Increase Your Design Influence by Understanding Your Organization’s Decision-making Style
Dani Nordin presented “Increase Your Design Influence by Understanding Your Organization’s Decision-making Style” at UX Camp Fall 2020. Enjoy!
As designers, we like to think of ourselves as makers. When we’re working on large, wicked problems, the challenge is that “making” is no longer a solo endeavor; it’s something that requires a lot of people and functionality to make happen. This can leave designers feeling like we’ve had to compromise our standards to appease business or development stakeholders. It also inadvertently creates an us-versus-them mentality that actually makes it less likely that we’ll be successful in moving forward our vision of what’s possible.
So what does this mean for us? Simply understanding what your product’s users are dealing with isn’t enough. To make truly great products, you need to understand how people, organizations, systems and content play together. In this presentation, we’ll focus on some ways to help understand the organizational context you’re working within, and to adjust your approach to increase your success within those organizations.
Director of Experience Design, AthenaHealth
Dani Nordin is an experienced UX strategist, designer and researcher, who’s been working in the design industry for over 20 years, most of it on digital products. She’s currently Director of Experience Design at athenahealth, heading up the Orders and Results zone for the athenaClinicals EHR. She’s also a part-time lecturer at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, where she teaches design thinking for emerging technologies.
Prior to joining athenahealth, she built out a UX practice and design system for Pegasystems’ digital experiences, and she helped to build a user research and design practice for Harvard Business Review (hbr.org).
She lives in Watertown MA with her husband, two daughters, and a dapper golden retriever named Larry.
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
Hey everybody, my name is Dani as rushed and I am adjusting my camera, so I am decently let and I’m gonna talk to you then about increasing your design influence by adapting your voice to your organization’s decision-making style.
So just a little bit about me before we get started. I am currently a UX director at Athena Health, working on complex ordering and resulting workflows as well as clinical coordination work flows in our Athena clinicals, EMR. So very similar, if you saw Trisha Trisha talk recently, very similar in that this is an electronic health record, a very, very different application. I also teach part-time at Northeastern in the community and the College of Professional Studies, and I wrote a bunch of stuff for Riley a few years back, largely around user experience, but also around the Drupal Content Management System. So
Obviously, since we’re all remote, I cannot ask you to raise your hands, but I’m gonna throw out some situations, and what I’d like you to do is just give yourself knowing, smile or maybe throw an emoji into the chat, if any of these have ever happened to you…
The first one is, imagine that you’ve been doing a project with a small handful of stakeholders, say three to five, you’re coming up to the end of the project and you’re getting ready to do the final review and sign off of the project, and when you schedule that meeting, you schedule it with the three to five stakeholders that you’ve been working with most closely when you actually get into the meeting.
You realize that there are 15 people in that room and you’ve only met the three to five that you work with so closely, and imagine then that you are giving your presentation, you’re going with the flow, and you’re seeing a lot of nods and everything’s great, and
Then one person who you can tell is a VP of something as why you’re not using the brand guidelines, and you have to go back to the drawing board, and you didn’t even realize it. Situation number to the next situation I wanna throw out is you’re showing usability test results or some kind of qualitative research findings, and the people that you’re talking to are drilling you about how many participants were in the study, who did you talk to… Do you have other metrics to back this up, and they just seem really hesitant to trust the information that you’re giving them because you don’t have… You don’t have enough quantity to back it up.
Or the opposite happens, which is the last situation, you talk to your product manager and say, Hey, we need to do some research so we can really understand what problems these people are facing and they say, No, sorry, we don’t have time for research, we have developers sitting idol, they need to work on something, so we need to get this out in this firm, so willing that if you’ve been in the industry for any period of time, one or more of those situations has happened to you probably many of them within the same company, and if that’s happened to you, you’ve probably thought to yourself, why don’t they get it? You may have then followed it up with, Well, you know what, we just need to educate them. Right, they just need to understand, we need to help them understand how the value that design brings to the business, you may have even gone so far as to put together a beautiful, compelling presentation on the value of design and did a road show around the organization to help your stakeholders understand the value and to gain traction for this thing that you wanna do, and most likely none of it actually worked, or it worked for a couple of months, and then some new person joined the organization and you had to do the whole thing all over again, why
Is this? SobI spent… Before I arrived at Athena Health, I spent a number of years, I think five or seven years, bringing new to teams that haven’t had it before, and I had… Come in with that attitude, I tried all of those things. I actually did the organizational road show, and what I noticed was that it never really worked, and it would often end up costing the relationships with my stakeholders, and I realized after a while that the reason that happens is because when we start from the place of… They don’t get it. And we need to educate them. We’re inherently setting up an us versus them dynamic, we’re basically coming to the table with, I know more than you, so here let me at… You educate you and that really doesn’t work, and if it does work, it doesn’t really get the buy-in we need in order to make things happen, so we need to work on finding a more inclusive and collaborative approach to getting people to understand and participate in the design process, so that we can have a bigger impact within our organizations… ’cause at the end of the day, like I rinse, eloquently said, empathy isn’t just for the people who use our products.
