The designer’s guide to talking to executives

4 min read
Adam Fry-Pierce,
Kaysie Garza
  •  Nov 14, 2018
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When everyone gets involved in the product design process, it’s harder to balance your creative vision with user needs and stakeholder preferences. Too many compromises could be made where there are too many cooks in the kitchen—but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to involve peers and business leaders in your design process.

When done right, internal partnerships can provide the “secret sauce” to your process to help make a world-class product. Balancing creative inspiration, user needs, stakeholder preferences, and more is something all teams have to contend with. Luckily, some design leaders have figured out how to navigate—and strengthen—the designer-executive relationship.

This topic has been a common theme at InVision’s Design Leadership Forum. The Forum is a community where more than 1,000 design leaders at companies like Adidas, Amazon, Samsung, and Coca-Cola engage in honest conversations about leadership challenges at the top of their organizations, along with opportunities presented to the design community today.

When the group last gathered in person, designer/C-suite relationships were the big theme, starting with getting the C-suite to understand the value of design.

Help the C-suite see the value of design

So, where do you start? Begin by learning how your leadership views design. Do they think design is a differentiator, or do they see it as an internal service provider? Use these discovery conversations to build a business case for your C-suite to show them how design can advance the top and bottom lines.

Show the potential business value of design. Many design leaders suggested creating a weekly or monthly email report for leadership—this can be a small brief on industry data, user research, and an update on what your team is doing to solve user problems.

Rolling the right information up to partners in development and the C-suite can act as a propellant while keeping teams and stakeholders aligned, providing them with measurable information about what’s going on in the industry, what your users are saying about your brand, and what your team is doing to serve your audience.

”Manage up with information to instill confidence, so the C-suite doesn’t question what you’re doing or attack you with buzzwords.”

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Help the C-suite uncover cracks

Beyond sharing research, aim to have candid conversations. It’s important to be direct because design teams often understand challenges and constraints that aren’t immediately visible to executive stakeholders.

Senior leaders in the Forum recommend presenting “the cracks,” or potential issues, in what may otherwise be thought of as a standard launch.

Related: Why creatives and stakeholders need one-on-one time

A method to build consensus

Houshang Livian, the Head of Design at Hortonworks, shared a helpful framework at a recent Design Leadership Forum dinner. He talked aboutNemawashi, which is used to build consensus and foster cross-organizational communication. This word literally translates to “going around the roots”—literally preparing to move a tree from one place to another.

In business, it’s become a way to brief executives (or other stakeholders) on a change before presenting the proposed solution.

“On high profile projects, before a big presentation of design work, we go to each stakeholder individually to gather their feedback. Then in the big meeting, we reflect that feedback in our presentation. And those stakeholders have no objections because they are already on our side. The point is to get their buy-in before we have a key meeting.”

–Houshang Livian

Building high-level business relationships

Even at the best companies in the world, design leaders acknowledge the “clash of cultures” that happens when teams interface with the C-suite. How do you get around this?

In addition to using candid conversations or a process like Nemawashi, you can rely on your storytelling skills to create powerful narratives for executives. Be sure to blend as much data as you can into your stories, as executives are likely to be drawn to key figures in your story.

”When you present any data, tie it back to larger business objectives. Focus on the why, on the business problems.”

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Using data to tell new stories helps push the C-suite to see the value of design thinking across business units—not just on the design team. Communicating in terms of things like adopting and staffing a design system as a way to achieve greater cost savings may resonate more than design-centered arguments.

Read: The secrets to communicating better with stakeholders

Hot tip: Start small! Find a tiny corner of the business where design thinking can create a more profitable business unit. Creating a win with existing resources will help you gain trust—which translates to buy-in. Forum member Abigail Hart Gray shared a success story on this very topic. Check it out in the Northwestern Mutual Design Genome report.

”Always remember to make sure you’re able to justify the business investment in design; find a beautiful way to align the creative side with the business of making money.”

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Partnering with C-level leadership to accelerate change

Many Forum members agree that the best way to catalyze goals is to talk to the C-suite and learn what drives their decisions. Study the KPIs that matter to them and understand their objectives. Then ask, “How will design support this story?”

Related: The secret sauce to getting design buy-in

A few tactical takeaways included:

  1. Take the senior team out of their comfort zone and integrate them into your world. Bring them to the design area, where you’re the subject matter expert and leader. People tend to be more flexible and open to ideas when you can present them in full color, with the proper fonts, in the right environment.
  2. Make conversations a learning opportunity. Whether you have data or not, speak strategically to make your ideas connect to “cracks” you’ve identified.
  3. Focus design presentations on results. It’s easy to dig into the process and focus presentations on what you plan to do, but an executive cares about how that process is going to create a business solution.
  4. Celebrate wins with the C-suite. Once you’ve launched and shipped and tracked end results, make sure you loop your efforts back to that original narrative. Post-launch reports can confirm the value of design in a public way—and you always want to show that your design-led process delivered on its promise.

At the end of the day, though, we’re talking business—and design has to deliver.

Creating winning products is both an art and a science, but it also demands C-suite signoff. By communicating early, using data to justify direction, and incorporating techniques to weave stakeholder feedback in early, you’ll help ensure that every launch meets design and user standards without putting business on the back burner.

Do you know a Head of Design you’d like to nominate for the Design Leadership Forum? We’d love to know about them. Want to grow your own career? Attend one of our workshops on topics like design systems, design sprints, and design leadership.

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