As a product designer, the single greatest thing that decides your job satisfaction is personal access to, and collaborative rapport with, relevant decision-makers. This determines if you have influence over the product, or if your insight is ignored and you end up just implementing the product. Here’s how to ensure you have influence in your design role.
A glass wall stands in your way
You joined thinking you would influence the product, but instead you find yourself implementing designs according to specifications from ‘above’. Your expertise and talents go unused, because you were hired into a position where they weren’t needed. You know this environment limits you, but you cannot see a path to promotion and are unsure if anything better exists.
How did you get here? Human-centered design once inspired you. It surprised you how an established field could be so aligned with your nature. You thought this is where you could finally put your creativity to good use. And design’s core philosophy – build something -> get feedback -> then improve it – made so much sense to you. How could you not have deep influence through such a practice.
The reason is because you were hired only to build the product, not improve its vision or strategy. You may still go through design loops, but your learnings can only affect product details. In other words, you are permitted small design loops, but large loops, that reset fundamental assumptions about the product, are blocked by a glass wall. This glass wall separates the product’s vision and roadmap from its design and development. It separates the decision-makers from those building the product.
How does a product go from 0 to 1? First there’s a spark that grows into a product vision. The vision establishes who the product is for and what it will do. Then, based on the vision, a team builds the product through however many internal stages until it is ready to be shipped. If the product sees adoption, then the team has done the impossible and created something out of nothing. This is how a product goes from 0 to 1.
As designers, you know this isn’t a linear process. Between milestones you collect feedback, rethink designs, and make improvements. It’s a process of two-steps forward, one-step backward. However, many designers are not aware of the glass wall behind them that limits their movement backward. This is because when you turn around to look, you stare right through it. I trusted my vision for too long. It was only after 7 years of bumping into it that I admitted to myself it was there.
As you go about building you learn about the users and what they need the product to do. Almost always you find that the original vision doesn’t match this reality. Something is fundamentally wrong about the product you are building. This is only a problem if you are not allowed to go back and modify the vision. And modifying the vision is exactly what the glass wall prevents. The glass wall stands between the product vision and your design work. Your design loops cannot pass behind the glass wall, so you cannot modify incorrect assumptions that were made about the product.
This dynamic doesn’t just exist for new products going from 0 to 1. Designers taking products from 1 to n also run into glass walls. The only difference is that instead of not being able to influence the vision, designers in the 1 to n scenario are unable to influence the product’s roadmap.
Part 2 continues with how glass walls limit you as a designer. There is only so much you and the product team can do if the vision is fixed. Unfortunately, glass walls are more common than not, but Part 3 gives advice for how to overcome this and attain the influence you want as a designer.
How the glass wall limits you
Part 1 shows how glass walls prevent you as a designer from influencing the product vision. It’s needless to say that your power as a designer is diminished if you cannot improve fundamental assumptions about who the product is for and what it should do. Now this section goes into detail about how exactly this limits you so we can learn how to break through in Part 3.
Since everything flows from the vision, if there is a flaw in it, then everything downstream from it is compromised. And there’s nothing you can do because you’re only as effective as your scope allows. Often no changes in the design of the product can save the product because flawed assumptions were baked in before you arrived.
The only thing that can save the product is iterating on the vision, but most product teams are prevented from doing this by the glass wall between them and decision-makers. Thus, glass walls are the leading cause of product death, not the product team’s execution.
The vision starts somewhere between complete correctness and complete incorrectness as some of its assumptions are right and others are wrong.
Each layer of the product is built up from the vision.
There is only so much you can do at each layer of the stack to build towards success. This is because the vision has a magnetic pull back towards its center. Requirements are the most constrained by the vision, because there is little up for interpretation here, and the product needs to do what it needs to do (according to the vision). Moving up the stack is like moving away from a magnet – the further up you go, the less the vision pulls back on you. Each layer up has more degrees of freedom. So, for example, you have more control over the screens in the user interface than you have over the features that are present in the app.
The team can only build so far away from the vision because of this magnetic pull. The maximum distance that can be traveled away from the vision is your influence and agency as a designer, or product team. This is the extent to which your work can make a difference on the product.