If we want designed to succeed in organizations, we need to have empathy for those organizations and for our colleagues who work with us, and
So I wanna share today a couple of frameworks that I’ve been using to navigate these situations in my own career, and hopefully you will be able to put those things together to really improve your influence and effectiveness in your own organizations. So the first piece I wanna talk about is how you and I show up.
So for this, there’s a framework that I’ve been using from a book called On the room, which talks about signature voice and the need to balance your voice, yourself and your team, and what they need with your voice for others and what they need, and understanding where you naturally end up is the key to figuring out where you need to build extra muscles so you can find balance… Let’s unpack that for a minute. So in driving voice, you’re really high invoice for self, not so much on voice for others. This is the part of us that is saying, You don’t get it. Why don’t you understand? I’m right about this. So you’re really good at advocating for your position, you might be really great in front of our executives, but people might feel that you’re not really paying attention to their perspective at all, and you’re not thinking about or listening to them. Supportive voice is the opposite of that very high, very high voice for others, lower voice for self, and in this situation, people might love working for you because you’re always looking out for them, you’re always wondering what they’re doing, and you’re really trying to be a team player, but people also might think that you look over worked or that you can’t say no to things because you’re constantly constantly doing things for other people, and they may end up seeing that you don’t thinking that, that you don’t have the gravitas to really be a leader and make the tough calls that you sometimes need to make, especially at higher levels of the organization, now, if you’ve been defaulting to either of those styles and you’ve been continuing to just hit a brick wall after brick wall after brick wall, you might slide back even further into passive place.
0Now, this looks different depending on where your natural… Where your natural style is, if you’re naturally in driving place, this might look like getting defensive, like really digging in on your point of view, even doing things like crying, which is unfortunately my habit, not a great look.
If you’re naturally in supportive voice.
You might check out completely and just sort of disappear and people will find you if you want, or you end up developing a martyr complex and complaining about how much work you’re doing and how everyone else depends on you, but not really getting any of your own work done… None of this is really great. Right? Where we want to be is in what they call signature voice, where you understand the future, you see it, you want others to come along with you for the ride, you want them to help shape the future that you’re all gonna create together. Now, the thing I personally have loved about this particular framework compared to others like radical candor, which is a really great framework, but can often be misconstrued by people.
Then thing that I love about this is that it’s not about fundamentally changing who you are or how you show up, it’s about understanding how you naturally show up and then beefing up the other side of that so that you can learn how to use those two sides of yourself, those two sides of your voice adaptively, depending on the situation. Because we don’t want to lose our ability to advocate for ourself or our team or our function, but we also really need to know when we have to do the same for other people and their teams and their functions.
So how do we do this? How do we figure out what to do here? They lay out the author, so and welcomes, lay out a couple of key steps that you have to do in order to get to this signature was…
The first is that you need to check your assumptions, what is the reality of the situation, right? You have a perspective, they have our perspective. How did those perspectives fit together? Where is that coming from? Next, you have to adapt your communication strategies if you’re going into a really tense… A really tense conversation with a colleague where you’re trying to work things out, you might be thinking about How do I handle conflict effectively, how should I best show up to this particular conversation?
If you’re thinking about how to get your team to operate, you might be thinking about how should we communicate progress with our stakeholders, what kind of deliverables are gonna be most impactful to people need really high, high polish, really finished looking deliverables, or do they completely not wanna deal with that at all. Third.
You need to modulate your energy, how are you actually showing up to the party, are you tired, are you upset or you cranky, are you really hyper? And really, your body language and how your physical presence shows up really does send a message, especially in terms of where your communication strategies and assumptions come in.
