The service-based design org

January 23, 2021 · 11 min read

Last year, I joined SimpleHealth with the mission of building a design org from scratch. On my first day, there were no in-house designers — just a rotating cast of freelance designers hired by various departments as they were needed.

A blank slate is a design leader’s dream. Finally, I thought, an opportunity to correct every frustrating wrong I’d been cataloging in previous jobs. No politics to navigate, no entrenched habits, just me and the org chart.

First question: What does a good design org actually look like?

Like a chicken on the other side of the wire, I was immediately overwhelmed by my newfound freedom. Sure, I had read Org Design for Design Orgs (like three times). I had pitched the centralized partnership model as part of my interview loop with company leadership. I had a clear head and a strong will.

But how would I know it was working?

The Achilles heel of design leadership. It’s asked in a million ways by a million stakeholders with a million acronyms. “What’s the ROI of design?” “How can design have its own P&L?” “ROAS EBITDA CAC ARPU LTV CRO?” Ok, I got a bit carried away with that last one. But if one team’s structure is better than another, surely there’s a way to measure it.

Can you really measure design?

Uh oh. I’m spiraling. Yes, these questions get asked by other designers. But they’re also asked by CEOs when some designer suggests that design should have a “seat at the table.” Marketing has a seat at the table; measuring marketing is a science, marketing managers live and breathe spreadsheets. Product has a seat at the table; you know product is working because agile coaches have burndown charts to prove it.

If design leaders like me are to get a seat at the table, we have to measure design. We need inscrutable data points to convince our stakeholders that, yes, the design org is working. And ultimately, our peers are the judges; the design org is only good if it works for everyone.

That’s it: design is a service. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum; whether we’re art-directing a new brand campaign, producing display ads for re-targeting, writing research plans for user testing, or speccing out a new component in the design system, our work is ultimately in service of our collaborators’ goals. The brand team needs to build awareness, the performance marketing team needs to acquire new customers, the product team has to increase engagement, and the engineering team needs to reduce tech debt.

Thankfully, some really smart people have already done the hard work to define what a good service looks like. Lou Downe wrote an excellent book called Good Services which is exactly that: 15 principles for good services. While Downe’s book is more focused on services like a DMV, a customer service team, a website, or a subscription platform, it’s been enlightening to apply them to design.

Here are my 15 principles for a good design service:

A good (design) service must:

  1. Enable a user to complete the outcome they set out to do
    The service-driven design org is only successful when it enables our internal customers (folks in leadership, on the marketing team, on the product team, on the finance team) to accomplish their goals.
  2. Be easy to find
    The design team needs to be extremely visible within the company. Open Slack channels, visible links to resources, templates and playbooks in commonly-used tools and processes.
  3. Clearly explain its purpose
    We call it “design,” but each company has a vastly different set of needs. At SimpleHealth, design also includes writing, video editing, audio mixing, animating, researching and testing, project management, facilitation, and more. What is design’s purpose at your company?
  4. Set the expectations a user has of it
    How does design work? Will a “customer” get a design ready-made in a day? Will they need to provide details and materials themselves, or does the design team have that on hand? Will they get to see the final product before it’s shipped to the users? Good services answer all these questions and more.
  5. Be agnostic of organizational structure
    Our customers don’t need to know the difference between UX and UI design. They shouldn’t need a Figma account or a Notion account or an Adobe account or an Asana account to work with us. We should be like a control panel — a clean, easy-to-use interface that hides all the messy internal wiring from the public.
  6. Require the minimum possible steps to complete
    I recently ordered a COVID test online. I put in my insurance information, ready to go through an elaborate maze of poorly-designed forms to get my test shipped. But that didn’t happen: the next screen said “your test is on its way.” That’s it. It just worked. If we can just work as a design team, our stakeholders will sing our praises.
  7. Be consistent throughout
    This applies to our output as much as it does our ways of working; marketing design, brand design, product design, service design, it should all look and feel and work the same.
  8. Have no dead ends
    Did the work get shipped? Does it need additional feedback? What did we learn? For anyone working with design, it should be obvious what comes next. And when we reach the end of a project, we can celebrate and start all over again.
  9. Be usable by everyone, equally
    It’s hard not to privilege certain types of design requests above others. A new brand campaign with celebrity talent is way more exciting than formatting a slide deck for a quarterly finance meeting. But to our partners and peers, each project is important. Likewise, folks who don’t know the first thing about design should be able to work with the team just as easily as the product leader who used to be a UX designer.
  10. Respond to change quickly
    One of the most damning pieces of feedback I get is when my stakeholders feel that I don’t share their urgency. Similar to principle 5 (be agnostic of organizational structure), a good design service should be organized in a way that allows us to match our stakeholders’ changing priorities and needs.
  11. Work in a way that is familiar
    Designers can be frustrating to work with. We have a language all our own: rhythm and measure, contrast, figure, ground, line height, font weight, padding, and gridlines. To provide the best service, we should try to speak the language of our partners. There’s also plenty of opportunities to educate our stakeholders in how design works.
  12. Encourage the right behaviors from users and staff
    My 2021 motto is “aligned incentives.” It should be in everyone’s best interest — designers and stakeholders alike — to be user-focused, to be ethically-minded, to work safely and respectfully and inclusively. The way we structure our design service can help.
  13. Clearly explain why a decision has been made
    No, “because it looks better” is not a good explanation. Clearly articulating why a design comes together the way it does is an invaluable skill; designers who are transparent in their decision-making tend to go farther. This extends to project management, too. Explaining prioritization and resourcing decisions in the open helps everyone manage the workload in a more sustainable way.
  14. Make it easy to get human assistance
    This one’s a little more applicable to typical services than it is to a design team. But the spirit is a good one: designers are humans, in all the good ways and the bad ways too. Embedding designers on functional teams facilitates more empathetic collaboration.
  15. Require no prior knowledge to use
    Similar to principle 11 (work in a way that is familiar), it should be easy for anyone in the company to work with designers. This principle is great for rooting out the kind of favoritism and political horse trading that is common to large design teams.

