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Andy: Hello, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about designing and operating at many levels, from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation, to the changes in society in the world. My name is Andy Polaine, a designer, educator, and writer, and currently group director of client evolution at Fjord. The meta-theme this year for the Fjord trends was ‘value’. I was excited to see that InVision, a company whose tools and platform many of our designers use, published their report about the design maturity model.
It’s all about the value of design to business. I caught up with Leah Buley, a veteran of the experience design industry and the author of the book: The User Experience Team of One. She’s Director of InVisions’ Design and Education team and the main author of the report. And Aarron Walter, author of Design for Emotion. Also, a veteran design leader, educator, and Vice President of InVision’s design education team. Leah, Aarron, welcome to Power of Ten.
Aarron: Thanks for having us.
Andy: We’ve got lots to talk about, but first of all, I gave you the little one-line bios, could you tell us a little bit about your background, Leah, and how you got to be where you are now?
I decided to zag left and jumped over to a different kind of role working as an analyst for Forester Research, looking at the design field more broadly and its growing importance in business. Worked there, being an analyst was a fascinating education and then I went independent doing commissioned analysis and design organisation consulting. From there, ended up at InVision, which is this amazing opportunity to fuse those two perspectives. In the design education team, I get to analyse and research and amplify the stories of how design is enabling businesses, but I also bring my own personal perspective as a practitioner in that work, so I feel very close to the community that we’re serving and close to what we’re doing, so it’s been fun.
Andy: Yes, I can imagine. What about you, Aarron? When I first met you, I think you were still at MailChimp.
Aarron: Yes. Likely, I also have kind of a circuitous career path. My background is actually in painting. My undergrad degree and my graduate degree are in painting. In my younger years, all I wanted to do was make art and do creative things. I got to a point where I felt like I had this realisation that at the time it was the late 90s and not the late 1800s when back in the 1800s a painting could change the world. The moment when I had this realisation, it was the web that was changing the world, the way commerce works, the way businesses work, culture, the way we communicate. I naturally found my way into that space and I taught for a number of years.
I taught digital design, I taught things like the history of communication media and perceptual interfacing. That led to writing and I wrote a book. My first book was called: Building Findable Websites, which was a book that I wrote to try to fill a gap for a class that I was teaching. There’s nothing really out there. The same time, I was freelancing and designing and building websites and web applications for clients. Then that book that I mentioned, connected me to Ben Chestnut, who’s the CEO and co-founder of Mail Chimp. I was writing about Mail Chimp and was a customer for a number of years. I said, can I come by and interview you for my book?
He said, yes, well, why don’t you just come work for us and help us start a design team? I ended up doing that and I joined at the very beginning, at the transition when MailChimp used to be the rocket science group, still is the rocket science group secretly. That was an agency. They started to build a product for their clients, so they were making a transition. I spun up the design team there, was given just unprecedented free to explore ideas in the brand and the interface. Grew that and learned a ton.
Then I joined InVision a few years ago. I was talking to Clarke, Clarke Valberg is our CEO here at InVision. He’s a very sharp guy, present, and said, you could squish together that first part of your career that was around teaching and that second part of your career around product design into this new role around design education at InVision. Yes, it’s an opportunity like Leah describes, hard to pass up.
Andy: Yes, I can imagine. I’ve had a similarly circuitous route, but also the same process I think of doing a lot of teaching and also then writing and partly the writing of the service design book really was because I needed a book to teach from and there wasn’t one, so I thought I’d write the book that I wanted to teach from. Since then, I think my role at Fjord client evolution, Fjord evolution does all the internal training and learning experiences for our own Fjordians and quite a lot of Accenture colleagues. Client evolution does this for clients. We were talking before that there’s a growing ask for this in the community. Why do you think that learning is so important inside these organisations?
Aarron: I think for a couple of reasons, anyone who’s been in the agency world or connected to it, there are cycles. Boom and bust cycles of companies they externalise a lot of the work for a period of time, then they decide for cost-saving reasons or organisational reasons, they want to bring that in-house. That cycle just oscillates, and it feels like we’re in one of those bring it in-house cycles right now.
At the same time, we see a lot of digital transformation and Leah can speak to this more, but just generally speaking, a lot of different industries and markets that are feeling the pressure to transform and be more aware of the possibilities of expanding their business into digital spaces, rethinking products and so forth. They’re making those investments. It’s a natural fit that agencies who do this stuff so well and have domain expertise, that they could bring that wisdom to companies, companies where they’re already paying consultants to come in and train their developers how to be agile and execute all of the processes around that. There’s the converse side, like design, like how might design be more operationalised and effective in-house.
