Leslie Witt is Head of Design for Intuit’s Small Business Design Group, a global team of 180 designers, researchers, developers, and writers whose goal is to make it faster, easier, and just plain better for people to run their businesses.
Keeping this huge team on the same page is all about over-communication, mutual respect, and, of course, phenomenal leadership. Read on for our interview with Leslie as well as photos of her team at work, by Peter Prato.
How is your design team set up at Intuit?
Leslie: Intuit’s Small Business Design Group is our biggest design team, with about 180 designers globally—interaction, visual, as well as qualitative and quantitative researchers, writers, and prototypers.
In terms of our setup, we’re a centralized function. We design end-to-end mobile and web experiences for a variety of products: accounting platforms for self-employed and small businesses, invoicing and payments, payroll, financing, as well as collaboration and practice management tools for accountants. I have leaders with teams that dotted-line into those product groups—allowing collaboration and subject matter expertise to develop at scale, while maintaining a high bar for customer experience.“Want to keep large teams on the same page? Over-communicate.”
We also have a few horizontal functions that amp up critical crafts and help us nail quality and build coherence across our products—things like design systems, prototyping, content, and research.
Sounds like there’s a whole lot going on.
It is a lot.
What’s changed quite a bit for us in the last 2 years is that we’ve really grown globally. About 75% of the team is here in Mountain View with me. But the growth of our company, as well as my team, is really in the geographies that are not right here in the Bay Area. They happen to be in some very lovely cities—I have teams in Toronto, London, Paris, Sao Paolo, Sydney, and Bangalore.
Figuring out how to be a globally connected design org has been a prime focus of our evolution in the last year or so.“InVision is a quality multiplier.”
How do you keep a team of almost 200 people on the same page?
Over-communicating is key. There’s a saying our CEO has that “repetition never ruins the prayer.” And, I’ve definitely become a believer in that tenet. It’s amazing how often you think, “I’ve said that 3 times. I’m going to go ahead and say it in a different way, and again.”
The amplification that comes through being on message, being able to create a shareable and inspiring narrative, and get people bought in and hyped, becomes that much more paramount when they’re not directly next to you.
How does your design team use InVision?“InVision drives greater exploration, efficiency, and visibility.”
InVision makes rapid prototyping that much simpler—we use it to gather both internal input as well as customer feedback, and to be able to prototype without having to commit engineering resources to do so. It’s a quality multiplier, and it drives greater exploration, efficiency, and visibility.
I mentioned earlier that we’ve grown to become a global design org and none of us want to spend all of our time in meetings, so being able to share an InVision prototype and circulate that for everyone to see and to comment on is a massive multiplier to what we’re able to do quickly and with confidence.
What are your design meetings typically like?
We call our big weekly review meeting “On Demand.” At this meeting, we go as a kind of servant leadership crew to each team’s “home” and have them pick something they’re working on to share with us for both visibility and feedback.
It’s similar to traditional design reviews, but we’ve found that the simple symbolism of “us going to them” versus “us sitting there as jury and judge” shifts the overall attitude and gives the team the clear sense they own the decisions and we’re simply providing input for their consideration, not for approval.“InVision makes rapid prototyping that much simpler.”
On Demand takes about 6 hours, and at the end we are put on the spot—my leadership team hosts a 45-minute “Lightning Round,” a summary where they’re on the spot to present “back” what they’ve seen and learned.
This part is all about creating a snapshot of what we’ve gleaned from having the privilege of end-to-end visibility—it’s for both the design team proper, as well as our partners in marketing, engineering, and product management so they benefit from shared vision and help us resolve questions, problems, and seize opportunities together.
What’s the best way to give feedback without crushing someone’s soul?
Don’t undervalue the power of a smile. I know that might seem ridiculously tactical, but tone matters immensely and if people feel you’re on their side and that you’re invested in them—which can come through body language, through just literally seeing the enthusiasm on your face—they’re much more open to considering the feedback.
That allows you to oscillate between inquiry, where you’re asking questions, to more declarative feedback. If you’re trying to make a point and you’re just guiding the horse to water through questions, people can tell.“People are more receptive to feedback when they feel you’re on their side.”
If you have something to say very explicitly in terms of guidance and feedback, just say it. But say it with a spirit of helpfulness and investment.
Designers, as much as they might be a little bit soul-wounded in the moment, are so happy to know that as the leader you’re invested in their growth and in holding a high bar for customer empathy, strategic thinking, and quality. As long as you aren’t targeting someone and instead holding a consistently high bar, they actually kind of love it.
