Nurturing Design Culture Freakout

Nurturing Design Culture on an Enterprise Product Team

This an adaption of a presentation I did for UX Australia’s Managing Design Conference. The basis of this talk came out of my experience moving from startups and agency culture to enterprise product. When I joined IBM Design as a lead for Bluemix, I observed the beginnings of design culture. What I later learned was that the change we wanted to bring also meant creating friction with existing values and beliefs.

Challenges with design culture in enterprise

Cultural change and conflict

What happens when you inject design into a traditionally developer lead organization? UX design was top of mind for leadership, and our development and product management counterparts understood the value. However, there was no blueprint for how we should all work together.

Struggles with focus and priorities

Designers felt as if they were thrown into the deep end of a developer’s World. We were designing in their sprints, asked to make mockups, workflows, and assets really quickly. However, we did not have a clear idea of the vision, nor did we have time to test out our work. We often ended up making quick hacks that lead to broken experiences.

Burnout and turnover

During the early days of this shift, designers started to experience burnout from running so fast with little focus. The studio lost a lot of talent which affected its ability to grow design culture. As a lead, I felt it was my responsibility to guide new designers to navigate this situation, and find ways to create an environment that will help them do their best work.

Nurturing Design Culture Freakout

Drop designers in chaotic situations and they will freakout and quit.

Hypothesis: Can we attract and retain talent by creating a space that fosters engagement?

Get your house in order first

Before we could build our ideal design environment, we had to put out fires. We had major issues with communication and organization. Our first step was to understand what we could control and what we could influence. After we understood that mindset, we could work bringing order to our team.

Build trust with your developers and product managers

We started with how we interacted with our development team. At first, we had all hands meetings between design and development on the phone to present work. These never went well. The feedback was unfocused, and the recipients would become defensive. No one understood the next steps. What little trust we had within the team or with our development counterparts eroded.

Nurturing Design Culture 1x1

Start with people you can influence. 1×1 with the developer that needs my designs.

I started pulling designers on my squad out of those meetings, and we scheduled one-on-one’s with the development counterparts who needed our work. We then worked out a cadence where we eventually collaborated on most of the design process. It became clear what the developer had to code and what the designer needed to deliver. When it was time for the all team weekly sessions, our work was already vetted.

Create safe environments with your designers

To maintain consistency across the product our designers need to show their work to each other too. We were not doing this regularly. When we did, these meetings also devolved into the same situation we experienced with our developer all hands. Going back to our Design Thinking training, we leveraged feedback techniques where designers can write their thoughts on stickies. This was more efficient for larger teams. The designer could read the feedback and group them for a clear idea of next steps.

Getting better design feedback

Design Feedback sessions IBM Design.

Read more on how to set up a feedback workshop.

Clean up your sprint boards

We moved Agile UX design (https://www.nngroup.com/articles/doing-ux-agile-world/). It did not mean that we would design in the same sprints as our developers. It meant we had to work ahead of them and be explicit in what we could do during our two week sprints. At the end of each sprint, we wrote out the work we believed we needed to work on for next sprint. We reviewed them with our dev team and asked our PM to prioritize.

Nurturing design culture sprintboard

Cleaning up our stories and writing success criteria that everyone can agree on.

Plan our your shared vision

Roadmaps were not new to the organization, but they were not often created with input from all three counterparts of the squad (design, development and product management). After we began delivering reliable work on a regular basis, we built room to plan with our PM and devs. As initiatives evolved, it was important for each of us to review our vision and adjust. This work would then feedback into our epic and story writing where every piece of work needed to reflect the vision we agreed upon.

nurturing design culture roadmap

Building trust and learning to plan the product vision together.

Fostering creativity and design culture

We introduced the idea of innovation chip. This came out of places that offer a percentage of time to work on anything that will help improve one’s skills and/or may have the potential to positively affect the product. This Designers could use ten percent of their time to explore outside of their day-to-day work. The hope was to exercise their creative muscles. How could they become better problem solvers if they did not look beyond the boundaries of the office?

Offer a time and space where people can experiment

To start we blocked off time to work on our innovation chip. Fridays were historically productive dead ends. People left early, and the office quickly fell into a pre-weekend slumber by 2pm.

nurturing design culture empty office

Fridays were the best time to start innovating. No one demands a meeting after 2pm.

Since the space was mostly quiet and no one was expected to hand in any design work, it was a prime time for designers to go off and experiment. We encouraged people to team up with others they did not normally work with. Early one, people searched to learn new skills from others. Later they worked to solve problems the team faced. Eventually, we brought the team together to do a hack-a-thon and focus on bigger problems that impeded our productivity and creativity.

nurturing design culture design and dev

Creating a space where people can work with other teams.

nurturing design culture with a hack-a-thon

Bringing the teams’ creative energy together with a hack-a-thon

Key lessons… so far

I stressed during the talk that we were still learning how to implement this. For the past year, we have been experiment on different techniques and activities to foster creativity and engagement. So far, these were our big takeaways.

engaged teams takes time nurturing design culture

Building engaged teams takes time

start small with creative activities and nurturing design culture

Start with small creative activities. You still have to build trust with this.

Find your circle nurturing design culture

Find your circle of influence. Who can you help to help you make a better design culture.

We were hired for our creativity abilities. Yet, our environment does not always encourage or reward activities that help us exercise this skill. We have to fight for this time everyday, and it is easy to give up. However, there are small things we can do.

Managing Design 2017 Nurturing Design Culture

Doing the tea drawing exercise at Managing Design 2017

Here are the audio and deck from the presentation at Managing Design.

Matt Eng

Product Designer at IBM Design. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as IBM, Alcatel-Lucent, Polycom, Symantec and Pebble. Volunteers with AIGA Austin and teaches at Austin Community College.

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