5 things I learned at Design Leadership Camp

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  May 19, 2017
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Student and teacher

A few weeks ago, in the middle of the scenic Colorado desert in the tiny town of Gateway, I was privileged to be in the company of 30 great design leaders from all over the world, at the inaugural Design Leadership Camp. The Camp, produced by the fantastic Bureau of Digital in partnership with InVision, was meant to be a transformational experience for design leaders—an opportunity to connect with peers and discuss shared challenges.

As an aspiring design leader, I came away transformed. The camp was an opportunity for open and honest discussions, to be “equal parts student and teacher” as Heidi Munc from Nationwide observed. As a student, one of the core themes was influence: influencing teams, stakeholders, and cross-functional partners. Each of the 5 design leaders below have their own ways of creating that influence, and here’s what I learned from them.

Speak the language of your stakeholders

Heidi Munc, Nationwide.

Heidi Munc leads a large team of UX designers, front-end developers, researchers, and strategists in her role as associate VP at Nationwide Insurance. Nationwide is a big, established company, and like many insurance companies is only now starting to embrace design, thanks in no small part to Heidi’s leadership.

How has she succeeded in communicating the value of design to other stakeholders and executives, to get the resources she needs to make her teams effective? She speaks the language of her colleagues, and communicates with them in ways that they are familiar with.

“We have to show our value with the same metrics that our stakeholders have.”

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To convey research findings, instead of producing a wordy, dry report that executives won’t read, they produce a printed magazine. The magazine conveys the customer narrative in an engaging, illustrated format: What are the problems the customer faces, and what would it look like if they fix them?

Nationwide executives have been known to carry these magazines with them to meetings and share them with enthusiasm (they get referred to as the “shiny book”). When was the last time you heard of an executive carrying around a research report with pride? Heidi’s technique has obvious power.

Use stories to convey a clear vision

If a fundamental part of design is storytelling, then it should come as no surprise that Nathan Paterson, a research and design lead at Disney Consumer Products & Interactive Labs, leans heavily on storytelling as an internal tool for development, given the DNA of his company.

Related: Improving UX with Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

Walt Disney was one of the first filmmakers to use storyboards as a tool for rapidly prototyping his animated films, and today Nathan and his colleagues use storyboards extensively in their work.

Storyboards cover the walls of their offices, as the clearest way to communicate early ideas to the entire team is to share them and make them visible. Some of these storyboards get turned into pitch decks, concept presentations, and experience maps, as an internal tool for conveying the arc of the customer narrative.

The power of getting everyone on the same page—and avoiding confusion when in the early phases of the design process—is hard to overestimate: everyone from individual contributors to SVPs get a chance to see the vision for the products, and contribute ideas and feedback. Nathan continues Walt Disney’s tradition of storytelling, and every company can benefit from the techniques that Disney pioneered.

Democratize the tools of design

Margaret Lee, Google.

As a former engineer, I’m not surprised an engineering-driven culture like Google could learn to embrace design tools like user research. What does intrigue me is how Margaret Lee, UX Director at the search-engine giant, created a way for their engineers to not only be exposed to user research, but to understand its power and use it enthusiastically.

Under a directive from Marissa Mayer, Head of Product and Engineering at the time, Margaret had the mandate to teach all the engineers at Google Maps user research techniques, and to build empathy towards their users.

In partnership with her research team, Project Pokerface was born: Every engineer was taught the basics of effective user research, and were given 3 hours to interact with their users on the features they were developing.

In the end, engineers came away excited about the challenges the users encountered (one team walked away from the project and fixed 50 bugs). But beyond the practical impacts on the product, the fundamental change for the teams was a better understanding of the user’s perspective, and a way to approach product development with more empathy.

Better teams through design thinking

Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

In my own work teaching product design at Stanford, design thinking is a fundamental part of the curriculum for our undergraduates. I’ve also used the design thinking toolkit at a number of small startups. But what does it take to bring these practices to scale, at a company with thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of employees?

Related: The 7 qualities of design-thinking leaders

Doug Powell should know—as a Distinguished Designer at IBM, part of his mission is to “[infuse] one of the world’s most respected companies with a practice of human-centered design.” IBM has evolved design thinking to address their priorities of scale (teams of 100’s or even 1000’s) and speed.

Design thinking, as IBM practices it, not only helps achieve better business outcomes, but it creates better teams: They work faster and are more aligned. Fundamentally, it is a cross-disciplinary practice—as Doug says, “Design thinking doesn’t work if it’s only practiced by designers.Twitter Logo

“A good leader can be humble and curious, and even show vulnerability.”

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One of the core parts of IBM’s design-thinking practice, and one of the easiest to explain, is the concept of Hills. Hills are “statements of intent written as meaningful user outcomes. They tell you where to go, not how to get there, empowering teams to explore breakthrough ideas without losing sight of the goal.”

If you look at how the concept of Hills links to a more traditional design-thinking framework, it is most closely tied to the “Define” phase, where there is an opportunity to reframe a design challenge in a way that opens up the solution space to innovative approaches.

Hills consist of a who, what, and wow. For example:

It should take no more than 30 minutes (wow) for a developer (who) to build and run an app using IBM and third-party APIs (what).

For those familiar with traditional design-thinking frameworks, Hills share some similarities with Points of View (POVs), but are framed in a way that might be more accessible to, say, a hardware engineer working on the team. Think of it like a mission statement for your cross-disciplinary team: Using Hills to get aligned early in the design process is a potent way to stay on target and get to the finish line faster.

Lead and learn with humility and curiosity

This last learning is less tactical, more human. I had the good fortune to meet Kerry Hebert, Principal UX Designer at Visa, at a conference in New Orleans earlier in the year.

What struck me about Kerry is that, despite her accomplishments, she was humble and open about her own struggles in taking on the mantle of a leader. At the same time, she demonstrated confidence in her insights, and an intense curiosity about the stories that others shared at Camp. We often stereotype leadership as hard-edged and unreflective, but from Kerry I learned that leadership can take on a different form: a good leader can be humble and curious, and even show vulnerability.Twitter Logo

On reflection, these traits of humility and curiosity are something all of the design leaders at the camp shared. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of honing our empathy over the years as designers, but I think this combination is somewhat unique in a leadership role. In a society that is increasingly divided and lacking empathy (on both sides of the divide), this type of leadership could prove to be especially powerful. It may afford us compelling opportunities to have an impact beyond the limits of product design.

By far the most important thing that I took away from Design Leadership Camp were the connections I made—connections with leaders like Kerry who I can continue to learn from, share my own struggles with, and who are excited to explore the future of product design.

I can’t wait until the next Camp.

What’s the best design leadership advice you’ve ever gotten? Tell us on Twitter.

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