Complementing design principles with business operational practices will bring more empathy, connection, innovation, and financial returns to any team or company.

Journey to Design

I never thought of myself as a designer by any means (I have little to no artistic ability). I’m a scientist at heart and by trade; I observe, hypothesize, analyze, and experiment. When I graduated college, I didn’t know that a field of “design” existed, nor did I know what it actually was. I stumbled upon the world of design in my first role at Dropbox, accidentally. I was placed on the Design recruiting team, helping to hire world-class (and awesome) folks for our Product Design, Research, Content Design, Brand Studio, and Design Ops teams. As time passed, there was just something that kept piquing my interest, so I started to peek at portfolios, chat with designers during their interviews, and sit through some presentations—and let me tell you, it all blew my mind. I absolutely loved it.

I began to understand that, fundamentally, design is all about people. It isn’t about “making things look pretty” or about fashion (which I had previously thought). Design identifies what people need. It observes how people use a product and ultimately defines that experience. It uncovers and solves for why people do the things they do (fascinating, right?). And I learned more about the design process: how pure ideas during brainstorming turn into research studies, sketches, user journeys, wireframes, prototypes, testing, evaluating, and eventually, final products. These are products and experiences that touch my life every day. Ever booked an Airbnb and noticed how the process is seamless for the user? Or built IKEA furniture by yourself? Or called an Uber or Lyft and thought about the location of their UI buttons and how they lead to intentional, logical actions? I honestly was astonished (and slightly dumbfounded) that I hadn’t ever noticed any of this before (because good design is simple and intuitive, hence users shouldn’t notice). At its core, design helps businesses solve for people’s needs.

I also met design practitioners from so many different backgrounds and journeys. Each was quirky in their own way, incredibly sharp, and deeply empathetic—and I couldn’t help myself from wanting to be a part of this creative group.

Business operations

In my current role (I joined the badass Design team), I manage the core business operations of the org—and the crux of it is operations, strategy, and communication.

  • Operations is primarily for yourself: Are you organized? Do you have the information you need, or know where to find it? How do internal processes work? Are your workflows efficient, automated, sustainable, and effective?
  • Strategy is for alignment: How is your work (or the work you’re advocating for) aligned to the bigger picture and goals?
  • Communication is for stakeholders and cross-functional partners: Can you analyze metrics, build cases, and present compelling narratives to inform and influence others effectively?

Business of design

So how do design principles fit in here? When you have good business design, your org shouldn’t notice, because things are just working. In business design, your users are the people you work with. Every day, I use the design process internally to understand and solve for my colleagues’ needs. I think about how we can make the org’s collective experience as frictionless and seamless as possible. How we can work to enable the creative process, remove internal blockers, and mitigate “work about work.” How we can work better to achieve our team as well as company goals.

When you have good business design, you get collective understanding, efficiency, and optimization (and you #GSD). You create intentional business processes and experiences. Your teams have the time, space, and resources they need to do their best work.

Here are three ways to incorporate design principles into your business operating practice:

1. User-centricity

  • Thoughts: When working in any cross-functional or multi-disciplinary group, your end user is most likely your internal partner or stakeholder, so think from their perspective. What are their priorities and pain points? What do they want and need? What are they trying to achieve here?
  • Actions: Chat with them and get to know them! Ask them questions to understand context and the full landscape. I’m very fortunate that my cross-functional partners and stakeholders are patient enough to answer all of my many questions (they’re angels, really).
  • Results: Your team and internal partners get what they need, when they need it, and how they need it. Better still, the entire organization gets better solutions, innovative ideas, and stronger internal relations. Everyone works in sync and is on the same page. If there’s any confusion or miscommunication, it gets resolved more quickly.

2. Usability

  • Thoughts: No one’s going to follow a process or workflow that’s difficult and takes a long time. So you have to think about how you can make an internal process or workflow as seamless as possible. Is it easy to use? Does it make sense? Can a 10-year-old understand what you’re saying or doing? If not, you must simplify or at least communicate differently.
  • Actions: Test a workflow with some people. Ask them what their current process is. Or grab a cross-functional partner for 10 minutes and ask them to use a new model you’ve built or walk them through a potential new workflow. See what questions they have and where they experience friction, then solve.
  • Results: You’re bringing your partners with you on the journey of the creative process. You’re solving for your (or the user’s) needs and for how people work—and making internal workflows as frictionless as possible to implement and use. A win for you, a win for your partners, and a win for the business.

3. Iteration

  • Thoughts: Nothing is perfect, ever. We need to recognize when an internal process isn’t serving its purpose to the fullest. There are things I’ve built and workflows I’ve created that I’m attached to, naturally—but can they be better; can they be changed? Yes, of course. Am I sometimes a little resistant to making a change? Admittedly, yes. But we need to keep the big picture in mind and iterate when necessary. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do a good job the first time; it means that we’re simply changing, growing, and learning. We’re making continual progress vs. striving for instant perfection.
  • Actions: Try new things and experiment. Be as objective as possible. Get the right feedback, from the right people, at the right time. Don’t become too attached to a particular solution. Become attached to identifying and solving problems. Become attached to meeting the needs of your internal stakeholders and the business. Business needs are constantly evolving, so you must be able to think quickly and execute with agility.
  • Results: You’re changing, when necessary. You create, build, and use agile frameworks and workflows that are seamless and have enough structure to meet the current needs of your business. An agile framework is an internal process that’s capable of pivoting to meet any unforeseen changes or demands. No operational process is ever “final”—because you’re always thinking in the back of your mind: “How can this be better?”

Bonus: content and communication

  • Thoughts: Are you presenting information in the best way possible? Is it clear, understandable, and logical? How the information is communicated is equally as important as what information you convey.
  • Actions: For written communication, take a physical step from your computer screen. Do you have blocks of text? Pay attention to the fonts, spacing, size, and visual layout of the email, report, or newsletter. Use the company’s internal brand guidelines and assets (fonts, color palettes, logos, and more) for your communications.
  • Results: Just as your company’s external brand creates an experience for the customer, the use of brand-aligned communications and visuals can create a similar experience for internal stakeholders.

Design principles shouldn’t be used solely by designers. They can be expanded upon and used by any business professional. As these principles permeate other teams and industries, people will be able to problem-solve more creatively and work together more empathetically.

The Dropbox Design team teaches us their ways—in turn, we apply these learnings to business practices that enable us, as an organization, to be more nimble, effective, and efficient. It’s kismet, a match made in heaven. And truth be told, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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