Evangelizing design on engineering-heavy product teams

BLOG Evangelizing design-01
August 13, 2019


Why do we need to evangelize design?

At Contentful, our product feature teams vary in mission, domain, and size, but they have one thing in common: the average engineering to design ratio on a product team is around 5:1.

The responsibilities of product design at Contentful include discovery and usability research, some product design strategy and UI/UX design. In short, we’re design generalists. This arrangement is ripe in learning opportunities and autonomy for a product designer, but it can also be hard for a designer juggling many crucial design responsibilities to maintain (and stick up for) high design standards in the product development process. This is why I believe it’s important to evangelize design within product teams.

Start with a hypothesis

I started to think of evangelizing design as the ultimate product experiment. If all great product experiments start with a hypothesis, this has been mine over the last year and a half at Contentful:

I believe that:

The product development team may not fully understand the design process, the value of design in product development, or how we can fit design into our agile process

So if we, as designers:

communicate and make the design process more visible over a series of small steps,

Then we will see:

Greater understanding among the team, resulting in more time for the design process being factored into opportunity and sprint planning.

Goal: Create greater understanding of the design process within product development teams

Building a shared understanding does not always come quickly, but it’s worth it. Make time in sprint planning for designers to gain valuable customer insights, explore all options, push past the first ideas, align with other product designers, validate and test prototypes, and create an experience that considers the global product and how it may scale. Why? Let’s be real… we all need the space to create work we’re proud of.

Post-design workshop. Photo by  Ben Lowdon

How can designers, evangelize design within our agile product development teams?

At Contentful, we have a highly communicative culture that is open to experiments, process improvements and collaboration. This company culture, supportive design managers, a high-energy design team and product managers that are open to new methods has made it possible to experiment with the process within the growth product development teams I’m working with.

Include engineers in design and product discovery processes

Thanks to our company culture of process experimentation, the product teams I’ve worked with have tried to include the full team in product workshops and activities. This helps to reduce potential oversights, increase buy-in of ideas and product direction within the team, increase user empathy of the product, and most importantly: It creates a strong team dynamic.

A few examples of design tasks and product workshops the full team can participate in:

  • Design sprints

  • Customer discovery interviews

  • Design studio

  • NUF method to decide which product direction to move forward

  • User story mapping and service blueprinting

  • User testing of prototypes

  • QA sessions

  • Hackathons

Make design work transparent

On the first team I worked with in the Growth group at Contentful, we documented everything on our company wiki, and shared everything within our slack channel. When we track our sprints on Jira, we also track all of the sub-tasks, bringing a lot of visibility into the research and design tasks. When I started working with another product team within the Growth group, I brought this culture of transparency and design visibility with me.

Methods to increase design visibility within teams:

  • Share documentation of the research plan and research synthesis

  • Share interesting things I’m learning and excited about regarding design discovery surrounding an opportunity in sprint stand-ups

  • Share the types of design and product strategy meetings I am attending outside of the team (on slack or in stand-up)

  • Track the work I’m doing outside of an opportunity on the team Jira board

  • Invite researchers or other stakeholders to the team stand-up

  • Point out process improvements for design in team retrospectives

  • Create a meeting to explain the ideal design process and suggest concrete improvements

Design meeting

Find a design advocate within the team

Understanding the value of design and promoting great design practices within the team is by no means just a task for a designer. I’ve found that every team I’ve worked on has had advocates for parts of the design process. For example, I worked with a product manager who promoted data-driven design and created space for discovery research. I’ve worked with front-end developers who love to learn more about the design process and participate.

How can we make the design team more visible at a group and company level?

Design evangelism doesn’t stop at product development teams. The more the teams see design being valued at a group and company level, the easier it will be to influence change at a team level.

Sharing a presentation in our walk-through design space. Photo by Ben Lowdon.

Methods to increase design visibility at a group and company level:

  • Make designers part of quarterly planning sessions (group level)

  • Make designers part of early opportunity conversations (group level)

  • Share design chapter work at the Sprint Bazaar

  • Share design work in workshops and presentations that anyone in the company can attend

  • Share updates from the design team at the Product and Engineering all-hands

  • Share updates from the design team in the monthly product newsletter

  • Keep the design process visible — work in shared spaces within the company

  • Never miss an opportunity to share small tidbits about the design process — over lunch with friends in other departments, or when anyone on the team shows interest. You never know who your next design advocate will be.

Celebrating where design at Contentful is now and the direction it’s going

So, where are we with that hypothesis? Improving the design process within product development teams and design value within the company is an ongoing effort, but I’ve seen and felt improvements. A huge part of that is finding design advocates in other influential roles. As we are a startup, I fully understand and appreciate where we are now, and where we can go. I’m looking forward to continuing to be part of the journey to evangelize design at Contentful.

Design team at our 2018 design sprint in the Czech Republic​

This post originally appeared on the Contentful design blog.

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