Leah: I would add, to deepen the conversation, a little bit about the pressure that digital transformation is creating. I think organisations are seeing a level of disruptive challenge that they really have never seen before and it’s driven by digital and by technology. There was some analysis from InfoSight a little while ago that concluded that the average life of a company on the SNP500 is really shortening. In the 60s, the average life of a company on that index was in the 33 years or something. It’s forecast to be about 12 years by 2027. This indicates that companies are staying at the top of their game for shorter amounts of time.
They’re being unseated by disruptive competitors faster and there’s just more MNA activity as well than ever before. All of this is creating a really volatile marketplace for companies in every industry. On top of that, technology is making is possible for people to break into industries from the side. You might not, a few years ago, have thought that a Google or an Apple would be competitive in an automotive industry, for instance, but technology is making it possible for all kinds of industries to enter into new places.
In that kind of a marketplace, organisations are discovering that they need to understand design and technology better, but they also need to be more nimble and faster and have techniques that enable then to learn in the market, rather than spend a lot of time teeing up a big strategy and making a big bet. The consequence of that is, everybody is needing to learn new skills that they haven’t had before. Skills related to technology and related to design, but also just related to working in a blended cross-functional team in a manner where you can be more connected to your customers and learn faster together. Those are some courses for it.
Andy: Constant learning is crucial as a response to constant change?
Leah: Precisely, yes.
Andy: On that, Design Better is this amazing resource, I know a lot of the designers in Fjord use InVision’s products all the time. You call them books, which is always interesting for me because they’re little micro-science. There’s an obvious marketing angle of why InVision would do design better. Maybe you can describe what it is to start with for everyone. It goes way beyond that. I’m really interested in the why and the how of Design Better.
Leah: Aarron, you probably can answer that one, yes?
Aarron: Yes, sure. The back story is, internally at InVision, we think about, we call it the people, practices, and platform. The platform is the part that I think externally people are pretty clear about that. Invision makes a platform as suite of tools to empower design teams to do their work more efficiently. Then the practices piece, we often say that just because you bought a hammer doesn’t make you a master carpenter. You’ll have to have the wisdom and knowhow to understand how to wield that hammer to great effect, to create something worthwhile. That’s what our team, what Leah and I, our colleagues work on, is trying to understand, package, and convey in an accessible way the practices that empower the best teams to be successful.
We’re in a pretty unique position because we have relationships with so many different design teams. There are many, many thousands of design teams that use our products, and that gives us access to lots of different types of people. Where we can go talk to them, interview them, visit them in person, sometimes we shoot video on-site. We get to have some candid conversations with design leaders about what are the most salient problems and challenges that you face as a team? What are the lessons that you’ve learnt that have helped you make big jumps forward?
We’re trying to collect those stories and give those to the rest of the industry. We just talked about all these different companies entering the digital space, and there’s a steep learning curve, right, this constant learning curve, if we could empower them to make that digital transformation a little bit more smoothly and maybe faster, we empower design as an industry, we help grow that. Clearly, that’s a good thing for a company that makes tools that help design teams do their work best. We think of design better, but just more generally, all of our investments in producing content.
We’ve produced a documentary film. We’ve produced multiple books. We have a workshop series that we’ve taken all over the world. These are significant investments. They’re not investments where there’s immediately we get some return off of that. We are making investments in the design community. One, because it’s something we believe in very deeply. Also, we know that making those investments now opens up opportunity long down the road for the company.
Leah: On the topic of books, in particular, one of the ways we talk about design better specifically inside the team is, we want it to modestly be a source where you can get all the information you need about maybe a particular topic that’s critical to know. The book should tell you from start to finish enough to be pretty comprehensively informed about design system or about design operations, or about design leadership or any of these emergent areas where there’s a lot of knowledge distributed across a lot of places on the internet, but we hope to provide a place where you feel like you’re getting a pretty deep and comprehensive knowledge base in a one-stop shop, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Andy: Now, I’ve realised it’s a fantastic research tool for you as an organisation as well, at getting all of that response back. Obviously, the conversation of getting investment to do design better, it is going to bring up a conversation about, well, what’s the value and return of value, which brings us really nicely onto the new design frontier, or your design maturity model. Now, Leah, you’re them main author behind this, can you tell in case someone, anyone hasn’t seen it already. Can you actually just describe what it is and why you did it?
