Chris Wilkinson, Director of Product Design at Devbridge Group

Chris Wilkinson, Director of Product Design at Devbridge Group

A few weeks back, we posed the following question to 100+ design leaders, “What are the biggest challenges facing design leadership?” A flood of responses came flying back, citing everything from recruiting to utilization, growth, imposter syndrome, remote work and more. But one respondent had a different take: none of these challenges should really be challenges if we start looking at things a different way.

Is it that simple? Could a change in perspective truly unlock our design leadership woes and shape the future of design? Tune in to hear Chris Wilkinson, Director of Product Design at Devbridge Group, talk about a shift in mindset, and ways we can help prepare the next generation of design leaders.


Show Notes

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Carl Smith: In this industry it feels like waves happen. Sometimes it's a wave that's around how we design, like responsive, or a wave of how we build, like standards. But sometimes it's a wave around how we look at things. And at the Bureau, we have a fast-growing community of design leaders and I reached out to them a couple of weeks ago and asked them, “What are the biggest challenges to design leadership?” Now, I got back well over a hundred responses. And I looked at them and I kind of curated them and boiled them down into what I thought would be a good top ten list and sent it out to people. And you know, I had one response back that was so intriguing. It felt so spot on that I wanted to invite the individual who wrote that to be on the show today. And he is the Director of Product Design at Devbridge, a good friend of mine, Mr. Chris Wilkinson. How's it going, Chris?

Chris Wilkinson: Hey, it's going great. Thanks for having me on.

Carl Smith: No, I'm glad you're here. And the thing that got me, first of all, when I'm going through the list and I'm looking at it and we'll publish this as a blog post so everybody can see what the list was, but your take was none of these challenges should really be challenges if we start looking at things the right way. If we start approaching our jobs the right way. So if you don't mind, I'm going to put a little pressure on you right out of the gate and just ask, when you think of design leadership and where we are right now, what do you think we should be doing differently?

Chris Wilkinson: Well, I think it's two pieces. So first, I don't know that a lot of the activities that people do to promote design specifically to change, but I think it's a change in perspective. And what I mean by that is, the message and the white papers and the thought leadership that's been going on for the last ten years has been great. And it's been about forging a path for design or getting design a seat at the table or making sure design's voice is heard and then trying to quantify that value. And I think there's a next gear that the industry has to move into that just presumes design as a function. In the same way that you presume a light switch turns on a light. And you know that's kind of the challenge for design leadership right now is to get out of that machete-through-the-jungle mode and start to build up that sustainable foundation.

Carl Smith: So part of what I hear when you're saying this is so many people have had this sense of fighting for being respected, fighting for being valuable, that it's almost like the fight on the other side, say engineering and other aspects of a corporate environment, maybe they've relaxed a little, but people are still kind of fighting instead of just settling in and starting to really understand how to become part of that bigger collective.

Chris Wilkinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I think there's an empathy that design can have there with a lot of these large organizations. And we talk about especially design in the concept of a software team, and a company that's kind of transformed the way they work and move away from deadlines and move instead towards thinking about product and thinking about funding product, is design has a big role to play there but it's pushing alongside everyone. I think there is a necessary behavior of being a little bit disruptive, being kind of insurgent force. And I think when I talk about design anymore with people, I talk about it as a product team and not as design as its own thing or design has its own special value. It has a unique perspective, but not something that's this magic bottle where when you take the cork out, everything gets amazing. It's about that sustainable value for design. I think that that means changing the way that you talk about it and, and so empathy with the other roles and sort of thinking of it as we're all pushing in the same direction is really important.

Carl Smith: So with anything that explodes on the scene, and obviously design thinking and design leadership have been here for a while, but the acceptance specifically in business over the past few years seems to have really accelerated the pace with which people want design to be at the forefront of their organizations. Almost to the point where it occasionally felt like a marketing play. Like I'm not going say any certain companies, but they would promote so much how they were investing in design that it almost felt like they were not apologizing for the previous iterations of whatever they had done, but they were like, no, we get it now. We're going to do this. And then there was so much pressure based on the way that was set up that you see this accelerated pace where you end up with some people in roles that they may not have been ready for.

