Bull Session

Infusing a Company with Design Culture

September 10, 2015          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life, we explore helping companies infuse design and UX strategy into their culture and structure, with special guest, entrepreneur, product designer, and AI expert, Giuseppe Taibi.

Many companies are constructed to do one thing well — efficiently produce their current products or services. But this kind of focus can oftentimes create overwhelming inertia against change and innovation.

Today, there is a significant trend toward companies building their own in house design and UX teams, some of them for the first time. However, introducing user experience and design culture, and making a company more customer-centric in its thinking, is an investment that requires patience and experimentation. It’s a multi-point process that happens over time — requiring buy-in across the organization, from the executive level to the managers to the doers and makers on the front lines. Join us as we discuss some real life scenarios that we’ve encountered introducing design into companies.

Giuseppe Taibi

Welcome to episode 120 of The Digital Life, the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me today is special guest, entrepreneur, product designer, and artificial intelligence expert, Giuseppe Taibi. Welcome, Giuseppe.

Thank you, Jon. It’s always a pleasure to be here.

For our topic this week, we’re going to explore helping companies infuse design and UX strategy into their culture and structure, something that you
just Giuseppe and myself, have a lot of battle scars doing, so I thought that would be a good topic of discussion for us.

There’s a trend in the UX and design community in the industry right now of bringing design in house. No longer going to be outsourcing design, but design becomes key to a company strategy. It’s the we want to be the Apple of X company or X industry. In order to do this, you start building your internal design team and you make design a business driver. That is the trend.

There’s big salaries being paid out for chief design officers. They’re building internal design teams. Not all companies maybe should be driven by design or really want to be. There’s a certain level of a commitment that you need to have in order to make this successful as we well know.

One of the things I thought we would discuss is that many companies are constructed to do one or just a few things very well, which is produce that product or service that they’re doing currently. How when we go into a company can we overcome this sometimes overwhelming inertia against change and innovation and design? How do you reorient a company, whether it’s a startup or a mid-sized company to become more design driven?

Well it’s an excellent question and of course, we could talk about that a very long time. I’m going to try and distill it in a couple of phrases and then we can further elaborate. The very first thing that I would like to say, I will quote Steve Jobs, the very simple but very hard to do thing that he said which, “Design is the product.” That is one thing to keep in mind. A product that is not being designed will have a lot of trouble. It might e successful for a while in the marketplace, it might not be as sustainable.

The other thing that I would say is that’s probably one of the biggest reasons why design is still in its infancy, I would say, at least as far as being widely adopted is that design can be and most often is a very expensive function to have in your company. Unless you have had sort of the ability to start your company with a design mindset and have a designer as one of the founder, it’s extremely hard to bolt design right into an existing rocket ship or something that is going its own trajectory.

To do that is actually an imperative, because if you want to be successful, you need to do that for most companies. I would say it’s a challenge actually to consider which company doesn’t need it, because design’s not just like drawing lines or putting pixels on the screen. It’s a lot more. It’s being considerate and thoughtful about what is it that you’re doing and then taking … It’s like in an oversimplified way, it’s probably the exercise of taking the problems and the mistakes out of the shipped product and keeping this mistakes while you are building the product, before you actually release it.

That requires a cultural shift on numerous levels. Again, very few people are probably equipped with even understanding that kind of challenge. It’s not just a matter of hiring one chief designer, officer, then hope for the best.

Right. I think that part of the expectation when you’re an outside consultant is that there’s some magic dust that you have that you can sprinkle on a product and then it will be well designed even if design wasn’t part of the process. Sort of coming in at the end, right, and some people call that putting lipstick on a pig, but the expectation is that if design is incorporated at the end of the process, that is going to solve a certain number of problems which will get you over that hump.

