Coming of Age
From 2014–2017, I was fortunate to have a stellar partner-in-design (crime) and mentor to work with, Scott Kiekbusch. Together, albeit unknowingly, we embarked on a design pilgrimage that transformed us from design practitioners working in the user experience space into digital product designers. And we would come to learn how to harness our power as digital product designers with mindful strategy and vision work.
Our journey began in 2014 at a major financial services company on its highest-profile, most-visionary endeavor: figure out what was next, beyond its long-standing flagship retirement offering. This ask was right up my alley.
I had established myself in Boston as someone who could straighten out a tangled mess to visualize tomorrow’s, big-picture possibility. But I had always worked as a sole UXD contributor — a lone wolf who played well with others. This would be the first time I was officially paired with a design partner. Scott meet Laura, Laura meet Scott. I’d eventually learn the importance of designers working in pairs, but at the time, as we were completely consumed with this mega project, I was just thankful I wasn’t in it alone.
This project was more than just in disarray — it was in constant jeopardy of catastrophic collapse. No exaggeration. The chaos was caused by all the usual suspects: impossibly demanding stakeholders, business stepping on UXD, UXD stepping on business. And all the while our gun-ho development team frantically coding with no strategic plan in sight. The stress was off the charts, leaving a trail of casualties and panic attacks in its massive wake.
But what was unique about the project was the setup, absolute collocation. A super-close proximity that afforded UXD the opportunity to work within a few feet of the assigned digital business strategists.
The Man’s Got a Plan:
Scott first recognized the potential of a closer design-business alliance and persuaded me that this was the better way forward. For the greater part of 2015, he and I worked tirelessly to pull down the barriers that persisted between the team’s business associates and creatives.
And the commitment paid off: narrowing that gap helped end the discord. It was a miracle. As our two disciplines continued to gel, we learned to speak each other’s language and collaboratively make decisions. I also learned to be wiser at choosing my design battles.
At some point between working lunches and trust falls, we UXD’ers were granted total visibility through the business wall — a rare opportunity to see the motivations and intricacies of the working business strategy. Understanding all the factors driving the business decisions helped Scott and me to further elevate how we tackled design.
Going forward, we would deliberately integrate the needs of the user with the wants of the company, aiming to solve for user problems with business goals top of mind. The importance of this business-designer relationship made a lasting impression on me.
The success of that high-profile project wasn’t a product outcome. We didn’t even make it close to getting out of the gate. Our authoritarian, tantrum-prone stakeholders ruled from the Queen of Hearts handbook; progress was at the mercy of temperamental mood swings. On a good week, a budding prototype idea made it to the next sprint round. When tempers flared, OFF WITH ITS HEADDDD. Some of those meetings were ugly… real ugly. Rather, the success of that high-profile project was this newfound realization clarifying how we designers should be working with our strategic business counterparts.
Another big win, Scott recognized the need to define our work efforts in concise, articulate statements — no more vague, lengthy monologues. He created a simple problem-statement formula[i] that proved wildly successful.
With these key insights, he and I constructed a thoughtful, comprehensive product-focused process flow with the design-business partnership woven in at every stage. Our aim was to leverage design thinking processes to create solutions for user problems squarely rooted in the business strategy. And… it was working for us.
Soon, we had gone viral. Scott and I presented our process several times to hundreds of people within the firm — and gained a following of colleague fans. We were semi-superstars. Models for this new approach to digital product work. So, we went for it: the ultimatum.
For our new process to truly be effective, both parties needed to be on equal footing. An ask that going forward, designers and our product business associates work at the same hierarchical level.
While inspired by our example, the business associates refused to relinquish their carte blanche power to grant equal decision-making weight to the design folks. Our special small group remained the exception, while the rest of the projects suffered from design-business inequality.
Rite of Passage
Fast forward to 2016 — and several nervous breakdowns later — Scott and I had a major breakthrough. The years of accumulated vision exercises had started to look like a pile of related puzzle pieces, finally revealing a path toward an innovative solution. This visionary digital product idea would move this mega company from its lagging legacy status to the head of the class. A product that had the potential to truly better people’s lives, and on an enterprise platform that meant impact on a really massive scale. Stakeholder approved.
It was a green light that was as exciting as it was terrifying. Most internal innovative efforts are fated to unfold in the same way: an optimistic start, followed by an increasingly rocky middle stage, and an execution process that drags on-and-on to a slow death. We were desperate to cheat fate and help our fledgling product reach market.
Leveraging a strategic mindset, hell-bent determination, and a shared nonconformist nature, we found our footing with a well-thought-out plan. The first move was to assemble a bad a** team made up of bold strategists from all corners of the digital product space. Once our core team was in place, we tapped specialized experts to be on stand-by.
Out of the gate, we preemptively assured leadership that all the boxes were checked. Business goals, check. Validated user problems, check. Technology… ehh, mostly check. Then we presented a proposal that roughly translated the visionary idea into a realistic near-term plan with longer-term aspirations, complete with agile-process appeal. We were good as gold… until we weren’t.
The Green Grim Reaper.
In fairness, this project had made huge strides. Our vision solution upheld all the business wants, user needs and was a strong contender to dominate an emerging market position. We had a launched MVP, successfully testing with a sizable base of established customers. But that MMP (marketable beta) sign-off was always just out of reach.
The project’s undoing would be the same reason the effort was celebrated: while this incredible product truly represented the desired path forward for the company — it was different. Very different. So, when the time came for leadership to follow-through on their commitment to that difference… see where I’m going with this?
To include our product as an expanded offering, the powers that be would have to alter the company’s raison d’être. Which meant reshuffling the legacy offerings to share that coveted top spot. But those legacy offerings were the company’s main cash cow. It’s all about the benjamins. Leadership found themselves paralyzed, incapable of making any big decisions that would rock that steady money boat. Death by indecision. Fate had finally tracked us down.
Although we didn’t get to see our game-changing digital product make it to primetime, I’m grateful for the opportunities that led to an invaluable surge of professional growth. But, while growing by leaps and bounds, I found those years insanely difficult. It turns out challenging the status quo can be professionally treacherous. Who knew? I had lost at least three of my nine lives.
Fall 2017. It wasn’t until I was finally out of the thick of things, licking my wounds and reflecting on my experiences as a whole that I could see the bigger picture.
Hallelujah! A Designer Reborn.
In hindsight, Scott and I had been wayfinding on a transformative journey that led us from UXD’ers to digital product designers. I had shed my go-to pixel-based habits and expanded outward from an exclusive focus on the user and near-term tactical output.
With Scott’s help (and his infinite well of patience), I developed my own strategic maturity. Unlocking the wisdom that strategy is the connective tissue of design.
Ultimately, we both had emerged as the bridge connecting design-to-business.
I now had an understanding how to better realize digital products with the designer leading at the helm. And, I had a newfound purpose as a designer, a higher calling. At the heart of both, was my love for the vision.
The breakthrough insight: the product vision is the keystone of a digital product. By focusing on the product vision, we had truly harnessed our power as digital product designers. I knighted myself a visioneer, combining the words “vision” and “engineering”.
Answering the Call
2019 is the year it’s all finally coming together. Rallying my fellow designers to level-up and answer that higher calling. Authoring and evolving all-things visioneering to successfully carve out strategic product visions, respective vision design solutions, and translate all that visionary thinking into real-time deliverables. Call me the visioneering sherpa, here to guide the journey.