Ep. 319 – Shadow Design Teams with Audrey Crane, Partner at DesignMap

Ep. 319 – Shadow Design Teams with Audrey Crane, Partner at DesignMap

​On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we welcome back Audrey Crane, partner at DesignMap. Audrey and I talk about the challenges and costs of shadow design teams and the impact of having non designers do design work. Let’s get started.

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Interview Transcript with Audrey Crane, Partner at DesignMap

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Audrey Crane. She is a partner at Design Map, Author of What CEOs Need to Know About Design and also now a second time guest. Welcome, Audrey.

Audrey Crane: Yeah, thank you, Brian. Thanks so much for having me back.

Audrey CraneBrian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you back because it’s been a while. You know, you’re a long time Silicon Valley design leader and you’re now resident back here in the Silicon Prairie here in Nebraska. I think you came right back right before COVID hit. So probably a lot to discuss about that but wanted to welcome you back on the show.

One of the reasons I wanted to have you back is I’ve been following you and you’ve been writing about some new interesting topics in and around this world of design and one of the most recent pieces I saw was a post about the cost of what you’re calling shadow design teams. So, I wanted to kind of kick off the podcast with a little talk about what do you mean by shadow design teams and what’s the implications of that?

Audrey Crane: It’s interesting right now there’s a lot of conversation about like the value of design, the ROI of design. I don’t know if you’ve heard all the chatter about that. It seems like impossible to avoid. Recently, there’s a very popular blog post about the sort of gaslighting of designers with this whole value of design thing.

You know, when we first started talking about it a couple of years ago, I was like, great, you know, designers should talk business. That’s part of the bounded problem solving that makes design fun and interesting. And I was all in on that conversation for a long time and I still am. It’s the first chapter of my book actually is ROI of Design.

And it’s hard to feel like that conversation is getting us where we want to go. It’s hard to feel like it’s getting us very far. What has been interesting to me is to look, instead of saying to organizations like, hey, you should invest more in design. Like because of the ROI, let’s look at what you’re spending on design today.

And if that’s the most effective spend that you could possibly make. And especially right now, the economy isn’t great, especially in the tech industry, like let’s look more at operational efficiency. So, with some of our clients and friends, we’re running a survey to understand who is doing design outside of the design team.

We’re asking product managers, engineers, QA people, business analysts, executives, anybody you can get to take the survey, how much time they’re spending alone doing design. So, if they’re in a room with somebody else, a designer talking about something that doesn’t count. We’re not worried about that. But we’re just measuring, like I’m doing solo work that a designer might normally do.

And the numbers that are coming back are astonishing, like flabbergast. So one client that we did it with, she has a design team of like a dozen. There are 150 engineers. So already you’re like, hmm, I don’t know if the ratio is quite going to hold up there. But when we ran the survey, there were 22 full time employees worth of design being done by non-designers. Which is crazy. And every time we’ve run this survey, it’s just a shocking number.

Brian Ardinger: And you talked a little bit about the fact that it seems weird because you wouldn’t unknowingly pay designers to code or things along those lines. So why are we paying folks that necessarily don’t have the background or expertise of what a true designer could bring to the table? And that is costing companies money, time, resources, things along those lines. Is that the premise?

Audrey Crane: Absolutely. Yeah. And morale, honestly, it’s been interesting. I mean, I certainly have worked with plenty of organizations where there’s a front-end engineer, there’s a product manager that’s doing a lot of design work and they like it.

And when we started running this survey, I expected a lot of the answers to be, yeah, well I do design, but I do it because I like to do it. I think my work is as good as a designer, but most of the time what we’re hearing back is, I wish a designer could do it. They’re faster than me. I don’t feel competent at this.

I am not enjoying it and I have other stuff that I need to do and this is slowing me down, but there weren’t designers available to work on this project or more frightening even is I didn’t know how to work with the design team that we have internally. The costs are some engineers and some product managers are probably great designers.

I’m sure there are some out there. But generally, if we look across the board, it’s probably lower quality design. It’s probably slower design. It’s also probably taking away from all the work that only an engineer can do or only a product manager could do. So, it’s slowing down velocity on other fronts as well.

And it’s a morale hit for the people who don’t want to be doing it and are frustrated by it and the designers who are on the one hand trying to make a case for investing when this huge investment is already happening in design just like in a different part of their work.

Brian Ardinger: Obviously organizations probably either maybe don’t know this is happening or aren’t actively trying to use additional resources on projects and that. What are some of the kinds of drivers that you think are causing companies to put the design effort onto other people’s backs versus hiring designers or focusing on the right mix of talent?

Audrey Crane: That’s a good question. I mean, I think part of it is that they just don’t realize how much design work there is to do. And so that’s the big part of this is like, who knew that in this organization, there was 34 people’s worth of design to do, to be done. I wouldn’t have guessed that, right. So, it’s like kind of that old trope of the alternative to good design isn’t no design, it’s bad design. Like it’s just not happening, right? It can’t be happening. That can’t be happening.

