Become a design leader in your organisation

Something I’ve done a lot of thinking about over the last couple of years as our agency has grown is how to help others along the path to leadership.

Like other digital agencies, in order to evolve with the times and speak the user experience ‘vernacular’  Surface Digital has found itself needing to repackage what it’s always done into a set of recognisable UX disciplines. We’ve seen new roles emerge requiring the development of new skills in some instances, and minor tweaks to old roles in others but one of the most interesting things that I have observed is that all of a sudden, it seems, there is a requirement for everyone involved in digital design to become ‘design facilitators’.

There have been many good things already written about the value of design thinking and the role of design facilitation in achieving better user experiences. One of my favourites being Jason Furnell’s description of the ‘design glass ceiling’ and the ‘hated design princess’, in which he points out that visual designers who are great at making things look good but who perhaps aren’t much good at anything else, tend to find that the level of complexity of the problems that they get assigned eventually become limited. They in a sense become overlooked and isolated from the rest of the project team when the big problem solving conversations go down.

So how does a designer (or anyone involved in the design of digital services) working in an organisation – where all the big interaction design decisions are being made by everyone else – work their way back into the conversation and influence both their and their organisation’s destiny?

My advice is to avoid jumping straight into design facilitation. If you’ve never really facilitated collaborative design workshops before, take it from me, they are a lot harder to do well than you might think.

Effective design facilitation, is as much about leadership as it is about creativity. Effective design facilitators, like effective leaders, know ‘when’ to get the team together. They also understand that everyone’s time is precious, and that if a bunch of busy people are going to make time to get together and collaborate, it better be worth their while.

Too often collaboration can become a way of delegating problem solving to ‘the group’. Good facilitators, like good leaders, know how to roll up the sleeves and work through the problem in isolation before going to the team. And for good reason. If nobody brings any thinking to a collaborative effort, there’s a good chance that a fair amount of time and energy will be wasted on the most obvious, and often the weakest, ideas first. If your trying to kick start and be more involved in a more collaborative design process in your business, this is a sure fire way to turn people off.

On the other hand, if the facilitator comes to the session and briefs the group by sharing what they have already figured out, and showing sketches and prototypes of some of their early ideas, the facilitator demonstrates that they are leading the problem solving effort. With the obvious and lame ideas out of the way, the facilitator is able to lead the group to think more creatively and its more likely that opportunities to make the experience really awesome for its users might emerge.

Ya really gotta crawl before ya can walk. So if your a designer that want to take the next step and become a design facilitator, or even go one better and become a ‘high impact design thinker’ as Jason Furnell suggests, my advice is to first focus on developing your own user experience practice. Drawing on your existing creative skills to increase the visibility of the design process where you work. Practice solving UI design problems by sketching, create low fi prototypes and design sketch boards and discuss the ideas behind them openly and visibly with others. ‘Show’ your organisation what an effective design process looks like. You’ll be honing your UX chops and gaining confidence talking about your ideas at the same time, so that when you do get an opportunity to facilitate a collaborative design workshop, you’ll come across more like a design leader than a workshop facilitator.




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