How to actually make an impact as a product designer

(I wrote this for the OfferZen Blog – because the issue had been bugging me after some conversations with designer friends. It contains ideas I’ve learned at OfferZen, I guess – an organisation where people really get things done.)

Digital product designers often tell me they chose their career because they want to make a positive impact on real people’s lives. But they often seem to look a bit disappointed. It seems that because of the approaches designers take to their work, they often don’t achieve that impact at all.

I’ve been there. And I’ve got some hard-won tips to help overcome the problem.

But first let’s examine why it happens…

Your designer-brain: Blessing and curse

I’m not a formal expert on thinking styles or personality, but I’ve hired, trained and worked with great designers for the last twenty years. And I think there’s a fighting chance that you have:

  • An opposable mind. Strategist and design thinker Roger Martin wrote a book about it. Powerful design thinkers, he argues, can hold an idea and its opposite in their heads at the same time, without getting freaked out. “What if this were true? Or what if that were true?” Or any of the other options in the middle. That skill is what lets you explore many alternatives to find the best one.
  • A tendency towards perfectionism: Poor service, inconsistencies, doors that you pull when they look like you should push them – they all drive you crazy. But it’s your sensitivity to those details that makes you the right person to design something better.
  • An N in the middle of your Myers Briggs type indicator (rather than an S). N stands for iNtuition. And if you do lean that way, you “tend to trust information that is less dependent upon the senses, that can be associated with other information.” About 2/3rds of people are NOT like you. They are more “likely to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete”. But if you only thought about things you can see and touch today, you wouldn’t be so good at imagining the UX of tomorrow.

Feel special? You should.

But remember that every superpower has a dark side. Here’s yours: Your broad range of ideas, your imagination and your perfectionism can stop you from getting anything finished. Before you know it, years can go by without you actually achieving anything you really wanted.

Three rules to make the most of your talent

So below are three rules I’ve been learning and relearning for my whole life. They can help you use your design brain better, and make that proverbial “dent in the universe”…

Rule 1: Find and focus on the most important thing

“The most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing.” Donald P Coduto (a structural engineer!)

Don’t try to do too many things at once

With your divergent, imaginative brain, you can think of twenty awesome ideas before breakfast. But even if you can imagine them all, I promise you can’t do them all.

One key reason: Work in progress is a killer. Lovers of Kanban and process optimisation will tell you: iIf you have a lot of different pieces of work in progress, your overall productivity will be lower. Why? Because of distraction/clutter and the cost of switching from one job to the other. And this applies to your brain too. Context switching is a killer if you’re trying to get anything significant done.

So if you can’t do everything, you will have to say no to lots of ideas. Steve Jobs was of the same opinion. He’s famous for saying, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully.”

Sounds hard, giving up on all those great ideas? Perhaps. But reframing can help. Greg McKeown explains this trick in his book Essentialism:” “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘What do I want to go big on?’” That positive framing is much more exciting.

Only spend time on things that make a difference

But how to ‘pick carefully?’ It’s by no means easy. And sometimes we’re actually battling against our own cognitive bias too. One example is called the focussing illusion.

As humans, we attend to something when it is important – of course. But our brain often gets things upside down and assumes that something must be important because we are attending to it! In the words of Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioural economics, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” So check yourself. Are you obsessing over straightening the pictures, when your party guests don’t even have drinks (metaphorically speaking)? If you’re fixating on stuff that doesn’t matter, your party won’t go with a bang.

Lots of disciplines have developed methods to help you find the thing you really should focus on:.

  • Systems thinkers will tell you to look for leverage points – places where small changes have a disproportionate impact.
  • Lean/kanban experts will tell you to look for the bottleneck in your processes – the one area in the production line where everything is going the slowest.
  • Design thinkers will tell you to hunt for your problem statement, and put it right in between the two diamonds of the design process.

But they all have core ideas in common: map out your problem space, consider lots of methods to help you articulate your reasoning, and make a choice about the most important thing to try.

Rule 2: Plan to deliver value in small steps

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: A bite at a time.” — Desmond Tutu.