Leah: Yes, the new design frontier is a report that we developed based on research that we did late last year. The research essentially wanted to dig into, if you could look across a really large batch of companies, across the world, across a variety of industries, can we identify the critical behaviours that are most correlated with design driving business impact? Are there profiles of maturity or stages of maturity that you can derive from understanding those differences in behaviour? What we did is, we ran a study, we got over 2,000 companies to provide information about what design is looking like inside their organisations.
From that, we did pretty rigorous quantitative analysis and found five naturally occurring maturity levels, from low maturity to high maturity. Where maturity means basically design is driving business impact and design is seeing wide adoption across an organisation. The high maturity companies are driving business impact and getting brought adoption with design. The low maturity companies are getting less of both of those things. What we saw in the model, which was really interesting is, across these five levels, there’s some resemblance to pre-existing models that are already out there.
For instance, if you’re familiar with a Danish designer centre, Design Ladder from the early 2000s, where they have design as form, and then at the lower level of maturity. And design as process as a mid-level of maturity, and design as strategy at the highest level of maturity. When we looked into the activities that organisations that get a lot of business benefit are doing, there is some evidence of that kind of progression, but we found some other steps along the way that are new to where we are right now. In the lowest maturity companies, design is really focused on form, but specifically the form of screen design. As they move up in maturity, they focus on design as process but it’s a very constrained idea of process that’s really focused on controlled collaboration and workshop settings or sprint settings.
Then as they move up in maturity, it’s still a process emphasis, but it’s about scaling a function and enabling operational excellence. Then beyond that, actually, there’s a new critical component of maturity that I don’t think we see in previous models, which is, teams that start to understand how to use the test and learn process that’s embedded in design itself, to make better decisions as an organisation. Teams that are running experiments and establishing hypothesises and using data from all of that to say, okay, this is the direction that we need to go in for our customers.
Then at the summit, really, organisations that connect design strategy with business strategy. Those are some of the characteristics that we see as teams move up in maturity, but the really exciting part is, from this analysis, we were also able to say, those high maturity teams, they have a greater correlation with saying design is driving profit, design is driving cost savings, design is driving employee efficiency. Design is driving the creation of design-related IP, like patents, versus lower maturity teams, where really most of them are just saying design is making things more usable, which isn’t bad, but it’s limited.
Andy: Design has been traditionally quite bad at evidencing its value and it’s partly because I think some of the soft metrics around what design does, so that product usability and customer satisfaction. That you can measure that with a number, but there are a lot of the experiential stuff doesn’t boil down always to a neat number, or if it does, the number starts to lose its meaning. It also seems to be, historically, for decades, a thing that design has been not great as an industry of evidencing, but there’s been a few different reports on it more recently. What was interesting, I thought, around the level threes, the architects you call them, is that they’re hitting really high on usability and customer satisfaction and even revenue. The valuation and share price were really low metric on those ones.
Leah: Yes, I think what is really fascinating on those ones is, we see very large design teams in many organisations, numbering in the 100s, with quite a bit of operational excellence, but still a lot of handwringing about how you’re supposed to measure design. I think that’s the last bastion for designers to understand how to really demonstrate and measure their business. The characteristics of a team that knows how to measure, I don’t think it’s that they’ve figured out that magic dashboard of these are the design metrics that make sense.
Organisation by organisation, I think you still find different sets of measures that people key in on, but the really critical behaviour is that there’s a practice and a mindset of measurement, where the outside of an initiative cross-functional team works together and says, okay, what are human-centred measures that we are going to pay attention to, to determine if this is a better experience. Then through that testing process, they actually test them and figure out how things perform.
Then report those numbers out. What it means is, in the end, design has an easier ability to actually demonstrate concrete impact on specific initiatives and because those teams are working in a closer collaborative fashion with product and with engineers and with data scientists, it’s easier for them to get a hold of the numbers to say, the design work we did here also had an impact or at least a relationship to some of the business measures that were measuring here, as well.
Andy: They are also in a faster sense and respond cycle, to use Jeff Gothelf’s term, in those teams or those more advanced teams, they’re getting stuff out there, getting feedback quicker, and being able to react and respond quicker. Partly because they’ve got those systems in place and ways of working in place to do so.
Leah: Yes, exactly.
Andy: Part of what you were just talking about is also businesses perhaps have been measuring the wrong things, or at least what you’re talking about here is actually rethinking the types of metrics that you’re measuring, it’s not just share price and the bottom line, right?
