As a UX designer in an enterprise setting, it can be easy to feel like you are just a small cog in a big machine. It’s not uncommon for in-house design teams to grow to 30 designers or more. It’s quite possible, depending on the size of the organization you work for, that there are multiple UX design teams. Like I said: Small cog, big machine.
Another factor that could contribute to feeling small and insignificant is your relationship with your product owner.*
*Every organization seems to have different names for the same role (and different roles with the same name). Just so we’re on the same page, when I use the term product owner, it’s synonymous with “client,” “product manager,” or “stakeholder.” It’s whoever is in charge of the project you’re working on—the one with the knowledge and expertise that is working with design and development to bring their vision to life.
You might feel undervalued or under-appreciated if your relationship with your product owner resembles that of a drill sergeant and a new recruit:
Product Owner: “Jump.”
You: “For sure. How high are you thinking, exactly?”
Relationships like these can become cyclical too. If your default response to requests from your product owner is “Yes, Ma’am. Of course, Ma’am. Right away, Ma’am,” you are establishing a pattern for future interactions with that individual. The more you do exactly what your product owner asks you to do (nothing more, nothing less), the more they feel it is necessary to tell you exactly what to do. And, the more they tell you exactly what to do, the more you feel like an under-valued, insignificant cog in a very large machine. And, quite frankly, the more undervalued you feel, the more insignificant your product owner will believe you to be.
Designing Up to Break the “Yes-Ma’am” Cycle
Trust is the key to improving the relationship with your product owner. When your product owner trusts you, her requests will go from “I want you to do this thing,” to “I have this problem—how could we solve it.” That’s exactly where you want to be. When your product owner values your contribution and is looking to you for solutions to challenges with the product she oversees, your feelings of insignificance are replaced by a sense of influence. Using design as a tool to influence product direction and strategy (by influencing the owners of those products) is what I refer to as “Designing Up.”
Creating designs and deliverables that in a position to design up is a simple three-step process:
Step 1—Do *Exactly* What They Asked You to Do to Build Trust
I know. I know. I just said that doing exactly what you’re asked to do can start the Yes-Ma’am Cycle. But, hear me out.
It’s important that your product owner understand that you are really listening to her and understanding the problem. When you are just starting a designer-product owner relationship, she may not implicitly trust you. She may not know you very well. But she knows her product well. And she has likely spent time trying to solve the problems she foresees.
Let’s keep this really simple. Say you go to a meeting and your product owner says she needs you to design a medium-sized red square. In her mind, a medium-sized red square is exactly what the product needs to really take off.
Then, over the next few days, you do your thing and come back to the design review with a large blue circle to show her.
While you are talking about all the virtues of that large blue circle, no matter how great it is, your product owner is sitting there thinking, “I thought I made it pretty clear that I needed a medium-sized red square.”
This isn’t the sort of situation that garners trust. Actually, it may make her trust you less. Often, the result of a design meeting like this is for the product owner to suggest the medium-sized red square again. Maybe the product owner begins to believe that you didn’t listen the first time. She’s frustrated because she came to the meeting expecting to see a medium-sized red square, and you brought her a large blue circle.
So, if your product owner asks you for a medium-sized red square, at the ensuing design review, the first thing you show her is a medium-sized red square.
Step 2—Go the Extra-Mile to Gain Influence
Because you want your product owner to know that you are listening to them and are capable of creating designs that meet their needs, when they ask for a medium-sized red square, you design just that. But, since you want to be a great designer and build trust and gain influence in your organization, you don’t stop there. In addition to designing exactly what they asked for, you also design what you believe to be the best solution to the problem.
Product Owners have their own, specific sets of skills and expertise. Your talents are design-centric. Usually, their’s are not. Before others can learn to trust you, you need to learn to trust yourself and your instincts. After you design the medium-sized red square they asked for, if you don’t believe it’s the optimal solution for the product, take the extra time to figure out what is optimal and design it. If your understanding of design, human-computer interaction, and platform-based best-practices lead you to believe a large blue circle would be better, go for it. Design the best large blue circle you can.
Admittedly, designing both what they asked for and what you think is best may double your workload. But the payoff is worth it. And besides, usually what they explicitly ask for is not too difficult to make, which means you can breeze through it and then spend time on your own ideas.
Step 3—Tell the Story
The final step comes as you walk the product owner through your process in the design review. Like a schoolgirl spilling her guts about a new crush at school, leave nothing out. First, present your designs of exactly what they requested. As you present, point out any virtues and flaws in the concept. Help them understand your thought process. When you “show your work” your product owner will understand you better and trust you more. By doing your best to create what they asked you to create, your product owner can know that you understood the request.
After showing your designs of her initial ideas, it’s entirely possible that your product owner sees the same flaws that you saw. Guide her through your thought process. Tell the story of the ideas that spawned while you designed that medium-sized red square. Help her see her ideas through your eyes (or even better, through the customers’ eyes). Adjusting her perspective makes it easier for her to notice gaps in the solution she asked you to design.
Once you’ve stepped her through your design of her solution, it’s the perfect time to transition to the other designs you did. No one likes (or trusts) a know-it-all. Humility is vital to presenting your original concepts at this stage. Remind the product owner that you designed what they asked for, and then state that you also had some other ideas that you’d like to share. Again, show your work. If you produced sketches, show them. If you spent an hour at a whiteboard, show a picture of it. If your best-thinking is the result of dozens of iterative designs, show them all in chronological order. Help your product owner see all of the thought that went into this design. When she begins to understand how methodically and thoughtfully you approach design, she will trust you.
And, since you’re a great designer, she’ll love what you came up with so much more than her original ideas. She’ll decide that rather than spend her own time thinking up prescriptive solutions, it’s better if she just has a conversation with you and lets you “do your thing.”