Don’t try to deliver one huge, perfect, finished result

A friend of mine has worked at a giant financial services company for most of his career. He told me “I make sure I never work on a project that has more than 100 million of funding. Those projects always take years and never end up delivering.”

I consulted at the company myself, and one time I worked on a project that was very successful. The leader of that project kept the project focussed on delivering just one simple product for one single audience segment. He focussed on getting the product shipped – not perfect, but shipped. That let him make some sales, measure some data, get some feedback and show the organisation something concrete. And all that gave him the energy, insight and backing from his organisation to keep going and make something really great. He delivered, and for far less than 100 million.

Create a plan that shows how you’ll make valuable things frequently

I’ve worked with several designers who told me they do their best work when they have clear goals, scope and timelines to work within. Consider these two project briefs:

Brief 1: “Draw a customer journey map by talking to ten customers. Make something you can present to the CEO and her leadership team. Highlight practical project ideas the business could undertake, to improve the customer experience . You have 3 weeks.”

Brief 2: “Draw a customer journey map. Lemme know when you’re done.”

Which one feels like you can win at it?

Answer: The first one. Right? 🤨 Because it delivers value (practical project ideas) to the real world (the CEO and team), with a specific scope (10 customers, 3 weeks).

That’s a better way to do one step, and the approach scales.

Break your work down into a series of small, concrete, valuable steps and you’ll get big things done.

Of course, for huge and amazing things, you can’t always plan exactly what all the steps need to be – design is about uncertainty, after all. A good approach in that situation is “vision and roadmap.”

  • Set a vision for roughly what the outcome should look like. Put it at the end of a timeline. (That vision is a piece of tangible value already).
  • List out the problems you will need to solve to move towards the solution. Dot them along the timeline on the way to the vision.
  • Add effort estimates, decision checkpoints and clouds of fog if they help to convey useful detail.

And the good news: Timelines and plans themselves are pieces of value. By creating your plan and sharing it with colleagues or stakeholders, you’ve clarified your own thoughts, and taken a step towards aligning everyone’s expectations. So finish your plan quickly – it’s your first win!

Rule 3: Get things out quickly

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

Don’t let a piece of work drag on too long before you show it to the world

A friend of mine likes photography and told me he hopes to earn a living selling stock photos. I asked him if he’s sold any stock photos yet and he said no. It turns out he hadn’t submitted any. When I asked him why, he told me: “First, I am going to get good at taking photos. Then, when I am really good at it, I’ll submit some to the stock photo websites.”

The problem is, he’s not getting any thrill and he’s learning slowly. By avoiding the potential disappointment of rejection, he’s losing out on the energy he could get from selling a photo. And because he never gets feedback (every rejection comes with a reason), he’s got no way of knowing if he’s really doing it right.

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth talks about how people who’re passionate about something gain expertise. “As soon as possible, experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did. […] experts are more interested in what they did wrong— so they can fix it —than what they did right.”

Set deadlines so you’ll share your work quicker

When will my friend be ready to submit a stock photo? Maybe never. He might get bored of photography and give up without ever sharing his talent with the world. There’s no specific event to tell him he’s ready and no urgency to speed him on his way.

To make sure you finish something quickly, deadlines can really help. For years, I thought I hated deadlines because they felt like they constrained my ability to do my best work. But they don’t really. Deadlines actually enable you to do your best work for three reasons:

  1. They force you to focus on one thing. No time for that toxic context switching. You have to turn off notifications and get something done.
  2. They make sure you deliver value. Setting a deadline is a mechanism for making sure you do _something. _And doing something is very often better than doing nothing.
  3. They enable you to do more. Because work famously expands to fit the time allowed for it, allowing less time doesn’t make the outcome worse (within reason). And you can apply the time you save to your next project – which will also go quicker because you set a deadline for that too. More stuff done, in less time.

Look back with pride

So there you have it. Find and focus on the most important thing, then make a plan to deliver it in small, valuable steps. Set yourself deadlines so you can get things out there quickly. Then instead of feeling disappointed about what you haven’t achieved as a designer, you’ll find yourself looking back with pride.

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