Leah: Yes, and no, I think it’s measuring all of the things that you traditionally have measured, but also within the context of specific initiatives. Going through the process of understanding how you will know if it’s actually been an improved experience from an end-user perspective. Facebook actually has a great model for this, they identify at the outside of an initiative, what’s the real human problem that we think we’re solving? How do we really know it’s a problem? Where’s the data that supports that? Either quantitively or qualitatively. How will we measure that we’ve solved that problem? Then they make sure that they actually do measure it first through small batch tests and then through larger tests and then out in the wild. That question, that fundamental question, like, what’s the human problem? That’s a good design question to start with. That’s the kind of critical behaviour that’s connected to that kind of test and learn cycle.
Andy: Yes, so it’s not just how does this make us more money, there’s an assumption that if you solve some of those things, that the money will flow, presumably.
Leah: Yes, in some cases, the connections are a little closer. If we know that improving the human experience here will mean that people are able to accomplish a task more quickly, then that task may have a relationship to money. It’s not that they’re totally disconnected, but it’s that there’s some discipline in the process to say, what at least from our customers’ perspective is their goal and how do we know that we are actually improving the experience to help them accomplish that goal, as well?
Andy: Aarron, there are a few surprises in here, I think. What were your biggest surprises when the data came in, when the first shaping and insights came in?
Aarron: I think there were a number of surprises. One thing that was fundamental that I found really interesting was just how the tiers of maturity were very clear. After analysing the results of the study. Generally speaking, the ratios, ratios of designers to engineers was something that we had a hunch was a really important thing to measure and watch in companies, to predict whether or not design had a strong culture, a strong voice, had influence on strategy in the business. We’d been doing a fair bit of research, in depth research. Studies of individual companies for a project call the design genome project.
Where we just look at a series of companies who are very design forward in their thinking and break down things like their organisational structure, practices, and various other attributes that might give us some clues as to what leads to their success. Ratios was one of the things that was very interesting, as we mapped that out. A lot of these companies had pretty strong ratios of designers to engineers. It wasn’t like one designer to 70 engineers. Although, we did see a couple that had that. They were mostly outliers. Then in the study, when we looked at it really broadly, a bigger sample size, we see that there’s really just not a lot of correlation between really good ratios of designs to engineers and having strong impact for the business. That was interesting and surprising to me.
Andy: Was your assumption that the lower the ratio it was, or the more even the ratio it was, that the more mature they would be?
Aarron: Exactly, yes. It’s just not the case.
Andy: You’ve also got this funny peak in the middle, right, with the maturity. At the level ones, there’s actually quite a high number of designers, an average number of designers in the org and then it dips and then at level three, it really peaks, it’s really high. Well, it’s really high, it’s at 54 you’ve got the average number here. Then it tails off again, so the higher those companies go in their maturity, the fewer designers they then have. What’s going on there?
Leah: Well, what I would say is, I don’t think it necessarily means that you can’t be mature unless you have a small focused design team. I think design resources are not a bad thing. Right there in the middle, that level three peak I think is really reflective of the fact that that level is about trying to make a large scaled design function. That’s where you see those big teams, those teams of hundreds of people that have dedicated design operations and dedicated design systems teams, and specialised design roles. With all of that scale, comes additional headcount.
That’s very emblematic of the level three archetype. I think broadly that average number, that 12 to 15 or whatever that you see at level 2 and 4 and 5, it’s just a standard for the industry. Then at levels three and level one, there are some of these larger outliers that just tip the average a little bit. The big take away from all of this for me is that there are just a lot of companies that are hiring a lot of designers. At level one, level three are not necessarily calibrating those processes to make sure that they’re driving a lot of business impact. That’s concerning.
I think that there’s a lot of wind at our backs right now, as a design community because business leaders know that they need design to support them in their digital transformations, but they don’t even quite know what it’s supposed to do or how it’s meant to work. They have a sense that if it goes well, it’s going to help them weather a chaotic market. The real concrete benefits that a lot of organisations are at least measuring that they’re getting start and stop at usability and customer satisfaction. The implication here, that just hiring headcount is not enough, you actually need to make sure whatever the team size, it’s setup in a way to actually drive really concrete impact that can be measured, it’s a really critical takeaway.
Andy: Yes. I meant, rewiring the organisation is a really tough thing. I think a lot of our work starts with the customers’ experience piece of work, then there’s this realisation of, in order to deliver that, we’re getting in the way of ourselves all the time. Now, we’re going to have to do an employee experience piece of work. Then there’s another transformation bit because all of the tools and processes are just hindrances all the time. When you’ve been doing your rounds as it were, both in the interviews you’ve been doing and you’re going to visit people and you’re getting all that kind of feedback, what has been some of the toughest challenges in terms of that kind of design meets organisations inertia or organisational structure?