I find that one of the key things that is missed when incorporating design into an organization is really getting buy-in at all the different levels. You know when it’s the executive team has some vision of where the product needs to go, the managers value design as part of the process and it’s not as seen as a waste of time or talking to customers and incorporating user centric feedback is seen as valuable at the management level. Finally, that the makers and doers, the engineers and sort of the boots on the ground people who are building the product, also have an understanding of appreciation of and can see the value in design across the product. All of those levels need to be working together.

What I’ve seen a lot of is there’s some attention paid at the senior level, but only to the point where you want to become known in your industry for design, and that’s it. That’s the total vision of the product. That small sort of phrase is just repeated over and over again. When design deliverables do show up, the implementation falls apart, right? Because you don’t really have executive buy-in and it’s more about sort of making sure this thing gets released quickly and not correctly. Have you, in the many times that you’ve been a chief product officer, what are some of the things that you’ve seen that have been successful for achieving buy-in at sort of that executive level for a design?

These are all excellent points and I would say that it’s a pretty clear pattern that is you have a shot at getting design into the process almost really only if it is at the beginning of the process. Otherwise, in the middle or towards the end, you can call it more like window dressing or you can call it lipstick on a pig or whatever other fabulous American way of these things you might come up with.

That is never like a really effective function. It’s not a thing that can be really easily bolted, especially on a product that’s complex. You may be doing some kind of sub-portions of the product, perhaps, but unless you embark on some kind of real at least redesign of an existing product and then you really get into something that is now going to make anybody really happy, especially the user. You’re going to go into like a very longer shipping times.

The engineers will be frustrated, because engineers are happy when you give them something that doesn’t change, because to make that something already will take a lot of their creativity and hard work. If you go there in the middle and you change something, then all sort of hell breaks loose. For all the day, they are unhappy. When you have unhappy engineers, you try to shoot something.

That’s to say that I’ve seen design working great for new products, possibly in the new markets, something completely blank slate, where you get the design from the very beginning and it stays and it continues to drive that. To make that work, there has to be leadership who deeply understands that. That has done its own process and like come into that realization, otherwise they finish an item or Excel spreadsheet, this much for design consultant, and it stays like that, then it’s just going to be not nearly as effective as it should be, right?

What do you think the role is of sort of the combination of education and, I don’t want to call it … Maybe patience is the right word, or maybe not tolerance, but understanding that the design process takes time and that ultimately, the business driver you want users to love the product and to be loyal to your company brand and to buy your further iterations of the product, but we’re so driven by quarterly cycles here in the States, especially public companies. How do you achieve that executive level strategic patience to see the design fully realized in a product without sort of bending to the pressures of the quarterly release or the quarterly cycle?

I’d say that one of the ways in which this very challenging concept can be tackled is by creating a design garden inside your company. It can be small, but it’s something that you can watch grow and give the opportunity for the leadership, for the executives, to get involved, either a tiny bit and see the whole process from beginning to the end, even if they see it once. That would create numerous amounts of a-ha moments, which then will be equipping the leaders to make some critical decisions with the confidence that they will lack otherwise.


That if you take those steps and this decision, then there is a significantly superior outcome that will give your company and your product tons of advantages over the competition and will win way more customers, and will also have all the benefits in end user customer support and the total cost of making the product itself and overall raising the happiness of the employees and all that, but you have to see and experience it yourself. You can’t just read about it or watch a TED talk and say, “Yeah, I get it.” Because you actually don’t get it.

Right. Right. Yeah, that goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning of the program which was companies are built to really execute on a few things well. They’re optimized that way. This design garden or your innovation lab or whatever you want to call it, the safe place for experimentation and prototyping and testing and things like that. I’ve seen a lot of companies using that strategy to create a space for design to happen, maybe not separate from the corporate structure entirely, but slightly set apart, slightly protected in a way, so that those ideas can grow without necessarily being squashed in their infancy. Then never truly allowing that to succeed.