Chris Wilkinson: Sure. I think the investment piece is interesting. I use that analogy a lot of choosing your bets with product. And I think this is where, we talked about specific ways design can change the way it's having the conversation. I would tell anybody, you don't need design, you don't need it. You don't have to have it. Design, you could build software and it will work and good on you and have a good time with it. I can't tell you if it's going to do what you want it to do. I can't tell you if it's actually going to make people's lives easier. I tell you if it's actually going to be more cost-effective than not building it at all. But, but if you do engage with design, those are some of the things that the discipline offers you. Through building the empathy for the people that are accomplishing the tasks, through understanding the system the software is going to live in, and to understanding the end of the underlying business purpose behind it. And so that's kind of the, the angle or the lens that I take to that landscape of investment. And to the way people have talked about it from the marketing angle, I mean it almost became table stakes you know what I mean, Carl?

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Chris Wilkinson: It's like baseball game, now with grass. And it's like, yeah. Yes. That's where we need to get. But we weren't there. We weren't there. There were people that were playing, I have to be careful about baseball because that's a personal passion of mine, go Cubs. But the concept of that is where we need to get to. It's just so matter of fact. And we weren't there. And so many companies weren't there that when they got there, there was value in saying, "Hey everybody, we've got this, we have it. We, yep, we have a thing now that we didn't have before," and it was credentializing.

Carl Smith: Well, so when that internal rally cry also becomes an external rally cry and then everything's under such a microscope, then it becomes the savior, for lack of a better word.

Chris Wilkinson: Well it can be. Yeah, for sure. I mean, and with that kind of like hero image, it's not sustainable. Because whenever a discipline or a group comes in and has that kind of initial investment, there's a bunch of low hanging fruit and get value for really quickly. And I think when we saw one of these companies say, "Design-led companies are X, Y, Z more profitable." Well, if you follow that chart out from 2000 to 2010, it's really impressive. But if you follow those same companies from 2010 to 2019, the line flattens out considerably. And I think that's because that low hanging fruit was realized and people realize that having designed was just good business. You know, it's like having indoor plumbing. It's like having electricity. You should just have it. You can live without it. It's a little harder, but your quality of business, your quality of life, your quality of product increases by having it.

Carl Smith: Well, and it's interesting to take it and think about it. You mentioned electricity. And I remember studying a lot about advanced technologies, and one of the things that cracked me up was it was in the 1901 World's Fair. One of the things that they promoted was an electric door. Being able to open up a door with electricity. And people were saying "Steam is a perfectly good technology. It's not going to get replaced by electricity." But the thing that got me was, when you later realized that today electricity is one of those few advanced technologies because you only notice it when it's not there.

Chris Wilkinson: Yup. And air conditioning this time of year.

Carl Smith: Yeah, exactly, right? It's the exact same thing. Anything that has reached its place is only noticeable when it's not there. So is that part of what you're saying with design? Like design should be inherent? And maybe that's where we're getting to because it wasn't there before?

Chris Wilkinson: Well, I think we're already there and I think that the challenge isn't to progress further. The challenge is to change the way we talk about it. And to talk about it as this established discipline and this established practice. And if we talk about it that way, then we don't open up the conversation for whether or not it's involved. Because when you say, "When you add design, it's amazing and it's super valuable," then you're having a conversation about, well, is it valuable enough?

Carl Smith: Right.

Chris Wilkinson: But if you have a conversation of your team has healthier, your product is healthier, you can fund your products more nimbly. You can take say a 250k investment over a couple months, invest in a product, decide whether it works or not and then continue that investment rather than throwing a $5 million chunk at something and hoping it works out, which is how business would ... That, that was business as usual for many years. And in many companies that still is. But for design to, and really for product thinking, it means accepting that the arrival is there.

Chris Wilkinson: And I'm not sure if there was a party that people expected or if there was a finish line or the confetti ball was going to drop. But it's almost like, okay, now we've got to, now we've got to turn the focus a little bit more inward and say, "Well, we forged a path in here, everybody, now how are we going to make it so other people can get here, too?" Because if the next generation of design leadership tries to emulate what the current generation did, we're just going to have a whole bunch of machete people out there in the jungle trying to forge their own paths over and over again and the discipline will never mature or reach another level.