Leah: I think the toughest challenge is also the silver lining, which is the really hard part often is getting design to work more effectively within its own sphere of influence. When we talk about, you’ve got to get the culture right and you have to have the right cultural conditions to do design, that sounds massive and so daunting and it just feels like, how can we ever change our entire culture, let’s give up before we start. What the data seems to indicate, which I think is promising, actually design teams, if they can really focus on calibrating and improving those key working relationships with product management partners and engineering partners and the critical partners that they have to work with day to day to get something out the door.
If those working relationships can have good agreements and processes in place that enable design to really integrate into the digital product development process effectively, those teams can move fast. Regardless of what’s going on more broadly in the culture. I think the exciting news is, start where you are. Examine if you are doing the design process fully and faithfully the way that you learned in design school. If you know that you need to be doing a lot of research but you’re not doing a lot of research, for instance, start there.
That obviously means that you need to work on those key relationships with the critical partners that will enable you or hinder you from doing core research, for instance. Then when you’re doing that research, ensure that it’s following the good generative design process that we all know best and you’re not falling in love with one idea and committing to it, but that you’re actually using the test and learn process to explore a variety of different potential directions. That you’re working with those key partners to understand how you’re going to measure it and finding a way to get that data. Those are the sticking points that we hear a lot of teams talking about. It also shines a light on where they need to focus first in building those relationships.
Andy: Where have you heard examples of teams gaining that permission, because if I’m the other end and I’m the CEO or I’m a head of a major department in a large organisation, I’m going to need some convincing of why I should invest in all of this and you’re now disrupting all of my carefully honed processed and the machine that I’m running?
Aarron: Yes, see, I think this is the catch-22 that I hear from so many designers, it’s like there are some external factors that prevent them from doing the work that they want to do and they feel like, I can’t do great work here because I don’t have executive buy-in or some external thing, but what we see from a number of companies who are successful, they don’t wait for that permission and they don’t wait for investment. They have this DIY mentality. Thinking about how we might develop business acumen and how might we pay attention to what the business needs.
What are some cost centres of the business that design could have an impact on? Then secretly behind the scenes, they’re doing some experimentation, where they create some design work that doesn’t require a ton of engineering help. Trying to use the tools that they have at hand to be able to do something that creates value. Instead of a lot of hand-waving of, hey, design is really important, this is something you should invest in, show, don’t tell. Being able to tie something back to business value.
I think that goes back to the earlier discussion about measuring the impact of design and KPIs. Designers struggling with that. We often feel like in a qualitative field, it’s hard for us to communicate in a quantitative way to our colleagues. One way to get there is to develop that business acumen and work on projects that specifically tie back to value for the business.
Leah: Aarron referenced earlier one of our other projects, design genome, which is a series of deep dive case studies on organisations who have really, for lack of a better word, they’ve advanced their maturity through specific tactics. In that series, there are a lot of really great examples, actually, of companies starting scrappy or adopting techniques that were a little bit DIY. One jumps to mind, there’s an interview with a woman name Abigale Grey, who used to be at a financial services company in North America called North-western Mutual. Has since moved onto Google. Her MO is really like, just start by identifying something that can be fixed that isn’t maybe the most high-profile critical thing to the business, but where there’s an opportunity to make some concrete impact. Learn what the business owner cares most about in that thing, then use the design process to improve it and show those concrete benefits and get whatever metrics you can attached to that.
From there, I think she had an example of redesigning some page where you can switch to digital or stop getting paper statements sent to you or something. They did just a basic design facelift and really drove some concrete business numbers from that. It’s one small example, but that’s the kind of behaviour that we see this scrappy start DIY teams doing, which is like, what’s an area where we really can have impact? What’s an area where it seems like the design process can move a lever that people will pay attention to, from there, that starts to build proof and evidence that the organisation cares about.
I saw this pattern again and again when we were doing analysis of Forester actually. That you start with some small hot-house project, where you can protect it and you can nourish it and you can grow a really great flower. Then you show that flower to the organisation and from there, the executive sponsorship, it typically becomes easier to secure and with the executive sponsorship, then you can actually get the resources that you need to start to scale it as you go.
Andy: That’s a very empowering message, really, because I see a lot of, that term, learned helplessness in teams. Not just design teams but teams who are tasked with customer experience or innovation within large organisations. I think there’s a tendency particularly in-service design to boil the ocean, you see how everything is all connected, and you want to fix it all. Then it just meets resistance after resistance and fails. The idea of just setting the bar low and doing it really well. I call it the umbrella in the rain because it’s the thing that everyone’s laughing at that you’re carrying around and as soon as it rains and you’ve got the umbrella, everyone wants to be your friend. That seems that you have to setup that dynamic a bit in large orgs.