I must say that it’s very easy to talk about convincing people to be patient or in the initial stages of engagement, everybody getting that buy-in, and saying, “Yes, we’re going to have a design vision and follow it.” I find that it gets a lot more difficult when you encounter friction, right?

When the rubber hits the road and all of a sudden the software just has to shift, you know, because of reasons from investors, of pressure from competitors, of just the realities of you’ve got this payroll of developers going and you need to show some results. When there’s friction and tension then the natural human tendency, or what I’ve seen, is just to go on this march and go with what you’re familiar with, right? If company structure is not familiar with design but is familiar with shipping product on a certain rhythm, it’s easy to fall back into that rhythm under pressure. How do we mitigate that under even the best of our intentions to introduce product design and product management in a scenario where you start to get pushed? How do your resist that and pull back a little bit?

Well there’s a very interesting pattern that you observe across almost every organization, which is that very rarely, and this is kind of shocking, but it’s true, there is a clear process to really gather feedback from customers. Very rarely there’s like a clear path for that feedback to get to the decision makers to influence their decisions. In a way, this is a process that everybody should have.

That it’s a foundation of good design, because if you don’t have a sense of what people … What kind of pain points are they experiencing. Maybe they’re happy with your software, but they wish … They have other problems to solve and maybe an opportunity for your new future, new module, to start being developed with that kind of mindset. That might as well be one of these design gardens.

If you want to be more aggressive, if you want a little bit more confidence, if you find that you want to … You can take more calculated risks and for sure, starting by providing something like a forum or an advisory board, or a customer satisfaction, something like that for getting consistent feedback from users. That is great.

Then tracking that and see how much are we … In a month or two or three are users saying that they have the same problems or the same complaints, then we haven’t moved much in the right direction. Are we addressing something? Oh well I guess we’re doing something right. How can we do more of that faster, better?


Similarly, we should also be getting feedback collected from the sales people. We hear a lot of what are the wishes of the perspective customers and trying to have that kind of build a map, then use that as like a repository of information from which then work with design and come up with ways to address the real needs of the marketplace all the way into product.

Yeah, that’s very true. I think too often at least, in scenarios that I’ve seen, it’s very easy for designers who are service oriented people to acquiesce to the wishes of sort of the larger organization and the march to release.

I think it’s a good sign of maturity as an industry that digital design and design strategy are being seen as business drivers and as more important, but I know that it’s very difficult to understand all of the sort of business, technical, and aesthetic constraints and keep all of those in mind while having the confidence to say, “Yes, we are going to go down this path and we will get there. It’s just not going to be in the same way that you’ve done it before.”

To have that confidence as a designer just takes time, takes experience, and is not easily gained. Not an easy thing to do. Ultimately, some companies will be able to do that and other will have to kind of try a couple of times before they get there.

It’s a very good point you raised that it’s the designer’s responsibility, sort of like communicating the value of design in a way that is exciting and also demonstrates how much better off is the company by embracing design. For sure, there’s probably some opportunities for designers to develop kind of strategy. In every step of the way, there should be a very easy answer to the question, “What are these designers doing exactly?” Oftentimes that question is not that easy to answer. That’s somehow like a bit of a challenge for the designers to make that clear on every step of the way. At the beginning, it’s clear. Everybody’s excited. Everybody has their priorities, their day to days and then, what is exactly that you guys are doing? I’m sure you get that a lot. You really want to make it very clear what is it about you that is being asked.

For sure. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow on with the things that were mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advanatage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O .com. Giuseppe, how can people get in touch with you outside of the show?

Well there’s kind of the uber contact page for me is actually an About Me page, which about.me/ my first name, last name, which too long to spell, so I’ll just let –

Yeah, we’ll put a link.

I’ll put the link there. I also am very active on Twitter, and again it’s like @giuseppetaibi, my first name, last name, all one word. I plan to be more active on Medium. That should be plenty of ways already to get in touch with me.

Yeah, sounds good. So that’s it for episode 120 of The Digital Life. I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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