So, I think that that’s part of it. I do feel like design teams are often perceived just as cost centers. And that’s why we’re having these conversations about the ROI of design and the value of design. And we do hear some pushback from designers saying, is there an ROI of engineering, is that being calculated?

I’m sure it is in some organizations, but. It’s such a prevalent conversation. I do think that people like to do it. I also do think some people, not most people, as it turns out, interestingly, and I also do think that there’s the, the Dunning Kruger effect, like the idea that the less competent one is the more confident one is in their ability to do a thing.

And then you start to learn like, you start to know how much you don’t know and that kind of evens out. So, I think that that’s part of it too. I think it’s just easier to make a case for hiring another engineer than hiring another designer usually.

Brian Ardinger: Right. The value of an engineer in people’s minds is sometimes perceived higher than the design side of things. Are you seeing some of the organizations moving to this kind of shared shadow design team kind of work is because they can’t find good design talent out there or what is your thought around access to talent itself?

Audrey Crane: No, I think, unfortunately, a trend right now that I feel like I’m seeing is tons of designers are being let go. Whole design teams are being let go. Just with the soft tech economy, there are a lot, a lot of amazing, amazing designers out there that are looking for their next gig. So, I don’t think that that’s, that that’s the issue.

And I want to be clear too, just to be cautious that I’m not advocating like, oh well, those companies should be laying off product managers instead, or those companies should be laying off engineers instead. I’m not saying that at all.

I do think if you see attrition, maybe you move ahead or like we’re doing annual planning right now. So, if you’re planning to grow by X percent, maybe a higher percentage of that goes to design than you were originally expecting. Or maybe budget gets reallocated to hire an outside consultancy, like my company, you know, to help with some of that work.

I’m not saying like, let people go. I’m just saying like over time, I think there are lots of strategies that we can use to balance things out, improve quality, improve efficiency, that kind of thing.

Brian Ardinger: And part of that may be that initial level set of understanding where design is happening within the organization, who is doing it, how much is being done by a traditional designer versus someone else. And that organizational readiness, if you will, for how they can best map out the talent and the work that needs to be done.

Audrey Crane: Yeah, I mean, you don’t want to do it accidentally. Maybe you measure shadow design and you’re like, okay, well, I’m okay with X percentage of shadow design happening. The same way we have shadow IT happening. Like, actually there are some upsides to shadow IT that you could, if you look at the Wikipedia article actually has an interesting list of upsides.

So, I’m not saying like, I have an expectation that we’re going to wipe this all out and no design is ever going to happen outside of the design team. But what I am saying is that we can employ strategies like what we talked about. Maybe, you know, maybe you say, okay, well, we’re never going to hire enough designers, but we could train the engineers to do production design more consistently.

And like, I’m going to just get in front of it and call it my parade. Right. Or that product manager that loves doing design so much, we’re just going to move them into the design team. Like there’s lots of things that we can do to balance things out.

Brian Ardinger: One of the other articles you wrote recently, you talked a lot about trying to identify the levels of organizational design readiness in an organization. Can you talk a little bit about the surveys and the opportunities that people can do to assess where they really are at in this process?

Audrey Crane: I don’t have a survey for that one. I wish I did. And now that you say it, I’m thinking like, maybe I should do that. But I have seen with some of the folks that we work with that design can mature to a certain point. So maybe we can get, if we look at the envisioned scale of readiness, you know, maybe we can move up one notch in that. But I do believe that there are organizations that are giving design lip service, but not from the C level. Not really willing to transform.

And acknowledging that instead of beating our heads against the table and like, no, if I just proved my ROI better than somehow this organization, which maybe, you know, but maybe you can only go so far within an organization. They’re just not ready to go further than that. And so individual designers and design leaders need to think about what the limitations of their organization are and not just the limitations of their design team.

Brian Ardinger: What are some of those things that a company, if they’re looking at this, can kind of identify where they fit in that pyramid of readiness? What are some of the things they should be, I guess, measuring or looking at to see where they’re at?

Audrey Crane: I guess when I’ve seen this happen and I’ve sort of felt like, okay, well, this, this is as far as this organization is going to go is when designers sort of like make the case, create a shared understanding with the organization of like, here’s what I believe as a design leader, this design team can contribute to the success of the business.

Does the business agree with me on that? Is there some difference of expectation? And we can have that conversation and we can set that all up, right? It’s about interviewing executives, asking them why the design team is there in the first place, what their expectations are, and so we can kind of circle the square.

And then we have to make specific asks of the organization to change how this process works or make an investment or allow you to do training. And those specific asks I do think need to be in service of this like explicit shared goal. So, without the explicit shared goal, we’re just asking for stuff like a spoiled kid at Christmas.