Leah: I love that, the umbrella.
Andy: There was another surprise in this, it’s partly based on my experience, too, which I was quite surprised by the leading industries compared to some that I thought there would be. You even wrote in the report that banking was surprisingly one of the ones that had some of the most room for improvement, which I can see in some areas and obviously, banking is almost split in that way, where there’s the NEO banks who are just going completely mobile and starting from scratch and they’ve got no legacy. Then there are other banks that are really creaking. I was quite surprised that healthcare and pharma were in the higher maturity companies. Partly because their cycles are so slow, such as things like clinical trials and stuff. It really slows down their pipeline. Was that a surprise to you or had you expected any of those?
Leah: Well, I think in the case of healthcare in particular, I think there are a lot of technology-based disruptors who are in that pool. So, people who are really trying to take the opportunity to chip away at what is so inefficient about healthcare. Actually, when we looked at the profiles of those level four and level five companies, there was an emergent archetype that you could start to see, which is a company which identifies an area that’s neglected that has processes that feel like they’re leftover from a bygone era, and then they’re using technology and design to try to move fast and disrupt that space. In the healthcare pool, I’d say there’s a fair representation of those kinds of organisations.
Andy: Now, every good academic knows that a piece of research ends with the need for more research. Having got to where you’ve gotten now, and congratulations on the report, and it looks beautiful. Both online and the PDF. Has it opened up things where you think, “I want to dive deeper into this now”?
Leah: Absolutely. I feel like this… you would know this, you both would know this from writing a book, but when you write a book, you think you’re done, and then the book is published and then all of a sudden, it’s like, now we do all the work to have thoughts about the book and to think more things the book should have said. I feel this is true with the report, as well. Some things that are immediately jumping out. First of all, I think there’s a lot of appetite for more industry specific deep dives, so wanting to know more about what’s going on in healthcare or banking, or professional services.
That’s definitely an area where there’s a lot of interest. I think there’s desire just for more case studies and profiles of companies who have made these journeys. That’s something that we’re going to be looking into. Separately from that, I think this is a really interesting one, we’ve been hearing that it would be great to have the cliff notes version of this in the language of product management, or in the language of engineering. All the same principles but it’s very much from designers for designers. Yet, it touches on a need that broad cross-functional teams have which is to have everybody participate in a healthier human-centred design process to get better products out the door. The signals if that’s healthy or not might look a little bit different if you interpret them in the language of an engineer, but there are still relevant signals. What’s the version of that in another discipline? Those are some things we’re thinking about, as well.
Andy: Yes, well, we talk about design from within and something called living businesses quite a lot, which is meant to be quite a practical approach from the other end, which is, if you’re a business owner, or if you’re a manager, and you’re investing in design, this is how to invest in it. It feels like the flipside to this is something like that too, that you could create.
Leah: Yes, definitely.
Andy: One of the things that InVision does, which an increasing number of companies are doing particularly in the digital space, because it lends itself to as it is. As I understand, you’re completely distributed and a remote working organisation. Are you completely distributed or is there a group of people somewhere?
Aarron: Yes, we’re roughly around 800 employees in I think maybe 21 countries. We also have a number of colleagues who are digital nomads who one week they’re in South Africa, the next week they’re somewhere in Argentina. The week after that, they might be in San Francisco. With this sort of working situation, people can move around and have the freedom to work wherever feels right for them. It’s really not that hard to stay connected and stay productive. At least in my experience. It’s funny to see people in different locations. There are even times where I’ve had calls with colleagues who are sitting on a boat or a colleague who is sitting on the floor in the backseat of a minivan commuting to some place right before a holiday weekend. It’s pretty easy for us to stay connected.
Andy: You’ve obviously got teams of people working together to build both your products and all of the design better materials?
Aarron: That’s right.
Andy: What have you learned from working remotely that you think is applicable to any design teams? Sometimes the difficulties actually show up where there are perhaps invisible difficulties in the face-to-face or in a studio setting. They’re amplified by the remoteness, so they become things you really need to fix.
Aarron: I’d be curious to hear Leah’s perspective on this, but from my side, it feels like they’re the same types of challenges that when a company grows and you’ve got more people, usually, the biggest problems are around communication and just general bandwidth for communicating and getting everyone informed and making sure that people are involved, so you can have effective collaboration. That happens in a remote setting as much as in real life. In my experience, at least.
I experienced a lot of those challenges with communication when everyone was in the same building. I think that one thing about remote, it’s that we know there is that challenge, that we don’t have serendipity built into our work, generally speaking. We can’t just count on bumping into somebody in the hallway and catching up with them and making sure they’re informed. We have to be very intentional about our communication cadence. Communication models. Just bringing people in on a regular basis to make sure they’re informed.
