For a designer guided by human-centered methods toward improving our finicky relationship with technology, what does it mean to have impact? What are the primary means of enabling an impact with lasting value for your team or company, as well as your customers? These are definitely existential questions. Who I am and what value I provide as a human-centered designer are concepts shaped by the actions I take and their consequences. It matters to me as a professional, in terms of pride and integrity, and to my cross-functional colleagues to justify my service to them toward collective, shared goals. And, of course, customers care too.
To earn a smile of satisfaction and a joyful realization of value demands a journey—one of making impact and identifying the right moments or places to wield such ability and authority. How does that even happen?
Let’s start at the beginning. Like many of you, I learned methods of discovery and analysis grounded in HCI within a university context. The approaches by professors were based upon learning and applying tools and techniques to achieve thoughtful outcomes per an iterative, feedback-driven process, from problem framing to user validation. Of course, this all adjusts quite a bit upon entry into the world of practice, with tough decision making and the navigation of interdepartmental agendas. Ah, politics! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m reminded of a chat with a senior design leader from the early days of my career, just a few weeks after graduation, proudly armed with my master’s degree, diving into the realm of enterprise software, rich with complexity and ambiguity. Eager and still quite green, I was deeply challenged and nearly run over by the problems in this intense context of expectation and argument. At the conclusion of a sobering one-on-one with my mentor, he gently asked what it was that I truly wanted as a designer. Stunned by the profundity of this simple question, I stammered and sighed. I dunno, fame… money… power? Maybe one day ship a really cool design that aces all the usability studies with flying colors? Nope, he patiently replied with a slightly furrowed brow. What you want is impact through influence.
And there it was. The I-word. The notion of influence as a means of channeling a designer’s capability and value was suddenly revealed to me.
In this context, influence refers to the ability to serve as a change agent of sorts, with persuasive powers to shape meaningful outcomes guided by intent. In effect, it’s a kind of meta-level wrapper for making stuff happen—the doing that needs to be done to get things done. I mean, you can design the world’s most beautiful, functional, usable product, but if that person with the authority and power to bring it to market for customers doesn’t respect or understand what you’ve created—and thus blocks or cancels it—then what’s the point?
Actually, let me amend that a bit—it’s about the person(s) with the properly effectual role(s) per the organizational power structure who can connect your designs to their agendas and incentives. And then they are able to see what’s in it for them, in a mutually collaborative way that truly enables that so-called win-win situation. Not easy, but a worthy challenge, right? Indeed, we might approach this issue of influencing as a design problem! How can we truly empathize with our non-design peers and masterfully craft influential moments that speak to their needs/goals/hopes/fears so as to advance our greater agenda of improving the human condition through new technology?
How do we effect positive constructive influence upon our cross-functional peers?
So, the question for all of us, the great common concern across all human-centered disciplines, channels, and domains, from enterprise to consumer, from medical services to industrial machines, is: How do we effect positive constructive influence upon our cross-functional peers? This includes stakeholders across the gamut, from engineering to business to research to even human resources. Yup, HR! Consider this: If you want to get that hiring classification for a UX designer coded into the system at the right pay grade and career-path level, then you have to influence HR with your story of the value-add for them, the team, the product, and the customer. All this is necessarily subject to the influencing abilities of those shaping human-technology encounters.
But how can you effectively influence in difficult workplace situations? Over the past several years, I’ve come to identify four key vectors of influence that can shape a designer’s ability to be a leader and a successful change agent who enables customer value in complex organizations. To be clear, this is a broad term that includes start-ups. It’s more about the people and their interwoven agendas and power relations than it is about an organization’s size.
The four vectors are vision, strategy, process, and culture. There may be others to consider, but this serves as the fundamental set.
Why vector? Because it’s more than a single moment of force applied at a point in time. Rather, it’s a directional, scaled magnitude of effort that varies over time as situations adjust, whether for or against the designer. Sometimes it will be intense, even confrontational; other times maybe not so much (like, the sprint is done and everyone is more chill). How these vectors correlate and intersect is the real fun! The truly adept designer of masterful influence knows how to be an effective force multiplier by pushing and pulling just the right levers upon people, problems, resources, and so forth—those pragmatic elements of everyday work.
Let’s take a closer look at each vector.
Vision is that painting of a vivid, compelling picture, giving material expression to a nonexistent notion ... or some manipulation of words, images, or sounds for imagined features, all to persuade and communicate that which is fuzzily bouncing around in others’ heads. Influencing a product or business vision is partially achieved by creating artifacts that progressively develop into a vital north star to guide and inspire a team. This could involve rough sketches, mocking up a press release from the future, prototyping a concept car, or shooting a video vividly portraying contexts and outcomes. The point is to provoke stakeholders to think about what kind of world they want to help create and deliver for their customers, while it plays to their selfish agendas and benefits (for instance, their quarterly bonuses).