Like I want this, and I wanted that, and I wanted this and I wanted that. And like, you don’t value me. Why aren’t you giving it to me? But if we do have this like explicit shared goal that we’re all in agreement on. And then I can say, hey, look, if I can do, we see this happen with research too, all the time, like research teams, like shadow research, because, okay, well, I’m not going to be able to do every research study that any product manager ever thinks of.

But I am going to ask that you require all the product managers to attend this research training session workshop so that they’re doing better research. They’re learning more effectively. So, we’re making better product decisions as an organization. And if the org is like, oh, no, you can’t have that. No, you’re not going to do that. It’s like the mean parent. I don’t know, the Grinch at Christmas. At some point, why would you keep doing that?

Brian Ardinger: Well, at least if nothing else, you have that conversation and you can then suffer the consequences of what that conversation is, at least know going into it that, well, okay, we’re not going to get funded for this or… Yes, we’re going to be okay with the fact that folks who’ve never written a research survey are going to be doing that and we’re going to suffer the consequences if that goes wrong, which likely will go wrong if you’re not trained or focused on that at all.

Audrey Crane: And there’s only so well that you can articulate the value of design in organizations before it’s just, it’s not going to go any further, we don’t want to recognize that, or we just think…

Brian Ardinger: it’s hard to see sometimes. I think it’s sometimes good design is intangible in a lot of ways sometimes. It kind of takes away the friction and you don’t understand something that’s built good from a good design perspective can add a lot of value but it’s hard to know until you actually see it or experience it that friction that’s created by bad design things like that.

Audrey Crane: Yeah, it’s definitely easier to know when it’s wrong whether that’s…

Brian Ardinger: If the engineer makes a bug and the program doesn’t run, that’s different than, well, if we just changed the user experience here such that, you know, we sped up the process or eliminated that friction for that customer, it’s hard to map those equally, I suppose.

Yeah. You know, it’s been a couple of years since we last talked and that I’d love to hear your feedback or what you’re seeing when it comes to trends and maybe specifically around some of the things we’re seeing in AI and what, how’s that playing a role in product design or, or some of the other things you’re seeing?

Audrey Crane: Well, I talked about one trend earlier. I do see like designers and whole design teams even being let go in this kind of year of efficiency or whatever we’re calling 2023. I don’t know if it’s going to continue or not, but it has been sort of shocking how pervasive and how deep the cuts have been in some companies.

And I know lots of different roles have been laid off, but I have seen like whole entire design organizations just let go, which is astonishing, because again, the design still has to get done. On the AI front, I, I do think, honestly, I’m a collection of other people’s thoughts because I haven’t quite gotten clear on where I’m at with it.

I do think it’s important or at least useful to think about, like, when we talk about how AI impacts design, are we talking about, it’s in the tool that I use, or it is the tool that I as a designer use, or does it replace me as a designer? Or is it in the tool that I’m designing? Or does it replace the tool that I’m designing, in which case that’s no longer necessary, right?

So, there’s kind of these all these separate kind of layers of the onion or aspects to what we have to talk about when we’re talking about AI as it relates to design. I do agree Peter Merholz and Erica Hall have been talking a bit and I agree with them that anybody who thinks that AI is going to replace design is confusing design with production.

Yeah, you know, I’ve been around for a long time, and I remember when It was a big deal if a product was SaaS and that was going to change everything. It was a big deal if it was cloud. Now everything is cloud, you know, we expect everything to be cloud. And I do think that AI is going to have a bigger impact obviously than cloud, but I think it’s going to become a given.

At the end of the day, as designers, our job is to deeply understand what people are trying to accomplish and why and how both within the organization and outside of the organization, and then to develop things that support that. And AI is not going to do that. Like, if it could take on some of the production, maybe all the better. You know, maybe that shadow design would definitely go away.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: So, frees up your time to do other things around it. It’s very similar to the advent of the Excel spreadsheet. Changed the way tools were used and people could access things that they couldn’t access before. Audrey, thanks again for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. I love always catching up with you on this topic. If people want to find out more about yourself or more about your organization, what’s the best way to do that?

Audrey Crane: And they can come to designmap.com or email me Audrey@designmap.com. I am hoping that we can get a body of maybe 10 organizations to run the shadow design survey. And then we can help the whole design discipline by saying like on average organizations are seeing that 70 percent of their design is being done through shadow design or something like that. So, if they want to run in, I’m happy to help. Or if they ran it and they want to talk to me, but we do have a free version of the survey on the website, a free version of a deck to present survey findings on the website. So, we’d love to have people use that and we’d love to hear from them if they do.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, I’ll encourage folks to check that out. And again, thanks for being on the show. Appreciate it.

Audrey Crane: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me back.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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Episode 319

Ep. 319 – Shadow Design ...