Leah: I would agree with that definitely. I think we think very intentionally about communication. What’s the right structure? Does this thing need to be a meeting, or is this best just spin up a Slack channel around? Or is this a broad newsletter or an email that needs to be shared broadly with a distribution list? Those things get pretty well thought out, I would say. Connected to that, I think what it means to have culture in a remote sense, or in a distributed sense I think is an interesting question because so much of the experience of an organisation is culture.
Sometimes it’s absorbed by being in the space and seeing the symbols of culture that are hung up on the walls and just in the way that people are interacting in their workspace. You realise how the space itself is actually shaping culture. Like, we’re a cubicle culture, or we’re an open-plan culture. In a distributed sense, those symbols aren’t visible and yet, of course, there is a culture. I think you have to be a little bit more thoughtful about what are the symbols that you want to create and put in place to help people feel really connected to each other. We have some interesting things.
There’s a lot that I think our leadership team does to try to really help you feel that you are part of InVision. Ranging from a robust employee handbook, to weekly communications from our leadership team. What is that newsletter called, Aarron? The new one where they just…
Aarron: It’s called the sink.
Leah: The sink. The weekly sink, which is an email from our leadership team, where we get a little thought-provoking message from Clarke and a spotlight on some critical initiative that’s going on. There’s a little section where there’s the shelfy of the week, where employees will take a picture, a selfie of their bookshelf, and share it with the company, just to get a sense of who you are and tips on being effective in a remote productivity sense. A weekly touch point just to feel like we’re having a shared conversation. Those kinds of things are important.
We also do get together once a year, our full company get together, all hands, it’s called IRL, because we get together in real life. The organisation puts a lot of effort into making that a very meaningful experience for everybody. Those things are important. Personally, I would also just say, as a designer, basically, the not being able to get in a room at a wall with other people is real. You feel that sometimes in the process where you’re just like, we’re talking about this thing, man, it would just be good if we could just stand should-to-shoulder. There are a few things we do about that.
One is we actually use a tool called free hand that InVision developed, that it replicates that process as well as it can in a digital sense. We lean on that for a lot of things. It’s a drawing space where we can all be on a shared canvas and we use it to do wireframes, but also sketch out roadmaps and just collect notes. That ends up being very useful for us. Then I actually have a whiteboard in my room, in my officer, I know other colleagues do as well. Sometimes you just have to stand up at your own whiteboard and sketch those things out. Yes, you have to figure out the hacks for that.
Andy: I was going to ask you this to scratch my own itch actually, which is one of the hardest things I find, because I actually work mostly remotely, as well. Although, most of the Fjordians are working in studios, but occasionally when we then spin up a satellite studio somewhere, it’s one or two people and they’re hooking into the network. Synthesis is one of the toughest things I find to try and do when you’re not in a room together and you don’t have that, because part of the process is really about getting everything out of the computer, getting up on the wall and being able to see that hole of everything together and starts of doing that pattern making. I’m really fascinated about your approaches to that.
Aarron: I think that at least for our team, we’re still figuring some of those things out. I think the product teams probably has been at that for a longer time. We just recently ran a remote sprint with team members on both coasts here in North America. I’d say that there were some things that were really successful about it. There was a lot of synthesis, some things that might have been easier and better if we were in person, but generally speaking, just like any sprint, we came into it with a lot of research ahead of time. We could cut to the chase and present it and have conversations.
It was sort of a… we’re all together in Zoom, talking through these things, bringing in other colleagues and stakeholders to get perspective and then taking a break and doing individual work, getting something to eat. Letting things stew a bit and then coming back together. We also tested remotely with real customers, as well. How does synthesis work?
I think that one thing that I have always appreciated abut remote is the possibility of retreat feels a little bit more tangible assessible than when I was in real life in an office, where it felt like my time retreating was harder to do, because there was always someone who could come and interrupt. That was good to a certain degree, but I felt like I worked a couple of days a week at Mail Chimp from home and those were the days I was most production.
Andy: Yes, I’m working from home today because I’ve got lots of work to do, right.
Aarron: Being able to schedule that time together and knowing that you also need blocks of time for deep though work, that’s actually how I have it blocked off on my calendar. Deep thought work time. That that’s a really important part for me to be productive.
Andy: Yes, that thing of having to stew in the data for a bit, as well, I think is really important and quite hard to do if you – again, there are similarities I found between that and writing a book, where at some point, you need to be able to hold the whole thing in your head. If you’re constantly getting distracted, it ruins it and it’s very hard. Leah, you were going to say something.
