Design oriented Takeaways from Andrew Grove’s best seller.
My CEO strongly recommended me to read “High output management” a while ago as my team was growing and my management responsibilities accentuated. It eventually gave me some of the most valuable insights for me to grow as a manager. This article analyses and translates my personal experiences, describing how I translated Grove’s inputs into my Design lead routine. But first I’d like to start with a short back story to understand where I come from.
Designer to self-leader to team-leader
I spent 5 years studying Interaction Design at the excellent “École de Design Nantes Atlantique” back in France. This was an intensive Master class, 100% oriented in my IxD specialty from the second year to the very last. In 5 years we’ve also been introduced to Project Management and Team leadership through projects and basic knowledge from noticeable entrepreneurs and managers. A great introduction really, but after getting my degree and at the start of my professional career, I was an IxD Designer with no tangible expectations on leading a team right away.
But it’s only after a few months that I came to realize that management responsibilities could come faster than expected. And this was highly due to the career choices I’ve made. During my first years I’ve decided to work for Startups and R&D projects. I felt more comfortable being at the very initiation of a project rather than joining an already mature team. Through several experiences
I’ve learnt to be my own manager, being the only designer on several projects and products. I am sure many designers reading this will have similar experiences.
While many could feel more secured integrating a large team learning from seniors, working on your own on the other hand increases your chances to become a better leader as you have to learn how to manage yourself.
Setting my own methodologies and processes have always been one of the most enjoyable stage of my working process, it always felt like I was actually designing my own set of rules and guidelines prior to even start designing an actual product. I now can objectively say that this part of my work always had very high value to any of my supervisors, so I continued digging, making myself an expert in that domain.
4 years ago and with a little more than 3 years of experience I decided to move to Seoul and challenge myself in a different culture & environment as I felt that Paris couldn’t offer the excitement I was looking for back then. This is how I ended up working as a team lead at my current company: buzzvil. The team was quite small when I joined and the first years of an early startup didn’t require any extra team management skills. Instead I focused on building a scalable design approach, optimizing our small resources in order to be a few steps ahead of production, preparing for when the company would grow bigger. Thanks to a passionated and talented team, the company grew steadily, I hired new teammates and took the lead of a mission team aside the design team and our Creative Lab, moving my R&R to mostly managerial tasks and Design Ops.
All this happened in a relatively short time frame and this is when Grove’s book helped me a lot becoming a better manager and leader, sharpening my processes at different levels.
Design & management
Grove divided his book into 17 chapters organized over 4 sections that can be defined as follow:
Process & Output
Here are the main lessons and takeaways I could get from this book. To make it your own, I of course strongly recommend you to read the entire book (short and easy read). This article will focus on the first section: process & output.
Process & Output
Design is a process that aims to deliver outputs.
Understanding the production chain
By definition a process induces repeatable steps in order to achieve a goal. Output is the goal we try to achieve, it carries a production value, the amount of something our process can produce. Understanding that design is part of a production process is crucial, it isn’t a free, artistic form.
Grove introduces this notion through the example of a breakfast factory, walking us through the stages of optimization in order to deliver the same quality coffee & eggs at higher pace, allowing your business to grow.
Let’s assume for a moment that you are working as a product designer for a recent agency that builds mobile applications. The company is doing well, clients are satisfied with the quality of service. As a young designer your skills are improving and you feel more and more confident. But right now each project is handled linearly, one after another. Diligently, you are using a by-the-book design thinking approach for each of these projects and that’s great. But after a few projects you start to identify similar patterns, things that repeats, overlaps between each projects. It can be patterns from your process as you are working specifically on applications (eg. the need for flowcharts) or it can be parts of your outputs that comes over and over (eg. a bottom-bar or a setting page).
Now your boss tells you one day that by the end of this quarter, the team would have to handle 2 to 3 times more customers, what do you do?
Option 1: You hire 2 to 3 more designers, making it difficult to scale, putting at risk the output consistency in terms of quality and adding a costly procedure for your company and yourself (time to recruit & onboard, extra financial resources,..).
Option 2: You take advantage of these patterns and you design a system that can handle all your products. It literally means that you automate your design process to optimize your output production. As you are short-handed, you will base your system on an existing system such as Material from Google, this choice would also simplify the engineer’s life that will integrate your designs. Giving you time, you will start customizing this system making it yours, drifting away from the Material mainstreams.
