This began as a summary of the IA Summit, which I attended the weekend before last. However, after you take enough notes at enough 30-45 minute sessions, you end up with a journal post that is far too long, totally unfocused and likely of not much use to anyone. So, I turned it into a more focused piece, prompted in part by one of my favourite presentations of the weekend.

Something has been brewing in my head for a long time, but it’s a hard issue to articulate without sounding harsh or ending up finger-pointing. However, in the past few weeks one article I read and a presentation I saw spoke to me on this issue in ways that few things have.

I’m in my 50s and I’m still a practitioner. That may sound like an odd thing to say, but when you’ve worked primarily in large organizations, the inevitable issue of moving into management roles arises from time to time. And, while managing teams and their inherent political and personal issues aren’t everyone’s bag, there are other management roles that one can take, which are more in a strategic or consulting vein.

For me, it’s always come down to doing the work versus being less involved in production design and development. Particularly in large organizations, being a manager often means sitting in endless meetings and having very little to do with building things. However, I also realize that doing the right things as a manager of design and development teams can have a huge impact on the quality of the work and the effect a web/digital team can have on its organization. Good managers set up their teams for success through strategy, structure and process.

Poor Management = Mediocre UX Design

In a recent survey, the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) surveyed 360 UX and related professionals from companies of all sizes about how powerful UX design was, and how powerful its voice, within their organizations. Issues such as lack of senior UX/customer focused roles, lack of research budget and resources, and not reporting into an actual UX/design team were all cited as problems.

What I found most interesting though, was the respondents’ opinions of the quality of their work. On the issues of ease-of-use, aesthetics and innovation, design work received middling ratings at best.

I guess my comment on this issue would be that, when a large organization focuses on explaining its internal processes and equates their brand with logos, colour palettes and the proportion of print elements on a page, design suffers and usability and innovation are the first casualties. When new design projects are approached, not from a genuine curiosity about how their customers feel and what they need, but from ensuring things look good and pages of copy no one will read are dedicated to explaining the labyrinthine internal machinations of the company’s outdated processes, then design solutions serve the company and not its customers.

While a senior leadership customer focus vacuum is definitely a design-killer in my personal experience, direct design team management can still have a very positive (or negative) impact on the work satisfaction of team members.

Creative Clarity

I found Jon Kolko’s presentation to be right on spot about what design leaders need to do to ensure their teams are engaged and get meaning from their work (beyond a paycheque). You can either watch his whole 30 minute presentation or read some of my key takeaways below the presentation video embed.

Some of his key talking points:

  1. We probably spend 30% of our time doing the work and 70% of our time doing everything else. Critiques, visioning, meetings, etc. ‘Build trust by filling the 70% with value.’ Acknowledge these feelings.
  2. Give your team a reason to go to work (vision). ‘Show your team the data, show them why there’s a reason to believe.’ Constantly use data to reinforce why their work matters. People need to understand why the problems are worth solving.
  3. Articulate a strategy. Help inform your team. Articulating the team’s journeys can help them understand the path they’re on. You have to speak to the vision in a way that is clear enough that the designer can tell what you’re asking for. Visualize the strategy just enough to set a trajectory.
  4. Constantly tell the retrospective story. Review and tell about progress as the vision moves forward and progress is made. “The tricky part of being a leader is that you have to get people to follow you.” Make the team feel like they’re doing the right thing, even though the process is messy and unorganized, just like a coach.

That’s really where I want to leave things. We are all culpable and have impact on the quality of design work. However, if you’re in an organization that doesn’t value a user/customer-centric approach to what they do (at the highest levels), the quality of the work suffers. If you work for a team with a leader who doesn’t make clear why they’re doing the work and that their work matters (inspires), then engagement suffers.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out what impact poor organizational management AND poor team leadership has on work quality and people.

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