Internal Design Teams and Thought Leadership

There’s a sense of disillusionment among some designers about UX’s ‘lost potential’ — that it’s been co-opted for purely commercial (and in some cases, unscrupulous) ends. It’s articulated in this post by Mark Hurst, and I’m reading it into this tweet by Jesse James Garrett:

I haven’t experienced this malaise myself. (But I’ve seen lots of it on Twitter, a platform that rewards kvetching.) Most designers I know are engaged with their work, and my students seem excited for the future. So, I suspect Jesse’s ‘more than a decade’ qualifier matters.

That said, I believe he’s onto something. Designers should be ecstatic about our field’s increased visibility and impact, but we don’t seem to be. What’s going on? I responded to Jesse’s tweet with one possibility:

I don’t have hard data, but I sense the ratio of designers in internal design teams to those in consultancies and agencies is at an all-time high. I qualified my tweet because I’m unsure, but I suspect the shift to this de facto monoculture has slowed the field’s evolution.

Of course, this is self-serving coming from a consultant. I’m parsing this tweet as calling me out on this conflict of interest:

Perhaps unwittingly, Andy is hinting at something important. The design industry is an ecosystem. External design teams provide critical functions beyond augmenting internal design resources. Thought leadership — pushing the field’s boundaries — is indeed one of them.

Many practices and tools we take for granted — journey maps, personas, conceptual frameworks (such as Jesse’s Elements of UX) — were pioneered and/or popularized by ‘outies.’ Most of the field’s foundational books and blogs are by people outside ‘client’ organizations.

This isn’t because internal designers aren’t as clever or dedicated as their external colleagues. (Many ‘innies’ are former ‘outies.’) It’s because internal design roles are structurally misaligned with public thought leadership. (With an exception that I’ll address below.)

Let’s unpack why this might be.

Fewer opportunities to cross-pollinate

Internal designers focus on their organization’s industry, whether it’s financial services, retail, healthcare, etc. The company’s business is their business, and its business isn’t design. This constrains the ability of in-house designers to look outside their domain.

Conversely, consultants work in various problem domains, so they have more opportunities to trawl different fields for insights and connect dots between seemingly unrelated ideas. The ensuing insights are easier to generalize, making them more widely applicable.

Internal career growth = management

Most internal designers face a challenge: career progression asks that they give up hands-on design work to manage other designers instead. There’s nothing wrong with this per se (see here), but management is ultimately a different track from design.

Thought leadership and mastery are correlated. An internal designer on an upward path must choose between mastery of design craft and mastery of management. This might be changing, but for now most current internal team structures incentivize the latter.

Internal design innovation = scaling impact

Here we come to the exception I mentioned previously. Contrary to what I’ve been suggesting so far, there is public thought leadership coming from in-house teams: it’s mostly about scaling design’s impact. (Often under the moniker ‘design ops.’)

It’s important work that delivers better-designed products to more people. But doing the work more efficiently isn’t the same as doing it more effectively. Operationalizing design is more about the former than the latter.

Fewer incentives to share publicly

The final — and perhaps most challenging — hurdle to thought leadership for internal design teams is that they have no incentive to share what they’ve learned. Often, the opposite is true: their breakthroughs are considered proprietary.

Internal design teams aren’t in the business of advancing the state of design. Their work is in service to the goals of the organization. Again, nothing wrong with this. But organizations must focus, and thought leadership isn’t the best use of their resources.

Consider how little we know about Apple’s design practices relative to their impact on the world. I wish we could hear from their designers, but it’s rare for them to share their methods in public. And why would they? Doing so wouldn’t create value for Apple.

Conversely, leading consultancies such as Adaptive Path (RIP), Cooper (RIP), IDEO, and Nielsen Norman Group have shared their knowledge widely. Thought leadership is how they attract clients and employees — i.e., they’re incentivized to advance the field.

Towards a healthier balance

When I think about thought leadership in design today, one of the topics that come immediately to mind is ethics. It’s a key issue the profession has grappled with over the past few years.

The people producing impactful books and talks on ethics are either solo consultants (Cennydd Bowles, Sara Wachter-Boettcher) or in agencies (Mike Monteiro.) Same for other ‘leading edge’ topics such as design systems (Nathan Curtis) and modeling (Hugh Dubberly.)

The exceptions — i.e., public thought leaders in internal design organizations — are mostly in companies that offer design tools and services. (E.g., Adobe, Autodesk, Mural, InVision, Figma.) In these cases, design thought leadership aligns with the organizations’ business goals.

But I consider these exceptions that prove the rule. Overall, I sense the environment isn’t as generative — and therefore, as exciting — as it was ten years ago. It may be a sign of maturity; perhaps our intellectual toolset is complete. But I doubt it.

More likely, the leading-edge work is happening behind closed doors, limiting designers in all but the largest companies. As for the stuff that’s being shared, I don’t consider efficiency as interesting as other possible areas of discussion.

Perhaps this take says more about my limited understanding than the reality of what’s happening. It may be there are many internal designers staking out the frontiers of design and sharing what they’ve found, and I just haven’t seen their work. (If so, please get in touch.)

To be clear: I’m not trying to diss in-house work. As design becomes more central to business, it’s natural for organizations to build strong design capabilities. Better in-house teams should ultimately result in better-designed products and services reaching more people.

There are also important reasons for designers themselves to prefer working in-house. For one thing, established companies promise more money, stability, and cachet. For another, internal designers are more likely to see their work through to production and beyond.

Which is to say, it’s great that organizations are developing strong internal design teams. The world is better for it. But I also think they’re not as suited to driving the state of the art for the profession as consultancies are.

Do I think this is all that ails UX design? No. But I also don’t think the current situation helps. A more balanced mix between internal and external teams would make for a healthier (and exciting) ecosystem.

Cover image by Marco Verch (CC by 2.0)


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