Have an opinion and earn your “seat at the table”
I spend a lot of time on cross-collaboration with product managers, engineers, and designers working together to deliver the best experience possible to our customers. Overall, it’s a healthy environment of genuine focus on our customers, even when our opinions differ.
In enterprise design, we’re transitioning design as a function from a supporting role to a core discipline in product development. Design-led and experience-led teams are no longer a distant goal but a real functioning paradigm. With that shift comes a lot of responsibility. Many of us who are used to focus on the craft are now required to be balanced business leaders whose focus isn’t solely on the craft but equally on the business. Craft isn’t our end goal, it’s our method of delivering business and customer value.
In an environment where design leadership is transitioning from focus on the craft to focus on the business, equal to their partners in PM and engineering leadership, having an opinion on how we move forward is essential. Sitting around waiting for instructions isn’t going to cut it anymore if it did before.
Having an opinion is very easy. You know the saying, opinions are like noses, everyone has one but they think each others stink. Having a well-informed, well-articulated, and well-respected opinion that moves the needle forward for customers and the business is a lot harder and requires a lot of long term work and effort.
Here is the thing though, if you don’t have an opinion about the business, domain, and underlying technology, don’t complain about your company lacking design focus or not being experience-led. Being experience-led, especially in enterprise software, is earned not given.
Design leaders are often welcome at the table, they just need to show up, be prepared, and articulate a direction. The “seat at the table” is actually available to those who are ready to contribute. If you’re not prepared to get informed, show up, and contribute, it’s actually better to not show up at all.
Why have an opinion “outside” of design?
Having an opinion about something other than your core craft is easy, doing it without looking like a complete idiot isn’t. It requires a deep level of knowledge of the domain, the business, and the user. The goal isn’t to outsmart product management or to out-architect engineering, it’s to build a strong cross-functional team that works effectively together where different leaders keep each other honest.
Experience doesn’t start after the business opportunity has been defined and use cases have been developed and doesn’t end after a mockup is demoed. How many products have a great visual design but lack market-fit? How many products deliver great experience to the wrong problem or the wrong user? How many products completely miss innovating on the core opportunities underlying the pain points of their customers?
The goal isn’t to say that a designer needs to do the job of their product management and engineering counterparts, it’s to say that a team of PMs, engineers, and designers need to be able to have equal discussions about the end to end experience of users, business, and technology to achieve the needed results for customers. They need to be able to build multi-layered stories that focus on the technology, customer, business, and market aspects.
The recipe for an informed, well-articulated, and respected opinion
If we believe it’s important to have an opinion, how do we develop these opinions in a way that’s focused on actually advancing things forward versus hearing our own voice in meetings so we feel like we contributed?
- Be informed: being informed is not easy. In my experience, the number one advantage anybody in the room has in terms of domain understanding is their deep understanding of customer needs and pain points within a specific domain or field. This understanding does not come through a single research study or by reading a few documents. This understanding comes through hours and hours spent with customers throughout weeks and months. Being informed isn’t a one time shot, it’s a continued exercise of being close to the customers you’re serving, close to the technology you’re building on top of, and close to the business and market you’re building for. For example, at VMware, we spend dozens of hours across the design team in customer discussions every single week. Building the foundation for meeting with customers is essential to the success of any design team. Without it, you’re relying on second-hand discussions of customers or intuition, which if not built on top of deep understanding of customers, will fail you more often than not. We also have hours of discussions with engineering about the underlying engineering solutions we’re thinking about and how they might enable to restraint our thinking. In addition, we spend a lot of time in deep discussions with our counterparts in product management, marketing, and other teams that have different information and perspectives than we do. Only similar discussions across the board will give you a more complete picture that will enable you to be informed.
- Be articulate: this is actually more difficult. Many of us have informed opinions that are good yet we fail to articulate them well-enough to convince others. Having the ability to clearly debate an opinion is a skill that gets developed over time. To be able to articulate an opinion, you need to get better at communicating your thoughts. Writing often is one of the ways I found is useful to me. One of the reasons I’ve been writing on weekly basis on this blog is because I believe it’s important to put your thoughts out there, often, and get better at articulating what you believe. Simply articulating an opinion is a step further but actually convincing people is yet another one.
- Be credible: even more difficult. Being respected for your knowledge and opinion is different than being nice to others, although that helps. Being respected is a direct result of three core things: be right more often than not, build strong relationships with cross-functional teams, and be respectful of other people’s opinions. Having a genuine passion to push things forward while respecting others is seen and felt.
Well, now you have an opinion, what should you do with it?
Strong opinions held loosely
Having a well-informed, well-articulated, and well-respected opinion is step one, if you believe it or not. You’ll need to have the confidence to push for your opinion as you believe fit. You need to deeply understand other people’s concerns or push back and be able to either articulate why these concerns don’t apply or could be resolved or to actually change your opinion as you further understand the issues.
Have a strong opinion but hold it loosely. Advocate for it, work with others to achieve it, change it when you cannot support it anymore. Earning your seat at the table means contributing back.
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