5 Things I Learned From The Cooper Design Event

Meg Davis  

March 13, 2013

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I recently had the pleasure of attending a two-day event hosted by San Francisco agency Cooper about design leadership. This discussion-based event covered great material about techniques for leadership and communication in the design industry. I would highly recommend this event to other design professionals who want to improve the effectiveness of their work:

Five insights stuck with me, and I’ve included concrete tips about how to live out these insights practically:

Be as intentional with people as you are with your work:

As user experience designers, we love researching people to find out their motivations for using web and digital products. We spend hours of primary research during each project, watching people use products in context of their work. However, we don’t put this level of attention towards our co-workers who we work alongside. If we took time to really understand and build empathy for the people we work with every day, we would understand what kind of pressures they face, what rewards them, what they need to make a decision, and what they need from us in order to trust us. If we can understand each team member’s skills and motivations, then we can leverage them to work better together. As the Cooper U team so beautifully put it, “Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up.”

  • Tip: At the start of each project, talk to each team member about his or her intentions for the project and figure out ways to support them, even in small ways.
  • Tip: Before going into meetings with your peers, understand and anticipate what they will need to feel engaged during the meeting and feel buy-in with respect to the work.

The facilitator is at the center of decision-making:

It is more important to be the person who asks the right questions than the person who has the brilliant ideas. Position yourself as a facilitator by asking questions and helping team members make connections. The leader is the person who can empower and enable all the team members to reach their full potential and work together. Participation leads to buy-in.

  • Tip: A common problem is that each team member has a different idea of the problem they’re solving. Ask everyone on the team to create a 1-2 sentence descriptions of the problem statement “We are going to provide ________ in order to _________ for the __________.”
  • Tip: Use personas as a consensus-building tool. When there is conflict within the team about a design decision, return to the agreed-upon core needs of the persona in order to resolve conflict.

Culture is generated by everyone, and you are accountable for the impact you make:

As much as we would like to blame leadership or the vague “company culture” for interpersonal issues at work, the reality is that we are a key part of the culture that is developed at our own companies. We can impact our own company culture organically.

  • Tip: Think about a situation that is less than ideal at work. Envision what you want the outcome to be in the ideal situation. Clarify and write down for yourself what you can start doing, stop doing, and continue doing in order to reach this vision.

Documents need context:

Presenting findings and work in person allows us, as designers, to be storytellers and build context around the design choices we made. The moment we walk out of a room, though, the document and work must live on its own. We need to find ways to build in context around our documents for their usage when we are not present.

  • Tip: If you post something to an external drive, it has lost context. Make sure to add a coversheet explaining what happened during the meeting or any decisions that were made regarding the document.
  • Tip: Never e-mail wireframes or scenarios. If you have to do this, voice over each slide with an explanation to build the context around the wireframes.

Rhetoric is at the core of what we do as designers:

What we design will be used in some kind of context, and oftentimes this context affects what the user of our system cares about. For example, a mobile website can be used when someone is on a crowded bus, sitting on their couch at home, or looking up information at the doctor’s office. Each context provides additional details about the mindset of the user when they are on the mobile website. It is our job as designers to make sure this context is explicit and clear and that it helps to build empathy for users.

  • Tip: Specificity is the most important thing in storytelling. Use specific names and examples when illustrating a point in a story.
  • Tip: Use this general flow to make your storytelling more effective:
  1. Get the audience’s attention.
  2. Restate the goals of the project.
  3. Review the familiar.
  4. Prepare for the new concept or design.
  5. Present the argument.
  6. Address the opposition or any known challenges.
  7. Empower your audience to take some action.
  8. Include next steps for your audience.