Strategy involves long-term foresight via connecting dots with intent and clarity—the shaping of a deliberate path of potentiality, for the business and the market (or customers). As A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin have said, it’s about simply knowing where to play and how to win . That’s it! Well, perhaps just a bit more; there are volumes of essays and books every year on this topic. But at the core of it all, influencing strategy is done via conversations that enable everyone to truly understand the models, phases, and scopes of impact. There’s a give and take of points and counterpoints, while surfacing key dependencies, expectations, and aspirations, which then draws attention to insights to pull everyone forward. Want to guide strategy in a designerly way? Learn how to facilitate complex, stressful dialogues and be able to nimbly tie together disparate points of view or challenge them via Socratic methods, for example. Then visualize those points as a model or map that anchors the dialogue as it matures and crystallizes with participation from other domains. Pro tip: The one with the whiteboard marker in hand often directs the conversation.
Process is of course the sequence of actions toward creating something useful, significant, and purposeful. It’s meant to be the antithesis of chaos or simply waiting for something to happen. Yet it’s also not just copying a formula or blindly following a recipe. Instead, good, healthy process involves smartly pursuing useful routines and sensing novel opportunities that present themselves along the way. There is adaptation against the flexible arc of a pathway. Process is influenced by the modeling of actions and best practices for everyone, and inviting all to participate—and thus to see and live the results. For example, posting large printouts of journey maps on the walls, or inviting users to your makeshift lab every Thursday at 3 p.m. with free cookies, leading feature discussions by framing them with user goals and prototypes. By doing so you will enable a commonality of language that helps people view and interpret the “stuff” that gets produced accordingly, such as wireframes, journey maps, and user studies. The point is not to strictly enforce a process—nobody likes to be policed!—but rather to cultivate a generalizable, flexible model of activity for others to actually want to participate in, because they see value for their own selfish goals (again, those quarterly metrics and bonuses), while seeking moments to stretch and try new things.
Culture is the final vector and absolutely the most difficult to shape—a bit like cutting cubes from clouds. It’s terribly ambiguous, evolving as different people come and go through the organization. Culture generally is a reflection of the behaviors and attitudes of the people, shaped by the principles and values both explicit and implicitly held, reflected in habits, reactions, and so on. It’s not something to be dictated per se from the higher ups, as in:
“Monday at 9 a.m. we will have a new culture of human-centered design!” Instead there’s a subtle transformation of actions and attitudes guided by what’s best for everyone. It’s really enabled by your influence on relationships, those personal and professional ties with the right people at the right time. And yes, it requires deep empathy for your stakeholders, learning their issues and goals and figuring out how to support them. Thus, culture takes the truly longest time to affect, thanks to… people! Our habits and attitudes just take time to evolve and respond, as we are creatures of comfort and skeptical of new things. But building those relationships, amplifying your credibility and respect, will enable your designs and strategic HCI philosophies to be more well received.
Learn how to facilitate complex, stressful dialogues and be able to nimbly tie together disparate points of view.
Consider these vectors to be opportunities on which to pull or push in getting change to happen or a new design direction to be adopted by a perplexed, stubborn stakeholder resistant to what’s possible. Keep in mind there are countervailing forces working against you! Not from malice, of course, but simply from basic human traits like selfish ambition. Everyone has an agenda arising from that basic need to self-justify their existence and prove their value, for either pride or profit. Sensemaking their agendas, navigating the pitfalls and inputs along the way, encouraging allies while deflecting naysayers—these all involve the varying crafts of being a designer, such as making artifacts, storytelling with user data, facilitating conversations, or even just having a candid coffee with that cranky executive.
There is a veritable art in balancing the direction and magnitude of influencing each vector in enabling design-driven success. The varying levels over time are based upon observing effects and iteratively adjusting. Also, remember this is all happening against the background of time. After all, you have decisions to make, deadlines to hit, designs to deliver. Time is the great common equalizing constraint across all projects, regardless of domain. The trick to being an effective change agent is knowing how to dance with the dynamics of time and shifting vectors of influence—sensing how to pick and choose battles, applying levels of craft, charming your challengers, and so on, all toward being impactful in your pursuits. And, needless to say, you must also be careful not to lose yourself in this long game of mediating balances; you must stay true to your own north star of achievement and doing what’s right for the team and the customer.
In the end, we all entered this field to improve the human condition, which is incredibly hard work. Let’s do it by awakening ourselves to the vectors of influence as a vital tool for delivering consequential value, enabling our pursuit of leadership and having real impact that enriches our customers’ lives, despite the range of forces creating friction.
Uday Gajendar (ghostinthepixel.com) has been a prolific UX designer and leader for more than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. firstname.lastname@example.org
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