Leah: Yes, one other thing I would add about the topic of distributed teams is that I find they’re just so much more humane for people with real lives. I say that as a working mom. I have two kids. It’s just the reality that life is extremely busy and messy. InVision, that’s just a fundamental truth that they accept and support and try to enable their employees around. I just recently, the other day, came across a stat that our attrition rate for working moms is four percent, which is phenomenally low.
Andy: That’s incredible.
Aarron: Very low.
Andy: Really, it’s just nice to work for a company that really wants to help you have a great life.
Aarron: It’s not uncommon for us to have these BBC moments, do you remember the guy who did his interview and his two kids came marching in and he tried to play it off. It’s not uncommon for my boys to walk in and be on camera and say hello. I see Leah’s kids on a regular basis, too. This is actually one thing that I think is worth pointing out about remote is, the notion of seeing inside someone’s house, I mean, I’ve worked with people for a decade or more prior to InVision and I felt like I knew the professionally, but I didn’t really know them very well personally.
Part of that can be on me for maybe not making the best effort, but it seems to come very easily with this scenario because I’m always peering into a colleague’s house. I see at Christmas time, the Amazon packages stacking up in the corner, or I don’t know, like getting ready for guests, or just they move around at different points in their house or in their kitchen or on their back porch. Whatever. I really value that. I think that’s an important thing. It makes me feel more of a human connection to colleagues.
Leah: I totally agree.
Andy: That’s true. I didn’t think of that, but it is true. I was on a Skype call with a client the other day and my daughter came over. I was saying, I can’t, not right now. Actually, they said it’s really nice, it made you very human and I think it’s very important.
Leah: To think about what that does for kids too, that seeing what their parents do for a living, that hasn’t happened for like a century. When people were crafts people, they were blacksmiths, or seamstress, or doing a thing with their hands, that once we shift to being knowledge workers, it’s hard for our kids to really see what we do. Therefore, we have that mysterious barrier between us, but for my boys to be able to walk in and hear me talking about design or hear my colleagues. That’s a conversation starter.
Andy: Yes, it’s true isn’t it? I had that very thought the other day, my father was a designer, or still is, he’s an artist really now in retirement, but I remember walking into his studio or his study and seeing – he was a graphic designer, so it was in the days before computers. All the papers, all the trays of letricet. All of that paraphernalia of graphic design. It was very clear what he did for a living. Now, I think our kids just think we watch TV all day.
Aarron: Just talk to people.
Andy: Yes, it seems to be what I do. One last question, what’s the future of all of this? Or at least what’s the future for you at InVision and Better Design and where would you hope this is all going to go as an industry?
Aarron: What a big question. Well, I think the future is, there’s an industry, which perhaps has not been the case in the past, the idea that there is a large need across many companies and many industries for a substantial and well-running design discipline is new. Some organisations are there, and many more organisations have yet to get there, but hopefully we’ll be there along the way, helping educating people on the critical things that they need to do.
When we think about the research and the maturity model, I imagine a growing gap, to be honest, where I think there are a lot of companies that will struggle with a more limited idea of design. Then a subset that will really double down on the data driven design, hypothesis drive design process, and start applying it to more fundamental business strategy questions and they will do quite well.
Leah: Yes, I think generally speaking, I see more businesses becoming a little bit more design literate. Thinking about design the same way that they think about marketing and sales and engineering, as not nice to have but these are essential things to run a business and be successful and achieve the goals that they’ve set forth for themselves. Generally speaking, I think that, and one thing that we learned from the new design frontier study, was the baseline we thought we were going to see was considerably higher.
That things like design systems, that’s a baseline, whereas just a couple of years ago, that was a more advanced conversation. The baseline continues to move up. Design as a practice becomes more sophisticated and I think ultimately for it to be successful, more successful, it needs to extend beyond the borders of the design team. Bringing in data, building relationships with stakeholders in the executive suite and engineers and so forth. Just broader connection and collaboration. Design folded into the fabric of the company.
Andy: What a good way to end. Leah, Aarron, thank you very much, indeed.
Leah: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
Aarron: Thanks for having us.
Andy: Thanks for listening to Power of Ten. If you want to learn more about other shows on the This is HCD network, visit, thisishcd.com, where you’ll find Prod Pod with Adrian Tan, Ethno Pod with Dr. John Curran, and Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion. You’ll also find the transcripts and the links mentioned in the show. You can also sign up to the newsletter or join our Slack channel to connect with other designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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