Carl Smith: Wow. First of all, I did not even think about it that way, but there's nobody for the next generation to pattern off of because the first generation kind of blazed the trail.

Chris Wilkinson: Yeah. I'm mean if you think about like the westward expansion of the US, right?

Carl Smith: That's what I was just thinking about, actually.

Chris Wilkinson: Yeah. Like we had to get out of the Oregon Trail at some point, Carl.

Carl Smith: So now, how do we help that next generation? Because that was one of the things that came back really strong in the challenges was that there wasn't enough prepared talent. There weren't people who were ready to step in. Some people had been accelerated too fast, all this kind of stuff. But what is that process? I mean, it's not going to be universities. It's not going to be an education system. Those things always lag 10 years behind. So how does that happen?

Chris Wilkinson: Yeah. You know, Carl, if you and I can figure that out in this podcast, we might have to ...

Carl Smith: We're done.

Chris Wilkinson: We might have to rethink the next couple of years of our lives, right?

Carl Smith: No, private islands, sipping Mimosas. I love you, Chris. Let's do it.

Chris Wilkinson: The reality is that how do we solve that problem is to be honest with ourselves. And it's that no one organization has the silver bullet for this. And when I look at the kinds of things that I see people talking about a lot right now, one of them is designing performance management systems for designers. And I think that's incredibly important to get right, because design is this discipline of multifaceted skills. And there are many different ways someone can be a good designer and there are many different ways that a good designer can be recognized. But now that design is being integrated into companies, there's not really a clear way to interface them into the historical performance leveling. It's not like, "Oh, you are certified in wire framing and now you can be certified in user research," and then we're merit badging everyone.

Chris Wilkinson: It starts with looking not so much at how do we manage the performance, but it's how do we manage the growth? How do we create a space and a culture of growth? And I think a specific way that design leaders can do that is by making themselves vulnerable and by talking candidly about their career path and about how they got to where they were and their bumps and their bruises along the way. And saying like, look, we were figuring it out live. This is something that I've tried to do with with my team is whenever I give a solution in a conversation or in a meeting, I'll say, "Hey, I just thought of that right now. I don't know if that's going to work or not," or, "I did that before. The scenario was a little different. Your mileage may vary." because there's this other piece, too, where the current generation of design leaders are looked to as though they might be these oracles with the answers. And I think if you get a group of design leaders together, the same conversation's going to happen of well, okay we're here, now what?

Carl Smith: Oh so this is taking me back to thinking about UX. Right?

Chris Wilkinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith: I remember I was in a conversation once where somebody said, "Well, do we need UX?" And I was like, "Only if you want people to use the product." Because there's going to be an experience. You just decide if you want to craft it or not. So it's going to exist either way. It was like when content strategy became a thing and suddenly copywriters became content strategists but they didn't have the background. But then eventually there was a leveling. Like there is now, when I see somebody who is a content strategist, I know that they are so much more. Whereas 10 years ago or five years ago, I would've been like, "Are you, though? Are you?" So it's interesting to think about this with design leadership and where we are, and everybody's talking about design maturity and this type of stuff from a corporate perspective, but in terms of the role itself, and to make yourself vulnerable, to go back and say these are the mistakes I made, these are the different places. But when I think about this next generation coming up, I mean UX is a given, a lot of things were given that maybe were part of the education for this generation of design leaders. This was part of what they lived through, which also was something they fought for. So they truly have kind of been on this confrontational path the whole time.

Chris Wilkinson: And it's hard to move out of that when you're so used to having to document the value. This is something that I've been thinking about a lot lately, which is, quantifying the value of having done something. And I'm starting to look at that a different way and I'm starting to talk about it in terms of the risk of not doing it or the risk of doing it poorly. And the deviation in quality, or the delta in quality, I should say, that would happen if you, if you shortcut design, if you shortcut research, if you shortcut content strategy. I mean, to put it really simply and I'm going to try to set the record for the number of analogies on the show here today. Like Taco Bell exists for a reason. You know what I mean? Taco Bell exists for a reason. And it has a very specific purpose in the world. You know what else does? A backyard barbecue. But then so does a Michelin Star dinner. And all of these things are all food and I'm not going to try to make Taco Bell at home. It's going to turn out very, very different. I'm also not going to try to recreate a Michelin Star meal at home. You know, I want to stay happy at home and I don't want to [inaudible 00:16:52].

