Establishing a Successful Design Practice

Design-led businesses like Apple have been inspirational throughout the business and design worlds as an effective way to enhance customer relationships by understanding their needs and advancing business goals.

However, the road to truly-integrated design practices and operations within an organization can be messy and put at risk by “let’s just do it how we’ve done it before”s and “not now”s. 

While there can be many ways to establish a successful human-centered design practice at large and small organizations, we’ve curated a few of our favorite methods from our work to successfully set up design practices in large multinational companies.

  1. Start small. It is tempting to jump out of the gate with a large, keystone project that can make your name in the company. But typically, we’ve seen that the stakes are too high for others in the organization to be willing to trust a new process – or a new leader – to do the proper work of human-centered design. Instead, starting with a focused, specific project that can be accomplished quickly is a great way to prove what design can do. It gives stakeholders a chance to understand the process and see its benefits while keeping things nimble enough for you and your team to turn things around quickly, showcasing the value of design before people have a chance to object or worry about it deviating from previous processes. And starting with something small allows you to showcase the importance of incremental launch and learning, particularly for those companies still working in a waterfall methodology. Choosing a project that can make a small but meaningful impact, perhaps like an internal-facing project that alleviates a lot of pain for employees but doesn’t demand a lot of budget or resources, can be a great initiative to tackle before jumping into initiatives with higher stakes, larger budgets, and more people involved.
  1. Involve other departments. The one thing design absolutely cannot be within an organization is political. That said, larger, hierarchical organizations often have interpersonal politics baked into their culture due to the size of the business. But keeping in mind that this isn’t a land grab will help you approach other stakeholders who may feel threatened or affected by any new process. Often this could be Product, Marketing, Engineering, or anyone else who may have had to pick up the slack without Design being around yet. By building bridges and inviting people into the process through kick-offs, stakeholder interviews, design reviews, research sessions, and concepting workshops, you can give other departments the comfort of knowing that they have resources to help them achieve their goals without feeling like they’ll be shut out of the new process altogether. This also provides space for them to share how parallel work streams may impact your collective efforts and gives you a chance to garner buy-in and allies as you move through the process.
  1. Oversharing is caring. Going along with involving people, it’s essential to remember that this may be a new process for your stakeholders and collaborators. It’s essential to keep them looped in, likely more than you think. Having transparency in the process is a great way to build trust and get folks to understand how the sausage is made without having to take up time on their busy calendars. It also helps people feel like they’re part of the process and can ask questions when they need clarification.
  1. Listen to the business.  We all want to succeed in our work, particularly when we’re in the first round and want to prove our value. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Remember that you’re running a long con when setting up a design practice, and you must build trust first and foremost. Listening to people – to their needs, concerns, and ideas – and working those into your process and solutions will go a long way to building the trust needed to expand the design’s reach and capabilities. But you need to be genuine and consider what the business is saying. Sometimes that means the design won’t be as crisp or evolved as you’d like it to be. That’s OK. It’s about progress, not perfection. A little bit of research is better than no research. A dated filtering system in the digital tool is better than no filters at all. Give yourself some leeway to work within your constraints, and know that the more you connect with the business, the more they will trust you to connect to the users. (All of this within reason, of course – there are always times when you need to stand up for the users, but you can still negotiate with the business when you’re listening to them elsewhere and connecting their concerns to what you’re hearing from users.)

There is always the temptation to go hard, go fast and show what design can do going full-force. But if your organization is still new to the process, we recommend starting with these steps first to ensure a more prosperous, long-term relationship.

Want to learn more about how to establish a successful design practice in your organization? 

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