Now, the key to getting signature voice is that all three of these things really need to be in balance for us to really get to that point where we’re achieving signature voice, and we understand when to show up for ourselves and when we need to show up for other people… So now we’ve had a chance to look at how we show up, let’s take a look at how the organization shows up, because it’s not enough to deal with organizations, to deal with this at a stakeholder to stakeholder level. We also need to understand the broader organizational context that we’re dealing with.
So for this one, I’m gonna share a framework that I learned about from… Actually kidding, good win. If you haven’t seen this talk yet, she did a talk back in 2015 called designing how we design, and this is where I first learned about this framework, it’s called the Competing Values framework, and this talks about organizational culture developing across two different axes. The first one is really flexibility versus stability, how comfortable is this organization taking risks.
And the next is internal versus external focus, are they really focused on keeping information inside and turning inward to make decisions, or are they constantly looking outside and trying to figure out the market and the competition…
So let’s see how this plays out in different types of organizations, so planned are very flexible, really comfortable with risk, but also very internally focused, their goal is really about collaboration and consensus, what’s nice about plans is that they can be very… Have a very collegial and respectful energy, they really, really want the best for everybody involved, and they can be really just pleasant to work in. The
Challenge though is that people may avoid conflict and wanna be involved in everything.
And so decisions feel like they can take forever. This is the type of place where you will see meetings that grow from five to 15 meetings that go really long because every single person wants to get their word in, and it’s really about… You really have to think about your voice for others, but then also know when to put a stop to the discussion and bring back in that voice herself in an adores you are also flexible, but very externally focused, they’re really interested in moving fast, innovating, getting stuff out to the market.
So this can be really fun organizations to work in… People can be very passionate about the work.
The challenge tends to be that they will often lose sight of the big picture because they’re chasing the next short-term gain, and if you’re trying to bring qualitative research to the table, it can end up being devalued unless you can do it super, super fast. This is the type of organization that can often be very resistant to anything that looks like progress, and so sometimes you do have to learn how to stand your ground and say, No, no, no, I’m sorry, I’m a process. Not progress. And you do have to bring in that voice for self and say, No, this is… If we do this one small thing, this will actually help speed us up instead of slowing us down, you might see a lot of chaos and churn and whip lash around specifically around deliverables. Some teams will want you to give them really highly polished specifications that have every last thing annotated, other people think that’s a waste of time and just wanna do whiteboards, sketches and get to coding, and so it can be really challenging sometimes to move things forward. A hierarchy is much more focused on stability, they can be very internally focused, these are companies that often want to keep the success they have and to grow, but they want to avoid taking too much risk.
The nice thing about hierarchies is they do tend to be… They do tend to have healthier budgets, they can sometimes be larger companies, and when you’re seen as an expert, if you can get somebody to really sort of understand and see you as an expert, you can end up getting a lot of leeway for what you need, this is where boys herself really makes more sense than others.
The challenge is really that if you can’t get an executive to buy into what you’re trying to do, it can kill your chances of success, and you might often have layers of bureaucracy and silos to break down.
So this organization can really be useful, but it can also be very, very tricky to navigate much more than some of the other ones, the
Last one is called a market, and the market is also risk-averse, but also very externally focused, they’re really about getting ahead of the competition and getting things to market quickly. What’s nice about markets is that they’re very focused on shipping things that get in front of customers, so you really have the opportunity to release things that people see and use all the time, there’s also a really high potential to move up if you can speak the language if you can speak the lingo, if you can understand how to make decisions with data and you can show how you’re making decisions with data, the challenge is that everything needs data and more data and qualitative data will often get completely overruled by metrics.
This is one of the areas where people will rely very heavily on things like AB testing and surveys and all of these very rapid research methods that are very quantitative, and they’ll be very concerned with moving fast and beating competitors to market. So now that we have a better understanding of how we show up and how the organization shows up, how do we put this together, what do we say And… Oh, I’m sorry.
