Understanding the business value design brings to the table might seem challenging for some product design professionals. Finding a way to communicate the value helps ease the process.
Lily Konings, Product Designer at Facebook and mentor at Coaching Through Crisis - RETHINK Program shares her best practices on how designers can immediately get involved in conversations around business strategy and build credibility. She also speaks on how designers can begin introducing themselves to product strategic thinking and learn to speak the business language more effectively.
Can you tell us a bit more about your story and what has helped you develop your strategic thinking?
I have always had a fear of inadequacy, which is heightened by the fact that every aspect of my career now is not what I went to college for. I graduated in 2016 with a Computer Science degree and fully intended to be an engineer for the rest of my life. Although I had an interest in “the arts,” it wasn’t anything to be taken seriously.
But when I signed my first full-time job as an engineer at IBM and enrolled in an experimental program called “Design Bootcamp,” I bumped shoulders with incredibly talented designers and solved problems at the strategic level. This led to a career pivot a mere 8 months into my employment, thanks to a very supportive manager.
Lily's cohort of nearly 80 PMs, designers, and engineers at IBM.
From that decision forward, I’ve expended a lot of energy compensating for my lack of formal training and experience. Any level of success I’ve reached now is owed to an early self-awareness of my strengths and weaknesses.
Because while I may not have been the strongest visual designer, I was a good product thinker. I found engineering to be dissatisfying because I wanted to be involved in strategy. And although many believed me to be a unicorn designer because I could code, it was actually because I could talk business.
I grew my skills with intentionality and built my narrative in the past 4 years as someone whose past lives converged on one thing: solving problems. I used to solve executional problems with engineering, I learned to solve user problems with design, and now I solve design problems with strategy.
What are your top three tactics on how a designer can immediately get involved in conversations around business strategy and build credibility?
The fastest way to get involved in strategy is to ask questions. This can be practiced at 3 distinct moments of the design process.
1. At kickoff, ask why your project became a priority
The answer I usually get to this inquiry is a summary of early findings from user research. But there is always another layer that involves the state of the business, its values, and its immediate needs. Uncover this layer by tracing back how decisions were made and parsing out the uncertainties that may still remain.
Why are we prioritizing this particular customer feedback over some of the other asks or concerns? What is the quantitative data to support this work? How confident are we that we will succeed? How does this work get us closer to the north star vision?
2. At research and planning, ask how your design will tie back to business metrics
Very often, designers will track the progress of their work with improved usability metrics. But in addition to adding user value, effective design also adds business value, which usually surfaces as acquisition, conversion, monetization, or retention rates.
Ask your PM or lead how stakeholders will consider this project to be successful. Push for quantitative answers and directly map your designs to them.
3. At launch, ask what the go-to market strategy is
Although usually coordinated by a mix of product, sales, and marketing teams, the way your design will be delivered to users will reveal a broader perspective on the market and competitive landscape.
Ask how the team plans to launch this project to ensure the best chance of success. Will it be rolled out in multiple phases? What are indicators of early red flags? What are the biggest risks involved? How will we mitigate them?
Quarterly planning sessions at AngelList.
How can designers begin introducing themselves to product strategic thinking and learn how to speak the business language more effectively?
First, understand that your work will always have some impact on the business. This will open a floodgate of questions that should expand what “success metrics” mean to you. You should begin to ask “why” and “how” a lot more because you’re now seeking the bigger picture.
Equip yourself with soft skills and learn to keep poking until you arrive at the same answer your PM would deliver to stakeholders. It may help to go top-down: starting from the company’s annual goal to how your project was conceived. Build a mental map of all the major decisions and turning points that led to your first conversation about this work.
Then ease yourself into new hard skills.
If you don’t know where to begin, look up resources for “Growth Designers,” which is an up-and-coming label earned by those who design specifically for business impact. They will often address the gap between UX design and product management.
Read the books that Product Managers are recommending. Or start off with blogs at companies where product and design already have a successful history of working together, like Intercom and Hubspot. Ultimately, the theory involved will relate to your work, even if the tooling doesn’t.
Finally, learn how to look at data. Your PM might be using a data analytics tool like Amplitude or Heap to keep her finger on the pulse and you should as well. Learn to ask questions from the data you see and form conclusions. Then review with your team and see whether you’ve come to a similar understanding.
What are some best practices for managing up to help build a more trusting cross-functional relationship and position design as a strategic business partner at your company?
Design can often be sidelined by stakeholders because it is perceived as superficial and subjective. The direct opposite of those characteristics are business metrics, which impact company-level objectives and are quantifiable.
Stakeholders will listen to a designer who is able to ground user needs with business metrics. For instance, if you’re redesigning an onboarding form, you should be defending that work with both improved usability as well as higher conversion rates to complete registration.
The best way to begin is by learning from your PM. Their business impact mindset is exactly complimentary to your user impact one. Understand their decision-making process and pour over the same data points that support it.
Soon enough, equip that additional context and expertise in your design decisions and get involved in road mapping and prioritization conversations.
Eventually, these skills will be transferable between different teams and you can up skill your fellow designers by presenting business needs in design critiques and reviews.
As design becomes uniquely adept at making difficult tradeoffs, especially when user and business needs collide, buy-in from leadership will come easier and a relationship built on trust, instead of skepticism, will emerge.