3 ways to empower your design team

4 min read
Helena Seo
  •  Mar 15, 2018
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I’ve worked at a few different organizations in my career, and I’ve noticed a common issue that many design teams face: They don’t feel empowered.

There are a few situations that lead to this concern:

  • Design is considered a service bureau that cranks out pretty mockups for business owners and product managers
  • The design team’s recommendations are neglected or ignored in the decision-making process
  • The design team isn’t invited to the strategic discussions, and it doesn’t influence the product ideation and planning

Empowering the design team is a big challenge that most design leaders still have to take on in many organizations. I’m currently going through the journey of making this possible myself. Empowering the design team requires a grand shift at the cultural level, and it can’t be achieved in one day—or by one mythical leader.

“Empowering the design team requires a grand shift at the cultural level.”

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However, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some progress here at Groupon, where I’ve been leading the consumer UX design team the past five years. In this article, I’d like to share a few principles that have helped our empowerment effort stay on course. Hopefully, this will be useful for design leaders and designers undergoing similar challenges.

Empower means “to give (someone) the authority or power to do something.”

As its definition suggests, empowerment involves two parties—and you can’t simply claim the power without acknowledgment from the other side. So how does the design team earn the power and get a seat at the table?

1. Strengthen the power within

Strengthening power doesn’t mean speaking with a louder voice, becoming more territorial, or playing more aggressively. In fact, if you behave that way, you risk becoming an obnoxious co-worker no one enjoys working with.

“Strengthening power within” means you need to sharpen your intuition and increase your knowledge of what’s going on in the organization.

(A) Understand the bigger picture
To be included in the high-level strategy discussions, we need to first understand the big picture ourselves. This can’t be achieved if designers are only focused on crafting and delivering their own work.

At Groupon, the design team is highly encouraged to attend various forums held by counterparts. These include weekly business reviews where the results of experiments are shared and product spec meetings where every product initiative is discussed. As UX design is a centralized org at Groupon, we often play the role of the holistic lens that helps connect the dots among different orgs.

There are also design reviews twice a week where designers are encouraged to present their work and receive feedback. The review is an informal collaborative session where everyone takes feedback as a gift. These review sessions expose the team to all types of products that are being explored and shipped, and help designers understand how all the puzzle pieces fit together.

(B) Ask “why”
Never jump into execution mode without asking ‘Why?’Twitter Logo This holds especially true for new designers because they feel that it’s not their place to ask this question. The more you focus solely on delivery, the further you will be perceived as an execution shop. In order to become a thought partner, make sure you understand the problem first. Asking why is extremely important because this question defines the problem statement and influences the direction of design exploration.

I also encourage designers to take courage to challenge the business owner or product manager whether this is even a right problem to solve for users.

“In order to become a thought partner, make sure you understand the problem first.”

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During this critical thinking process, the design team naturally has no option but to seek out user feedback and business metrics proactively. At Groupon, we effectively leverage A/B testing data; qualitative and quantitative UX research; customer support call analysis; and App Store feedback. Knowing more data is powerful because data enables designers to make more intelligent decisions and level the playing field in the org.

At Groupon, there have been a few cases where the validity of a product feature was questioned by a designer, and the design team and UX research team validated that the user problem wasn’t actually aligned with the product manager’s hypothesis. Because of this, we were able to stop exploring directions that could have wasted a lot of time and resources.

2. Understand others at the table

If you want a seat at the table, you must first know the other players at the table—you’ve got to think like them, speak their language, and understand their objectives.

(A) Align the goal with others
Design is not a self-expressive fine art.Twitter Logo It’s a problem-solving process involving multiple stakeholders. Make sure you know the product counterparts’ goals and plans so you understand how your work fits into the overall organizational narrative and how it’ll potentially impact business. The more your counterparts feel that your mission is aligned with theirs, the more invites to these strategy discussions you’ll get because they’ll want your support as a strategic thought partner.

(B) Build trustworthy relationships
This may sound like a cliché, but it’s so true. We all work at our best when there’s a sense of trust, support, and respect in place. I feel fortunate to be a part of such a collaborative culture at Groupon across different disciplines from design, product, and engineering. We believe in building success by helping each other succeed. Trust eliminates unnecessary anxiety in the work environmentTwitter Logo, helps reduce office politics, and enables teams to focus on more important things.

“Trust enables teams to focus on more important things.”

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Of course, there’s no better way to build trust than through a solid track record of hard work and successful design output. And this takes time. When your colleagues know that you’ll always go above and beyond with full responsibility and accountability in what you do, you’ve already earned their heart and trust.

Trust-building can be further expedited by your proactive efforts to reach out, just like any other personal relationship. Find opportunities to offer them your help and support rather than only executing what others request from you. Knock on the door first, and learn about what’s on their minds these days.

3. Inviting stakeholders to design

It’s easy for stakeholders to think that design is just about pushing pixels around on the screen. To counteract this, invite them into the design process and help them understand how the design team really works to address and solve problems.

(A) Include your counterparts in design reviews and brainstorming sessions
In the semiweekly design reviews mentioned earlier, we invite not only the designers, researchers, and writers, but also the respective cross-functional teams—including product managers and engineers. These sessions provide opportunities for all stakeholders to listen to the team’s diverse feedback and defend the proposed design solution together. These reviews have been an effective educational tool for outside stakeholders who get to directly see the complexity of the design team’s problem-solving process and learn that design isn’t just about high-fi mockups.

Our UX design team also often facilitates brainstorming summits to solve a focused product area, whether it’s about a new product concept or improving a known UX issue. Usually, each event is scheduled for one to two days, and 12 to 15 stakeholders are invited from cross-functional teams, including design, research, content strategy, product, engineering, business ops, and legal.

These summits are an excellent platform to quickly disambiguate complex user problems and define the MVP as a team. By leading the session, the design team has already taken a major seat at the table. As more stakeholders see the value of running such a summit, its demand has increased over time in our org.

(B) Educate others on design thinking
Amplifying user-centric thinking in the org also helps the status of the UX design team, especially in a heavily metrics-driven commerce company like Groupon where educating customer empathy helps balance business requirement with user needs.

Related: Why you need design thinking and how to put it into practice

Last year, our UX design team facilitated a design thinking workshop at Groupon where cross-functional teams (engineers, product managers, data scientists) were invited to interact with actual Groupon users for two days—the first day for identifying pain points from users and the second day for validating the team’s design concepts. As a result, the participants not only were able to strengthen customer empathy but also felt more connected with the design team. Being in another person’s shoes can be a powerful thing.

Closing thoughts

My journey of building an empowered design org is still very much in progress, but I’m proud of the meaningful shift that the Groupon design team has made over the past years.

I dream of the day when all design orgs are so empowered and invincible that “empowering design” becomes an obsolete expression.

P.S. Thanks for reading! And special thanks to our mighty UX content strategists, Kevin Mendoza and Tae Kim, for kindly lending me professional hands. 

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