I often had this discussion with other designers about automation and design, hearing that I would lose creativity if I automate design. I also considered this eventuality, but it doesn’t work that way. Going through a design system automates your process and output making (and its integration). In facts this gives you more time to focus on what really matters: the early stages of your design thinking process (research, definition, ideation). Automation only affects operational work. With experience you come to realize that UI details and uniqueness won’t affect your overall User Experience that much while the overall flow and strategy can have direct impact on metrics.
In theory, by using a system you could use 3 times more resources than before building a UI element as long as this component is used more than 3 times.
When it comes to designing a product it is important to understand that design is part of a bigger process that is most likely going to involve engineering work. One common flaw easily noticeable in IT companies (small and big) is the design integration. This is a leverage to improve efficiency. If you design with patterns you will naturally see more and more ways to improve your workflow with developers, aligning both frameworks for higher efficiency. Not all at once of course, but pieces after pieces.
Measuring your design vitals
You successfully scaled up your capacity to produce design for a larger volume of customers. You now manage a much more important product fleet that is interconnected with a centralized system, gathering all your design patterns, styles, conventions and principles. How to make sure that the output quality isn’t affected? How do we know if our design performances are satisfying?
We install indicators to monitor design.
Grove compares a business operations with a “black box” in which we need to “cut holes” to check if everything is going as expected. We can apply the same analogy to our product design.
We can separate these indicators into 2 chunks:
Customer oriented indicators
That one works great with design as designers should be customer obsessed from the start. The tricky part is how to set these indicators. While big companies will have dedicated researchers and data analysts, in a startup you definitely can’t afford such specialists.
Start with dirty qualitative user research
There is no shame in starting somewhere. More importantly the risk to get a wrong idea through qualitative studies is pretty low if you compare to a quantitative approach where data should be translated properly. Run interviews with friends, relatives or even colleagues. The important in early stage of a product design is to get another point of view, it will already give you some insights.
You will find dozens of articles about these methods, I will just list up the most commonly used ones:
Usability tests (great to focus on a specific feature)
Focus groups (requires knowledge and resources)
Surveys (great from prototype to MVP and beyond)
Card sort & Tree test (great for information architecture)
A/B testing (usually combined with Usability tests or quantitative user research)
Continue with user centered metrics
When you reach your first MVP, it’s usually time to have a look at metrics. But we are designers and we need user centered metrics. Gladly, some people already thought about it and built a framework. These people are from Google and the framework is called HEART.
H.E.A.R.T. stands for:
Another article would be necessary to go through this framework in detail but in short it acts like a guide for you and your team to build indicators in order to measure your product’s vitals. Each of the 5 pillars are made to make you think with different perspectives about your goals and related signals/metrics.
Here is an example from clevertap.com
Indicators are great to ensure that your product is doing well and if it doesn’t, it points out where you should look at in order to improve it. From here you can start settings goals that can be measured through these indicators. Design also needs KPIs, gauging your product’s performance but not only.
Production Performance indicators
Grove mentions the concept of “work simplification”.
Once you get a grip on your production process and once you are capable of measuring the quality of your production, you start improving your performances by optimizing your operations. To continue improving your production as a designer or a design team lead, you need to identify what takes time and resources. Agile methods will gladly help decoupling and organizing your tasks through Kanban and other tools. There are a variety of task management solutions that will report your performances instead of you based on your sprint goals and story point estimations. The difficult thing with Agile being to properly balance simplification and management complexity..
In one of my previous article I talked about *Design Tempo*, it includes a paragraph about work rhythms and related communication canals among teammates. These are going to be important, qualitative indicators to measure your team’s performance as well.
Regardless of your degree of seniority, defining a work process in order to achieve your goals in a more efficient way is necessary in order to perform better. The easiest way I could find to achieve this is to first develop this process over my own personal role & responsibilities. Doing this made me more efficient and self aware of my performances. It naturally led my career to leading people and teams. Grove’s insights reinsured some of my past decisions and taught me a lot on leading teams. From there I can see how I can grow, showing that this is far from the end of a journey. It gives me objectives and dreams to continue improving myself as a designer and leader.
Another article will follow, focusing on leadership. Stay tuned!
I am always happy to read and answer your comments, discuss a difference of opinion or personal experience below. 😏