Chris Wilkinson: It's a balance there of understanding and appreciating that quality and it's a quality that can be perceived. And it almost comes off as too easy when it's done well, which is why I think there's all of this popularity around these cooking shows now that go behind the scenes of the kitchen and show you all the intense work in the craftsmanship that goes into that food, and people really enjoy those programs for that reason.

Carl Smith: As you're saying this, one of the things that I was thinking about was almost like design integration. That's, it feels kind of like maybe that's part of the next step. First it was getting in the room and now it's just being part of the room. But still with that disruptive nature, still understanding. Because humans are going to change all the time, which means what they're looking for is going to change all the time. And the first thing that's going to give them a clue that the product has changed with them is the way that it feels.

Chris Wilkinson: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think, to kind of pay back to the earlier thread about what can we do to prepare the next generation, it's getting them to think differently about what it means to be a designer. Because I also think that there's a big push on design systems right now, which is building off of success with pattern libraries, which is building up off success with atomic design, which is building off of success with having any kind of style guide. Having any kind of style guide. So all of this stuff is sequential. So design systems work. And they take off. And we don't have to do visual design as much any more in the same way. What new activities are you unlocking for your team and are they trained and equipped to do those? And so I think there's a lot of focus necessary right now on equipping designers to think about the holistic side of design. Think about service design. Think about mapping out where product fits in a larger ecosystem. Rather than just making sure there's technical excellence and typography and color, which is important, but it's a separate concern.

Carl Smith: It feels like there needs to be so much, I hate to say documentation, but some thing, because nobody's going to read it, no matter how much we write. But something that just kind of shows the path for how design plays in. How it integrates in, and it's going to be different with every organization, every team, everybody's going to have those subtle differences. It's never going to be a Phillips head or a flat head screwdriver. It's not going to get to that level. But it feels like, even from business school perspective, which I didn't go, but that you would see a design track that starts to talk more about design's place in business. And maybe that's where the design leaders of today can start to change, to shift their focus where they're thinking more about how they share design from the business perspective, but not with the business people. And I think that's been the thing, they've been defending themselves. They've been justifying their existence, and reasonably so, because a lot of people didn't believe that it was worth it. They were trying to cut off that cost. But now it's almost time to kind of turn around now and then and say, "Hey, this is why, this is how. You may change it. You may find other ways. But just pay attention to how we got here and what we're doing now."

Chris Wilkinson: Absolutely. And it's almost like you can't relive the past. And so how do you equip people for the future? And how do you build a [inaudible 00:20:39] team when everyone's looking for somebody that has five to seven years of experience and ... I have bad news for you. We do, you know how old iPhones are? Like the number of people that got into this field when this really became a thing, they were doing something else. And to your point earlier, it's very difficult for a university system to be set up, because the industry and the landscape is changing so quickly. And so I find that as a design organization, you have to be comfortable teaching people skills if they have the right mindset, and they have the right perspective. Because I find shifting a designer's perspective about what design is supposed to be is much more challenging than teaching them a new skill or a new technique.

Carl Smith: It's almost like we need continuing education just like if you were a nurse or a doctor or even, I mean digital PMs, when they get certified, or PMI people, they have to do continuing education to make sure they're paying attention. Maybe that's part of it, too. It's like as things evolve ...

Chris Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean there's the old design debate chestnut of should designers be certified? And I'm not going to try to take a side on that either way. That's another podcast and a half. But I think it's really, there's a simple thing that people can do. So giving a very specific example of how I do this and any potential designers who are interviewing to join the team and are really doing their homework are about to get a huge benefit. It's two questions that I ask in the interviewing process. And I asked people towards the end of the conversation, "What is the most overrated thing about design?" And it just puts them on their heels immediately because no one's really had to think about it. And I'm not looking for them to give a specific answer in that conversation.

