From T-shaped to π-shaped designer

The role of designers is changing and new approaches are needed to foster a mindset that can support them to become more impact-focused and a key strategic partner. How can DesignOps help driving Designers’ transformation to maximise results and influence?

A T-Shaped designer had great skills and a focus on execution and delivery. But a π-shaped designer i data driven and focused on impact and collaborative conversations that can drive maximum results.

Design has gone a long way in the past 10 years thanks to the rise and impact of Design Thinking and to the impact design has had on businesses. There are a number of studies reporting how companies with Design teams have higher profits, such as McKinsey 2018, John Maeda’s Design in Tech Reports, The Forrester Report 2020.

Yet, many design leaders still complain about the role and positioning of Design within their organisation, claiming that their team is unable to influence conversations and that Design is still expected to execute briefs and deliver pixel-perfect prototypes or designs. But that is only one side of the story, because it is also important to learn what is the experience that engineers, product managers, and marketing teams are having with the design teams to answer the question Are design teams really misunderstood or are they missing an opportunity?

To answer this question, both the shape of the design teams and designers’ skills matter and influence the positioning of Design.

We have seen a growth in the so-called T-shaped designers: technically impeccable designers capable of perfectly execute any brief and delivering on time. These are greatly talented and highly skilled professionals, but to fully empower Design to reach the strategic positioning it deserves, they need to learn to collaborate on new grounds and with enhanced approaches with their cross-functional partners to ensure designers are not executing briefs but influencing decisions.

It is DesignOps’ role to own this issue and to define the strategic approach to understand the root causes of this situation. And this required a deep understanding of what was the current experience that design partners were having with designers. A survey and 1:1 interviews revealed that there were a certain number of recurrent issues that cross-functional partners were experiencing with the design teams, but two were the key issues that were having the biggest impact: designers’ limited decision-making capacity and the design team’s overall reactive attitude.

Why that? Why these aspects were important and where were these issues coming from?

From Design Thinking to Data thinking

Design Thinking has made empathy and user obsession one of the signatures of how design teams operate. Yet Design Thinking’s overall qualitative approach that investigates unmet needs has not been fully expanded towards a stronger formalised data-driven quantitative approach to measure users behaviours and impact.

In the era of the quantified self, it’s also time to start thinking and embracing the era of the quantified user, and to do so designers need to evolve their approach to new dimensions.

If Design is about nudging users to adopt better ways to achieve their goals, if it is about creating delight and meaningful experiences, measuring behaviours and quantifying the impact of the experiences that are being delivered is the single most important element to ensure design thinking has the impact it promises in its empathy-led approach. This becomes important because if cross-functional partners are using metrics and KPIs to assess performance and impact, it is hard for designers to compete on the same level when they focus mostly on stories and empathy with no solid data-driven approaches.

Empathy and narratives are essential to influence, but decisions today are made with data.

T-shaped designers in our teams were not fully relying on analytics: when in an internal survey and follow up interviews designers were asked about the tools and data points they were using to make decisions, the vast majority admitted not only that they felt they did not know much about analytics, but they were not sure about the tools and resources that were available to them. 
And although the organisation had 3+ analytics tools available to all in an effort to democratise data, yet many designers felt that analytics was “the analytics guys’ stuff”.

But having to rely on the analytics’ guys to get behavioural data, also meant that when a designer wanted to check on the performance of an in product feature, these queries had very low priority for the analytics teams, meaning that the data may take days or even weeks to arrive. And of course, these low added value asks from the design teams were not helping the relationship between Design and Analytics.

This demonstrates the need to rethink designers’ mindset and move from a T-shaped to a π-shaped approach to Design. π-shaped designers combine Design Thinking with a solid data driven approach: they use data to make informed decision and to quantify changes in users’ behaviours. π-shaped designers drive conversations and visions with their cross-functional partners thanks to the shared focus on impact and the ability to use analytics as a common language: in this new approach, data complements and strengthens designers’ deep understanding of the users’ pain-points and supports their capacity to be part of the decisions and to be proactive in identifying impactful opportunities.

What if we nurture a data-informed mindset?

These considerations led to an experiment: can we foster, and measure designers’ mindset?

This type of overarching strategic initiatives fall within DesignOps’ strategic remit. Fostering a data driven mentality, requires an ongoing commitment, time, and support from the leadership and the teams and it needs a combination of both the technical training on existing platforms and ongoing exposure to best practices and case studies.

DesignOps partnered with the analytics platform suppliers by sharing the concerns, analysing the expertise gaps, discussing the opportunities, and defining a learning plan to increase teams’ understanding of the platforms.
On the other side, a number of Subject Matter Experts have been invited to share case studies, best practices, examples on how analytics and data can be used in Design and innovation.

This soon become a 6 months’ initiative: both the technical training on tools and mindset shaping initiatives were needed to ensure designers started asking the right questions and touse tools to answer those questions. 
Data driven is a mindset that is supported by tools and platforms. The agreed commitment with design leaders and teams was to attend 90 minutes’ sessions 3 times a month. Basically a total of 4.5 hours a month with a weekly commitment.

The results after 6 months

Assessing the impact of how training initiative impact teams’ development of a more data informed mindset requires… data!

For this reason, ahead of the sessions, all designers were asked to fill a skill matrix assessment to understand teams’ strengths and opportunities and to assess the level of confidence in data and in analytics platforms and tools. We also collected analytics data to understand the current engagement and utilisation of the existing data platforms to answer a key question: how much and how often were designers engaging with analytics tools?

It was important to both understand self-perception and to triangulate that with behaviours to get a full picture of the initial situation and to quantify actions and attitudes.

All these data point, the behavioural analytics and the skill matrix, were the baseline. 6 months and 30 hours trainings later, designers were asked to fill the same matrix and new data were collected from the platforms to understand if there were any changes in designers’ behaviours.

Yes, the needle was moving and it was moving in the right direction!

Designers were asked to rate their confidence in the domains touched by the trainings, and while confidence in data and analytics increased up to 12% with an average increase of 8%, the confidence in using analytics tools and platforms increased by up to 29%!

Behavioural data from platforms’ analytics confirmed these self-assessments, with an increased engagement that overcome all initial hypothesis: in 6 months there was a 70% uplift in the number of data and analytics projects launched by designers, an 1,800% increase in designers’ queries to the platforms, and a +170% increase in overall engagement with all analytics tools.

Can we foster and nurture a data-driven mindset?

Yes, we can. But it takes time: these results are just a starting point: maintaining momentum, ensuring new acquired behaviours become habits, strengthening confidence, and establishing the habit to think and to make decision with data is a mindset that needs to be exercised constantly, like a muscle.

These initial results can be quickly nullified by the wrong initiatives and it is now key to rethink and to learn from these 6 months to identify opportunities to consolidate the learnings and nurture the mindset.

Because one positive result is not a victory, it is the beginning of more targeted and efficient actions to increase designers’ engagement and excitement for data and to ensure we foster the π-shaped mentality that can allow Design to move into the strategic and influencing space it deserves.

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published on our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

Published by Pat

DesignOps alchemist