If the vision starts off too far away from user acceptance, then nothing you do will make it succeed. The only way for the product to succeed is to improve the vision and make it more “correct”, but the glass wall prevents you from doing this. And without input from you and the rest of the product team (i.e. those who know the product best), it’s unlikely that decision-makers will be able to improve the vision to the degree it needs to improve.
So this usually ends in one of two ways. Either the product is abandoned and your effort is wasted; or you’re forced to deliver a product that no amount of design work can save. This is why you feel that nothing you do makes a difference, that your insights aren’t utilized, and that you don’t have a “seat-at-the-table”. Do you see how glass walls limit you and cause your dissatisfaction?
Do not despair! Part 3 gives advice for how to overcome this powerlessness and gain the influence you want as a designer.
Breaking through the glass wall
Part 1 talked about what glass walls are, and Part 2 went into more detail about how they limit you as a designer. Now this section gives advice for how to overcome them.
So you signed up for “design” but were hired as a “builder” instead. You were tricked because the glass wall is difficult to see. But since then you’ve reached out and touched the glass wall, and confirmed its presence for yourself.
Can Design’s glass wall be broken through? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Breaking through implies that you gain influence where you once had none. Perhaps this can be done over time and through promotion. If you remain a loyal builder for long enough, perhaps you eventually find yourself on the other side.
But waiting doesn’t seem worth it to me. It’s not clear to me when and how a designer gains decision-making power within a given company. I’ve worked with VP’s who had no influence on the vision because the wall was so thick where we were.
Also, would you even want to sit on the other side of the wall? I imagine decision-makers are as equally limited by the glass wall as builders. You would just be stepping into another silo, but this time, one that is cut off from the ground-truth.
If you want influence on the vision, and want to “design” (in the full sense of the word), then the path of least resistance is to go where there are no glass walls. Rather than spending your time and energy breaking through something, you can choose to avoid it altogether. Although, this has to be a deliberate choice of yours because, from what I can tell, glass walls are more common than not.
But how can you know if you’ve found a role that doesn’t have a glass wall? This brings us back to the problem that glass walls are hard to see. We need the ability to detect glass walls before running into them. My advice is to judge design positions based on the following three criteria.
First, evaluate the organization itself. You want organizations that are flat in structure, meaning they have little hierarchy. Bonus points if the culture is loose and playful like a startup – somewhere you would feel comfortable taking risks and where self-directed work is not only encouraged, but needed.
Second, try to determine the distance between you and relevant decision-makers. To make this a hard and fast rule, you need personal access to decision-makers on a weekly basis. I’m not talking about a half hour sync at the end of the week – I’m talking about deep, collaborative working sessions with them.
Finally, you need to be able to influence the thinking of decision-makers. This is about establishing a two-way, collaborative working relationship with them. Since this can’t be made into a concrete rule, the following will have to suffice: do you generally like and respect one another, or is the decision-maker too closed-minded and authoritarian?
Who are these “decision-makers”? Decision-makers are people who control the product vision and decide what is built. Importantly, middle managers who cannot influence the product vision do not fit this definition. In corporate environments, it’s often the case that no one on the product team is a decision-maker. This is because decision-makers have the power to veto bad product ideas and pivot from one vision to another.
While interviewing you should be able to determine if the organization is flat and what your distance from decision-makers would be after joining; however, you’ll probably have to go with your gut feeling regarding your ability to collaborate with the decision-maker, since rapport is built over time. This is fine because the first several months of working somewhere is a trial period for you and the organization anyway.
You need all three of these in order to have impact as a designer. The client-consultant relationship is often a good example of having the first two, but missing the third. You may have a flat design practice and work directly with your clients; however, if you can’t influence the client’s thinking when it comes to the original vision, then nothing else matters.
It’s also interesting to think about the ‘distance from decision-makers’ at its absolute minimum. This is a distance of zero, meaning you are the decision-maker, which implies intrapreneurship or entrepreneurship. When you come up with the idea, and establish the vision, then you own the product. I don’t know of a better way to get a seat-at-the-table than being the one who builds the table.
In summary, in order to have the influence you want as a designer, at a minimum, you need to have personal access to, and collaborative rapport with decision-makers, at an organization that is flat and startup-like. You might start your search for such a design job at VC-funded startups.