Building a team is a design project. Do you have any advice for managers who want to build great design teams?
I was trained as an architect, and after about a decade of both studying and practicing architecture, I joined innovation and design firm IDEO and worked there for about 10 years, originally with a group they called Smart Space.
The way we approached “space being smart” and influenced organizational culture through it, was to think about a very broad arsenal with which to design community and interactions: developing roles, rules (both informal and formal), tools, and space, and to think about the opportunity that exists at the intersection of all of those mechanisms deployed together.
We’d often be asked by companies to come in and “build IDEO” inside their own org. No process or place will do that independently—our goal was to create the conditions that allow for creative exploration and innovation.
I share this story as I take that core way of thinking with me today—to always push for a broad-based understanding of what “designable dimensions” may be at your disposal. When it comes to building a team and an org—it’s not all org chart, although structure is part of it. But what else? What roles are missing in your community that would allow excellence and innovation to unfold at scale? Where can you rely on a set of tools—both off-the-shelf and internally created—to prime the pump of behavior change? What cultural norms are you building and how?
As a former architect, I think space is invaluable. It’s potential energy, or it can be the opposite of that. You’ve got to figure out how the space you have your team in can facilitate collaboration and sharing. The right workspace will energize a team.
What do you think is the one skill that’s undervalued in the designer’s tool kit?
It’s not unique to the designer’s toolkit per se, but one of the things I orient my design managers to look for in a candidate is their optimism and energy. I’ve found you can often check the box on craft and capability, and even on strategic thinking.
So, housing those attributes within the right frame—can we create a process that gets us to an answer about their energy, about their abilities to persevere, inspire, and infect others with their ideas and enthusiasm?“Designers should be passionate about the purpose we’re here to tackle.”
Accomplishing that evaluation at various levels of experience is difficult, but what I’m always tuned to look for is zeal and passion for the purpose we’re here to tackle. Is there an optimism that’s pervasive? An optimism about the role of design, an optimism about the ability to influence organization, the ability to deliver real impact for our customers—and can you feel that energy brimming within the person?
Because when that happens, it’s pretty electrifying for the overall group.
What’s your advice for women in tech who are aspiring to grow into leadership positions?
Pick the environment you’re working within wisely, and take a look at the way voices are either heard or suppressed within that group.
Here at Intuit, there’s an active effort and a visible dialogue around supporting women in tech. There is deep investment in having diversity from all across the ranks up into the leadership staff. It’s a communal endeavor.
I’m reminded of a conversation with a former boss at IDEO, Chris Flink, who now runs the Exploratorium—really smart, savvy, and just a generous dude. He and I were discussing careers, and I can’t remember what context it surfaced within, but I was talking about how I wanted to prove that I could do “this”—design, innovation—even in the worst of environments.
And he said, “Why would you do that to yourself? Even if the answer is ‘yes,’ life is short. It doesn’t actually have to be that hard.”
I’ve taken that guidance pretty seriously as I’ve made choices in the last few years. You want to be able to have maximum impact and maximum joy, and finding the “friendlies” is a great way to be able to do that, to grow your influence and help others rise with you.
Can you share any red flags that women should look out for during the interview process?
If you can consistently tell that the person who will be your manager is not actually listening to you. I think we’ve all experienced that. If this person isn’t actively listening to you at an interview, odds are pretty good he or she won’t suddenly change once you’re in their house.
Also, take a look at who’s actually on the leadership bench. That’s not to say that you can’t be the first person to break the glass ceiling, but if there’s very little evidence of support for diversity at the top, take that as a cautionary indicator.
“If there’s very little evidence of support for diversity at the top, take that as a cautionary indicator.”
I think about the fact that at Intuit, in the US, women represent 42% of our workforce, holding 31% of the technical jobs, 50% of the non-technical roles, and 40% of our most senior roles on our CEO’s staff. That was a big lure for me—that it isn’t a place where women are just in “design leadership,” but where women are in leadership roles across the company.
My engineering partner, our SVP of Engineering, is female—a totally kick-ass woman, Marianna Tessel, who used to be in the Israeli army. You want to surround yourself with people who are like-minded, and there can be many men who are like-minded in that pursuit.
But trust your eyes and heart—you’ll be able to feel that and see it evidenced in terms of who’s around you.
Want to join the design team at Intuit? Check out their open positions here.“Figure out how your workspace can facilitate collaboration and sharing.”