And then there’s measuring. Calculating the return on design investment is an exercise in frustration, since, to be a broken record, we don’t work in a vacuum. If you’re trying to figure out how much value design adds to a marketing campaign, how do you separate your creative choices from the strategic deployment of the campaign? Did the color increase the clickthrough rate, or did the marketing manager have the right audience targeting dialed in?

Trying to tease out design’s contributions to a successful project can also feel like a zero-sum game. Of the total revenue a new feature generated, which dollars go on design’s scorecard and which go on product’s? Accounting for success this way leads to an us vs. them mentality that only serves to pad egos.

Instead, we should measure success the way other services do:

Response time - how quickly does your design organization respond to the needs of your partners? Do new projects sit in a backlog for weeks, or are they immediately put into action?

Throughput - how many projects does your design team handle? How does that relate to the number of team members you have?

Time to completion - From the first time your team is brought into a project, how long does it take to complete?

Customer success - What does the design team enable? Instead of subtracting our contributions from the work of our partners, we should add it all up as part of our own service health metric.

Engagement metrics - How invested are your partners in the design process? A healthy design service is inclusive and engaging across the company. How many people participate in critiques? How many of your colleagues use your Slack channels, project management tools, or other self-serve tools?

Customer satisfaction - Have you ever asked how happy your partners are with the design team? Measuring this — either through quantitative tools, like CSAT or NPS, or qualitative measures — will help you grow your service.

Tracking these metrics and comparing them to other higher-order signals like revenue and profit will help you tell a cohesive story about how design contributes to overall business goals.

Going even further, you can compare the design team’s service metrics to the triple storyline of the company as a whole. With a focus on service, you can demonstrate how your work leads to better outcomes for the business, for users, and for the planet.

Companies that depend on their sales team have tools, team members, and services — sales ops — meant to increase the efficiency of the sales team. Same with engineering teams. The power of service-based thinking is one reason why design ops is essential to any high-functioning design team. Design ops is a way of thinking about the efficiency of the design team, applying an analytical mindset to workflow challenges, and improving outcomes by increasing the availability of design as a function.

The service model has been instrumental in my efforts to build a design team. It aligns me and my partners in other parts of the org in ways that previously seemed out of reach. When I say “your goals are my goals,” collaboration becomes a breeze. When I’m frustrated with a deluge of feedback or stressed by an onslaught of requests, it helps to frame these things as signs that my service is in demand; I can take that demand and use it as a signal to grow my team.

It’s not a silver bullet. Sometimes, I catch myself wishing I could deliver my work without the constant watchful eye of my stakeholders. Some projects suffer from design by committee, while others are pushed through with constant priority-hacking (when everything is high priority, nothing is). There are lots of challenges to the service model.

But treating the design organization as a service has made it clear just how important it is to every part of the business. And the framework that service thinking provides has helped me be proactive in designing and growing the team.