Providing Value Beyond Visual Design

There is a Slack team for designers in the Raleigh/Durham area that I participate in and last week one of the members asked a really interesting question to our general chat channel. This person asked:

“What do you know as an experienced designer that you really wish you could have told yourself when you were just starting out?”

I’m not sure I qualify as an experienced designer but this is how I responded to the question:

“I wish I learned earlier on in my career how to provided value to the people and organizations I worked with beyond visual design.”

The first couple years as a designer I was hyper focused on visual design. I spent all my time learning how to edit images, create icons, design interfaces, etc. This is how I thought I could provide the most value as a designer, but there were a lot of other things I could of been doing that I just didn’t know about or thought I didn’t have the ability to do. I’d like to share some examples of how I’ve provided value to people and organizations beyond visual design so that you can look for similar opportunities, regardless of where you are in your career.

Setting and Sharing Operational Goals

I always set and share operational goals for myself. These are my weekly or monthly goals that determine my design deliverables. I include the problem my work aims to solve, who I’m trying to solve the problem for, how much time I will spend on the work, and what form I will deliver it in.

This is what one of my weekly operational goals looks like. I share these goals with other designers and product team members during standup and check in meetings.

People currently do not have a way to create new accounts without being invited to the app. I will design a new account creation flow and present it as an interactive prototype to the product team during next week’s check in.

Setting and sharing operational goals is important to the people I work with because the goals set clear expectations for what I commit to deliver and when I will deliver it. The visual design work I do becomes far less valuable if my co-workers don’t know what to expect from me.

Contribution to Design Process

Operational goals are important, but getting work done isn’t the only way you bring value to an organization as a designer. The way in which we work has a large influence on the quality of work we produce and how efficiently we produce it. Some of the most valuable work I’ve done has come in the form of contributions to process. Here is an example of one of those contributions.

Most of the product teams I’ve worked with conduct sprint retrospectives to acknowledge where the product development process is working and how it can be improved. A sprint retro consist of questions like these.

  • What went well in the Sprint?
  • What could be improved in the Sprint?
  • What will we commit to improve in the next Sprint?

Last year I started conducting quarterly design team retrospectives with the team I was managing. This gave us a way to evaluate the work we were doing as a design team in the same way our product teams evaluated the work they did in a sprint. We adjusted the questions to fit our needs and it worked well for us. These are the type of questions we asked.

  • What have we been doing well as a design team?
  • Where could we improve as designers?
  • Where could we improve our design process?
  • What should we start doing that we currently aren’t?

Asking these questions and having open discussions around the answers helped us identify areas in which we needed to improve and made us commit to making those improvements by the time we held our next retro. You don’t need to be the person who introduces a process to help shape the way your organization works. Any contribution you make that helps define a process, no matter how big or small, is valuable.

Creating Inclusive Design Culture

Getting other people involved with design is a great way to show that you care about and can make a positive impact on company culture. Here are some quick and relatively easy ways I’ve been trying to include people who aren’t “designers” in my work and make design more inclusive.

I always try to have developers in the room when conducting usability tests because their work has as much of an impact on a user’s experience as my work. When a developer sees someone using, and often struggling to use the product they built, they not only feel included in design process but also gain a sense of responsibility for the overall user experience of the product.

When I’m in the early stages of a design and conducting something like a Design Studio I include people who are not part of the design team. This is a great way to make product defining design decisions more inclusive to everyone because discovery methods are extremely approachable and don’t require people to learn software in order to participate.

I find it shockingly easy to get stuck in feedback loops that only involve other designers. I’m guilty of this behavior and it’s hard to break out of it. Lately I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to show people outside of the design team what I’m working on and listen to their feedback. One of the quickest ways to make design non-inclusive is to disregard someone’s feedback simply because they aren’t a “designer”, but if you listen to everyone’s feedback with equal respect you’ll gather more diverse viewpoints on the work you are doing which in the long run will help your organization create better products.

Closing Thoughts

I’m sharing these examples with you because they are all things I wish I started doing earlier on in my career. If you have any questions about the examples I shared please let me know and if you have your own ways in which you provided value to the people and organizations you work with beyond visual design please share them, I’d love to read about it!

I talked about inclusive design and getting everyone you work with involved in design processes. I think this is an extremely important issue and one of the biggest blockers our industry faces when it comes to designing great products. If you find yourself or your organization treating design as something that’s inclusive to “designers” check out Daniel Burka’s incredible writing on why everyone is a designer.

I lead in defining and implementing strategy for User Experience design teams.