So you might see these two frameworks or you might see this framework and assume that startups are autocracy and enterprises or hierarchies. But the truth is actually a lot more complex than that. What I’ve found over the last several years is that organizational values can actually shift depending on which side, which side of the business that you’re talking to, and this is especially true once you start getting into larger organizations, and so adapting your approach to each of these different groups is really the key to navigating those situations, as an example, in my role previous to this one, I was running digital experience for our team that was focused on all of the corporate websites and the engineering organization, which I reported into was very much trying to operate as an ad hoc Ray, they used to call themselves a start-up within the organization, and so I had to be very, very careful about introducing process because they would get really frustrated whenever I try to do something that felt like repeatable or could slow down development, the Training Group, which owned two of the websites that we worked, that we owned, they were very much a plan, I was never in a meeting that wasn’t 15 to 20 people with that particular group, and so getting them to come to a consensus as to actually make a decision was a huge part of my job working with that particular group, but all of this ended up being really beholden to the folks in marketing, a BPM CMO, who were the ones essentially who funded the group, and that was very much both a hierarchy and the market so if they couldn’t figure out how this thing that they wanted to do spoke to the bottom line of what they were trying to do, they would start to pivot Projects to other things, and sometimes we were very hold into what these folks in marketing needed us to do, even if we were doing work for the training and support organizations, so understanding the different dynamics at play in each of the groups that you’re working with within a business can really help you better succeed in bringing design around in those organizations.
1So now that we understand a little bit about these two frameworks, how do we put them together, what do we say and do with plans, you really need to find ways to bring them along for the ride. This is the kind of environment where having a meeting before the meeting and having one-on-one check-ins with people can be really, really valuable because it gets people on your side before you walk into the big meeting.
Another thing that can be really helpful with this particular type of group is giving people a clear perspective on how their ideas and their opinions and their input is shaping the perspective and the thing that you bring to the table. If you’re able to actually say, Hey, you know what, that’s a great idea, Jane, let me add this to the design. You know what, I hadn’t thought about it that way. What if we tried this? Those kind of conversations go a long way with clams, but you also have to learn when you have to just bring people together and say, Okay, so the decision is this… Right, great, I’ll document that. And we’re gonna move forward with horses.
You have to find ways to bring just enough process so that things are repeatable.
Experience briefs were really, really well in adores, UX benchmarking, design systems, all work really, really well in ad hoc crisis because it’s laying a foundation to do the things that we want to do to make design right, but also help us move really, really fast… Right, so you have to be able to not only find those little things that you can insert into the process, but you also have to convince people that this doing this work or doing this thing will also help us ultimately move faster with hierarchies. I cannot say this enough, and a lot of you would probably figure this out already, you need to cultivate executive sponsors, having a VP or an SVP or someone in the executive leadership on your side, or rather on the side of design can be a huge, huge help in moving work forward and getting people on board, if you have executive stakeholders who are really upset with you or don’t see the value of design, see what you can do to get people who report to that person to talk well about the results that design is having for their team, you need to be able to find those people because they end up being someone who can really, really advocate and sponsor the design function and help disseminate it throughout the organization.
Finally with markets, help them see the why behind the what…
One of my favorite examples of this was when I was working at Harvard Business Review, and it was one of the very first… One of the very first projects they ended up working on there was that the customer success organization was getting all of these complaints from customers, all these customer service calls about people not being able to find the things that they had bought, this are the digital pieces that they had bought… And when I did a cognitive walkthrough, I showed them actually, there’s three or four different places where someone would not be able to even know that they’re not even be able to remember that they’re buying something, but also you made it really, really difficult to actually find where your purchases are, it’s hidden behind this drop down that nobody can really see, and then we’re showing them just the invoice number, we’re not showing them the actual things they purchased.
And It took a while for us to actually get to the point where they were convinced enough to fix that, but once we did, we actually redesigned the purchases page to lay out exactly what the things were that you purchased and to put it in its own tab in your account settings, and once we did that, the first month after we launched it, customer service calls cut in half, literally in half, and by the next week, by the next month, they had almost disappeared, and so being able to show that level of success and that kind of success and show people why these numbers are the way they are, can be hugely, hugely valuable in getting them to do the things that you’re trying to get done.
So to give you some key takeaways or leave you with some key takeaways, empathy isn’t just for users, it is for our organizations and our stakeholders as well, our assumptions, our communication strategies and our physical presence all help us show up in signature voice and ultimately be more effective in how we show up for our organizations and for our stakeholders, and understanding how decisions are made in the organization that you’re working in is really important for helping us craft our approach to the work and to creating and building design with any organizations.
And the last thing I will leave you with is a piece of advice that I have been giving to every member of my team, and I have to remind myself of constantly, before you tell it like it is, please make sure that you confirmed… That’s actually how it is. Thank you.