Chris Wilkinson: I'm looking to see what their thought process is and how they approach saying, "Well, this is why this is overblown and it gets way too much credit and really, you could probably stop at this phase, and etc, etc, etc." However it might be answered. But it's about what is your perspective on your own craft? And then the companion question to that is, "Okay, what's the most underrated and unappreciated thing about design that we still need to make space for it?" And then whatever that is, and then have a conversation about, great, how do we advocate for that better? Because I think that will be the future of the people who make the foundation for design integrated in the business is the people that are thinking from that perspective rather than the people who might come into a conversation and go, "I want to do this." It's like, "Okay, why?" "Well it's a fun activity." Well, a design activity without an output's a game. So you've got to tie it back to the value.

Carl Smith: And at that point you've got them thinking more like the people running the business.

Chris Wilkinson: Exactly.

Carl Smith: So I'm curious, what are your answers to those questions?

Chris Wilkinson: What are, what are my? Those change about every four and a half hours.

Carl Smith: Well, it's 5:05 PM.

Chris Wilkinson: Right now I would say the most overrated thing about design is the need to wire frame. And what I mean by that is, if you can go outside with sidewalk chalk and communicate your idea to an engineering team or to the business, that's sufficient. But I've noticed a lot of organizations tend to get really bogged down or even maybe even have a specific rule who just does wire framing. And unless the problem space is sufficiently complex, I find it's a very easy place to get bogged down because what you end up doing is you're basically writing a visual requirements document. And we spent all of this time and energy getting away from BRDs and iterating on software. We almost rob ourselves the ability to iterate and learn when we're overly prescriptive in a wire framing phase.

Chris Wilkinson: The most underrated thing is skipping parts of the design process. And what I mean by that is not to say willy nilly skipping it, but saying, "You know what? Looking at the situation, I know we've been doing research every week. It looks like we can take a pause for one or two cycles. We're saturated with feedback. We haven't integrated it yet. Let's focus on integrating that feedback and then take something new and valuable out to the market and then get feedback on that instead." And I know the counter to that, and I'm currently wrestling with it myself is, "Well, yes, but the reason you always do research is because you don't know what you're going to find." But I think as designers integrating into the business, every business function needs to be able to account for how they spend their time.

Chris Wilkinson: And I think a big part of longterm acceptance of design is design showing that it's willing, as a business function, so design is a business function, showing that it's willing to be flexible about its own activities.

Carl Smith: It's changing perspective, isn't it? And realizing that the Oregon Trail ended and we ended up in a pretty nice place.

Chris Wilkinson: Yeah. And I don't know, maybe we're not going to stay here. Like we, we got out to Sacramento, somebody got to go up and start Portland. I really do believe that if we stay in this conversation about having a seat at the table, if we stay in this mindset of design needs a voice, if we stay in this mindset of forging paths, forging paths, we'll never build anything. And I think, when we talk about a learn build, measure, loop, we really think about it as, okay, integrating in the feedback.

Chris Wilkinson: I think design as an industry is getting so much feedback right now about its place there needs to be a little bit of that self reflection in integrating that into the approach. And I know there's been some pretty high profile folks lately that have talked about a couple of the big that that we're facing as an industry. And I'm not saying we have to skip over that, either, but I think it's a mentality shift that needs to happen. Because, it's funny, the example that keeps coming to mind is like if somebody's having a good time, it's contagious. That's why if you're watching theater, or you're at a concert and you can tell the performers were having a good time, you're having more fun. And so as designers, I think if we also just share the joy of our profession openly and we're not precious about it, and other people get to share in that excitement, they're naturally going to want to engage. And they're naturally going to want to integrate in design and then also keep it around.

Carl Smith: Well, Chris, thank you. Thank you for sharing so much of what you believe and your thoughts on design and design leadership.

Chris Wilkinson: Hey, Carl, thank you for having me and thank you for doing this. We're all better for this podcast being out in the world.

Carl Smith: I appreciate it. Everybody listening, I hope you got a lot of value out of this. I would love to hear from you on your thoughts and we will be back next week. We'll talk to you then.

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