Before you design

I've recently started working at a big tech company. After working exclusively at startups, one of the biggest changes is learning how to breathe at  BigCo. Every day isn't a scramble, but a thoughtful evolution of ideas. The compulsion at startups is to just jump into Sketch or whip out pen and paper, turning thoughts into reality.. But there are things designers need to do before they start designing.  These things are distinctively not design, but they are required when doing design. I want to illustrate  what these things are and how important it is to employ them.

Talking with your coworkers

One thing that always inspires me, and continues to surprise me, is how much my coworkers know. It's been true in every company I've worked for. Therefore, the first thing that a designer should do is talk to people. Talk to the people around you: business people, other designers, engineers, product managers, the marketing team. This should be done on a project basis. Don't be scared to schedule 1:1's. Ask them questions concerning the project. Ask them how they'd approach it. What's important to them. What do they think the biggest pain point is.

Do this because they know a lot. Imagine the things a marketing team knows about the consumers that you don't know. They live in the weeds, tweaking language, trying to speak the same language as the users, trying to understand what makes them tick. To do that, they have to know the users. You should as well, but their perspective is different and can be incredibly impactful. Imagine what the business people know about the market. What are competitors doing that is really innovative or resonating? Where is the market going? Who are the people doing the most compelling work? What is the most impactful thing from a business perspective? Again, they're in the weeds modeling business metrics, understanding the market, and what other people in the industry are doing.

I should also mention customer service agents. It is absolutely critical to talk to them. They're literally talking to your users every day. They know their pains, their moments of happiness, and their thoughts. This should be such a given that I don't even need to mention it.

Don’t be scared to schedule 1:1’s

I've never learned so much as I have by just sitting down asking for thoughts of non-obvious people in the company. So do that. Take notes. Ask follow up questions. Brainstorm ideas together.  If they're working at a startup, they probably like building products almost as much as you. There are much safer bets than startups for business people or marketers places like banks or established brands.

Talking to your coworkers before you even start designing also helps in the consensus building process. It's harder to convince someone after you’ve begun designing than it is to establish alignment beforehand.

Writing things out

I haven't always done this, but I now believe it is a hidden superpower. I originally started doing this by writing PRDs-like documents to be more efficient at communicating with my coworkers at ChooseEnergy. From there it’s  transformed itself into personal documents about any project I'm working with.

The current project I've been working on for the last two months was started with a simple sentence in a document. From there it's grown into a 20-page document that I reference and write in every day. It contains key stakeholders, who will be building the product, the other products in the ecosystem, definitions of keywords, competitors, notes from talking with coworkers, key users, use cases for those key users, feature ideas, questions I need answering, to-do lists, edge cases to consider, specific data/information that needs surfacing, and more.

This document is for myself only. It's that safe place where you can write thoughts down without fear of being criticized. It's ok to make mistakes when you're the only one exposed to the mistake.

You, the designer, have to sell the project.

I also believe that writing out use cases is extremely helpful. Define who the user is, what their problem is, why it  should be solved, what should ideally solve it, and how to solve it. I write these out as a reference as I continue further into the design process. It's good to have a North Star when considering the direction of the product. Compromises happen, regardless of what you do, but you can always rely on the "whys" to keep everything in perspective.

Having a document for other members of your team is also helpful. This is to begin the conversation with others about the project and how you’re thinking of approaching it. Communicate the things you're trying to address, how you're addressing it and the things you still need to figure out. If it's early in the process, be proactive in communicating that this isn't something that is solidified but a starting point from which to learn from. Be realistic and communicate that there are things you don't know and highlight those things. Allow coworkers to discover along with you and invite them into the conversation with their own perspectives and insights.

Rallying around a vision, Consensus Building, and Team Building

These three items aren't necessarily required for every project you work on. Nor should they  be. Some projects come from high and you're expected to just execute. That's fine. I'm a big proponent of pragmatism when it comes to design. In addition, every company is different and has a different way of doing things. This is where culture becomes reality - when the company culture determines how things get built.

Be realistic and communicate that there are things you don't know and highlight those things.

However, there is always an opportunity to create design led projects wherever you are. It just varies in how hard you have to work to see it become a reality. This is why companies value "entrepreneurial employees".  Opportunities that exist from a design perspective will need the support from PMs or engineers. This is where you, the designer, have to sell the project. Then convince them of your vision so that they become a proponent of your vision. Speak their language. Concern yourself with what they find important and make it your priority.

Creating a design-led project rarely works if you just suggest an idea out of the blue. You have to put the work into communicating the vision to make it a reality. Consensus building isn't the ability to magically convince other team members that your idea is flawless and should be executed. Consensus is really about building a narrative and listening to others give feedback on that narrative. If you can have constructive conversations about what should be built, you can more easily get those people giving feedback to be on board. Eat your ego and don't make it your project. Bring people on board and make it their project. If a team member has the same sense of ownership, they will fight for it just as much as you will. This is a very tangible effect of collaboration and it's the stuff dreams are made of.

Collaboration is the stuff dreams are made of.