A team of rivals: digital product development

The popular phrase of the last 8 weeks, since Barack Obama’s historic election and swift announcement of cabinet picks (in particular, Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, and keeping Robert Gates at Defense) has been “team of rivals”, from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book about Lincoln’s cabinet (which I just started reading– it’s quite fascinating). But after about the first 100 times of hearing this phrase (as a recovering political junkie I’m exposed to waaay too much media), it occurred to me that this is not really a “trendy new phrase” but it encapsulates exactly what a designer contends with daily on the job–designing with a “team of rivals” bound by a shared common purpose (ostensibly delivering the best possible product) yet guided by often competing interests and goals (feasibility, profitability, usability, aesthetics, etc.).

Digital product development is fundamentally a massive challenge of balancing & coordinating the goals/values/motives of the diverse teams involved (much more so for convergent products: hardware + software + netware), which largely intersect in the “user experience” aspect of the product. Inevitably it seems the lead interaction designer emerges (or should emerge) as the one to primarily mediate, facilitate, and coordinate among the various viewpoints from teammates, to arrive at a sensible solution that satisfies users as much as possible. Basically, shepherding the team and driving the conversation. Why is that? Often in the course of problem discovery and solution generation featuring product analysis, architecture diagramming, and taskflow mapping, the designer needs to develop a “necessary yet sufficient” level of understanding of the linkages among disparate facets of the product to ensure a seamless experience across features, modules, components, etc.

As Henry Petroski says:

Designing anything involves satisfying constraints, making choices, containing costs, and accepting compromises.

Relatedly, Bill Moggridge says:

The convergences of objects, services, environments, and technologies indicate that more and more design problems can only be solved by teams from different backgrounds working together.

And that’s the basic gist in my view when collaborating with rivals…and what makes design so difficult, beyond the pixels and specs. It’s the coordination cost and collaborative effort surrounding the resultant solutions and residual artifacts that really ensure designers earn their paychecks!

Going a bit deeper, what is it that motivates and grounds the thought and action of diverse teammates, like engineers or product managers or quality assurance (QA)? What’s the rhetorical purpose and philosophic assumption upon which they rest their arguments and positions? Here’s my personal take based upon 8 years of observation and engagement in the Valley at companies like Oracle, Adobe, and Cisco:

Logical, analytical, systematic assessment of the technical feasibility, in a quantifiably controlled manner with definitive empirical and repeatable results. Focus on constraints of technical capability given limited resources (memory, processor, API’s, coding practices, etc.)

Product Manager
Focus on business product strategy and portfolio of offerings (SKU’s) in a similarly analytical, quantifiably validatable manner. Cost control, pricing, etc. The steward of the product, gatekeeper of features and owner of business requirements.

QA Engineer
Focus on identifying technical coding flaws/bugs/defects, corollary to user experience goals of “good design” but insufficient by itself. Lots of testing protocols, bug triages, and roundtripping with Dev to ensure “good code”, but not necessarily “good design”.

Technical Writer
Focus on documentation of intended design, making sure it’s thoroughly, extensively detailed with words and images, with substantial review/feedback cycles. Provide inputs for customer service, and user guides/manuals.

Sales Engineer
Technical achievement that leads to good demonstrations of the technology for customer benefits. What can the software/hardware/netware do that supports a customer’s needs and how to customize it accordingly within limits.

Product Marketing
Focus on customer demand and market potential, examining sales and pricing configurations accordingly to ensure profitability of desired solutions. Sell, sell, sell! Channels, registrations, adverts, etc. Also focus on the customer purchase-to-pay, rather than customer experience of the product usage overall.

Of course, these are generalizations, must be taken with several grains of salt :-) Nevertheless, this diversity of perspectives and assumptions of course naturally impacts the decision-making that ultimately renders features and products as shipped/released or not and in what state of completion per original aims.

Returning to Obama’s “rival”-based cabinet picks, his rationale is to cultivate vigorous healthy debate, hearing diverse and strong opinions from the best and brightest minds, featuring a mix of seasoned experience and fresh insights to address dire challenges facing the nation, which is all well and good. But could things fall apart amid pervasive contention and fractious, even ruinous conflicts (namely big egos that can’t be controlled)??

As Obama stated emphatically (perhaps a bit defensively) in a press conference,

“But understand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost. It comes from me. That’s my job — is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure that my team is implementing it.”

I believe that’s the core job of a lead designer for a product’s user experience & design, in command of a compelling vision, leveraging her experience, judgment, intuition, and savvy personality/charisma skills to artfully engage with her teammates and shape their attitudes and behavior–thus corraling them behind the driving product vision, selling them on what is best for the user and the business. It’s not easy, but when you have good trustworthy rivals eager to prove their value, it certainly keeps you on your toes and makes the final result that much more rewarding and memorable!

(Another analogy for basketball fans may be Coach Phil Jackson’s ability to juggle the incredibly strong, fickle egos of superstars–from Michael Jordan to Dennis Rodman, or Kobe & Shaq–guiding them with a vision of becoming championship-winning teams)

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