Alan Cooper, the Father of Visual Basic, had the full attention of the entire class during his “Design Leadership” workshop. In the calm reassuring tone of a wise patriarch he said, “Design is not so much a design issue as a power struggle.” At that moment, everyone began recalling experiences where their design process required more effort in exercising influence, diplomacy, and collaboration than anticipated. There was a shared solemn realization that the skills necessary to produce high quality design for increasingly complex, interactive products were going to require us to develop a broader awareness of product management, engineering, and executive imperatives. It is enthusing how the designers world is expanding in the form of a broader and deeper collaboration, and this results from the accelerated pace at which software is delivered.
The Tale of Two Tribes
The DevOps movement that started in 2011 tells the story of not only how development and operation teams learned to collaborate better in terms of releasing software updates more efficiently, but also the realities of strenuous troubleshooting through all-nighters and sacrificed weekends that had taken its toll on individuals who knew deep down there had to be a better way. Quite literally, it is a classic tale of neighboring tribes that blamed each other for their hardships until finally realizing they in fact shared common objectives, just from different perspectives. As human nature goes, we change either motivated by inspiration, or by pain. Alas more often than not, we change because our pains are too great to endure any longer. The DevOps movement is a combination of both.
So why would a UX/UI designer be so interested in this movement? It’s because the rapidly evolving landscape of software delivery is influencing the current user experience design practices. Moreover, when designers want to deliver a superior design outcome towards successful user adoption, how departments work together critically matters. In striving to achieve the goal of adoption, my past experience has repeatedly taken me down a path to better understanding which influences either constrain or facilitate leading design towards this business outcome.
Market imperatives are compelling us to increase the velocity of designing the user experience for complex software in step with Agile, which is now evolving into Continuous Delivery practices. We designers have to not only adapt, but evolve proactively to continue leading with creative decisions and transform the “power struggle” into the “power of collaboration,” the same way development and operation teams are achieving this in the DevOps culture.
Cooks in the Kitchen
Which designer hasn’t thought there are too many cooks in the kitchen? Makers of software, from executives to system administrators, are more aware and generally more informed than ever before in what is a “superior” user experience. Withstanding that we know design by committee doesn’t produce good results, designers of all levels and roles face the reality that the number of people who have influence in the design process has grown, and continues to do so. In the power struggle of design, struggling the hardest is not the solution. Insightfully orchestrating whom to bring into the design process, when and for how long, is the new skill for making the best design decisions at the accelerated pace of software releases. For vectors of influence to pull in the same direction, a common vision, an understanding of the design framework, and the standard of output, are the essential aspects to collaborating effectively.
Designers can lead by:
- Documenting the main characteristics of the user experience that will guide collaborators in making aligned design decisions.
- Publishing to a Wiki the progress of design discussions in reference to the PM’s problem statement and the feature in development.
- Gathering feedback proactively through collaboration and testing tools from designated design partners inside the organization.
So far, the standard practices in user experience design have led the entire software industry to be familiar with the notions of empathy, idea validation, research and testing. In addition to empathy, there is another state of mind to keenly develop as designers: situational awareness. First, we need to be aware that we are immersed in the transformative process of how software gets into the hands of users, which is in alignment with the user’s specific needs. We need to have awareness of the speed at which the competitiveness of the market requires responsive improvement to be delivered continuously.
We need to have the awareness to go deeper into understanding the connections between the product and its users. And, we need to have awareness of engineering team dynamics. Engineers in both development and operations teams evolved into collaborating more efficiently by first becoming more aware of their respective needs and objectives. The very same applies to designers and product managers, as their circles of influence are intersecting more and more in determining direction and improvements.
Many organizations do not benefit from centralized design leadership. The values of design are then too easily subject to being diluted or muddled into mediocrity. In the absence of design strategies aligned with short and long-term business objectives, decisions are made that preclude from developing a cohesive user experience across products, marketing, and branding. This is a manifestation of siloed teams, which of course results from siloed mentalities. When product management, marketing, engineering, and designers operate within the myopia of a task-driven approach, the intent to make design a competitive edge becomes elusive. To achieve design at a differentiating level against competitors, the path to follow is paved with the same principles as in DevOps: collaboration, awareness, and alignment of objectives.
When clear design objectives are articulated into values and characteristics of the product then all teams who collaborate around design have mindshare. Discussions cut incisively to the core of design challenges and get solved much faster without the drag of a struggle. As silos dissolve, design velocity and capacity invariably increase in the same way development teams and operation teams increased their capacity to deliver better software faster. The next frontier is to do so towards a higher quality of user experience, and most of all, a higher accuracy of execution, and alignment with user needs.
DevOps practitioners believe it is not about software as much as it is about communication and collaboration. It is collaboration between the two entities in the business that are probably the most critical: the development organization and the operations organization. Today, it is common knowledge that design-centric organizations outperform those that are not. Predictably, business leaders in the enterprise are now making a place at the table for the design function to have its own seat. This is expanding conversations for making overarching design decisions at levels executives, directors, and managers are now getting familiar.
Organizations will produce superior design by:
- Executive leadership having a clear long-term design strategy that defines the working relationships between departments.
- Senior management establishing team collaboration for design work to convert into specific business outcomes.
- PM and design team members operating from common product and design objectives measured in quarterly performances.
Veterans of the software industry witnessed how Agile transformed the way they think; DevOps the way they collaborate; and now with the teaming of product development and designers, the way they define their software.
Kai Brunner is Principle Designer for continuous delivery enterprise software at Electric Cloud.