building products for people.

 

2. Shape a product vision

A product roadmap guides team milestones, and shows a team what to build and when. However, It doesn’t show why we are building a product. The best product teams do not merely follow a process, but march towards a shared  vision of the future that answers the question “Why are we building this?”

A great design leader can also inspire teams to work for a cause, instead of only a to-do list. If you get an engineer to experience the customer situation, you help them learn empathy, and you no longer have someone who comes to work only for a paycheck. You have a team of passionate individuals who care, and the best products are built by teams who deeply care about the people who they are serving.

The fundamental job of design is to chart a path to the future. Design helps us know the “next possible”, the world as it could be.

A design leader puts in place a user-centered process that provides a mechanism for exploring, evaluating, and shaping the future. This process provides the necessary tools for a design team to design an innovative product while allowing the entire company to a share and evolve the vision. Such vision allows a product to grow in an purposeful manner, instead of organically and reactively. A product vision is essential for making good product decisions. The vision becomes a litmus test for requirements. When in doubt, the team can always ask “Does this decision bring us closer or further from the vision?” This allows the whole team to become more proactive, quickly dismissing requirements that might not align with the vision.

A strong vision can be communicated in many ways, but it is usually done in the form of a story — a story of how the product helps its customers. As humans we are predisposed to be moved by stories, and stories paint a picture that can motivate a team to doggedly work towards a shared vision.

Melissa Quintanilha discusses storyboards at Microsoft Automotive
The team at Microsoft Automotive used storyboards to communicate the vision of the product (Photo credit: MARK MALIJAN PHOTOGRAPHY)

 

3. Infuse design thinking into the business

A design leader understands that it is less about them, and more about the business, the customer, and what we are setting out to do for the world.

Design is not just a profession or a department, it’s a mindset.

At the end of the day, a leader needs to focus on building the organization’s capabilities so that the organization can also think like a designer. Design thinking is simply a tool, not owned by design, but something to be used across functions to help promote that much needed multidisciplinary problem-solving. Design thinking and creativity are skills too precious to only live within the design organization. It’s the role of a design leader, to bring that mindset to their peers.

 

4. Orchestrate the design team to work as a cohesive whole

Finally, a design leader needs to not only infuse a culture of design across the organization, but also make sure they are running a synchronized team so it works as a cohesive whole. Design leaders make sure their teams are more than the sum of their parts. You can have a clear definition of who your product is for, a shared vision, and a culture of design thinking throughout the business, but if the design team is not working as a unit with strong leadership, the whole business can fall apart.

It is the job of a strong leader to assign clear responsibilities and to balance roles, so that team members are all in sync. A good leader is also able to provide tactical and strategic feedback, so that the team can move forward in the right direction.

One of the designers we mentor was once in a team where each designer was trying to design the product’s main concept, without clearly defined roles, a defined process, or clear actionable feedback from the leader. The designers kept spinning in circles, with no clear direction that would allow them to make progress. Multiple frameworks appeared only to be left by the roadside as new directions were proposed on almost a weekly basis. The product ended up failing because the leader did not collaboratively problem-solve with the team nor provide clear direction or mindful critiques.


In summary, a strong design leader is essential to a product’s success. They can shape a vision and an understanding of the customer that will guide an entire team. This customer focus can drive decisions while keeping the team inspired, and inspired teams create innovative products that customers rave about. And there’s nothing better for a brand when the customers themselves are the ones doing the advertising.

Now I would love to hear from you. What are some key take-aways from this post that you can start implementing in your business today? Have you experienced a strong design leader before? What did they do differently that contributed to a product’s success?

 


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