UX Is a Canary in a Coal Mine

What design team morale means for CEOs and designers

From a young designer: “I am about to graduate with a degree in Human Computer Interaction and want to focus my job search on companies that value design. How can you tell if a company ‘gets’ design and will be a place where I can be successful?”

From a CEO: “How can I make my company attractive to designers so they will want to join? Why is the design for my products just OK and not awesome?”

Most designers naturally want to join a company where the design of the product is already strong, believing it reflects the value the company places on design and how well designers are set up to succeed. However, product / design quality is a lagging indicator of companies’ relationship to design and only tells you part of the story. It is equally important to considerleading indicators as well.

Lagging indicators are output-oriented, the results of efforts that were made in the past. They are backward-focused and trailing. Leading indicators, on the other hand, are precursors that help predict the direction something is going. In public companies, for example, lagging indicators of a company’s health might include net revenue, revenue growth, and return on net assets. Leading indicators might include customer satisfaction, growth in new markets, brand recognition, or number of new patents. Both kinds of metrics are important to consider when evaluating how well a company is doing and where it’s headed. Similarly, lagging and leading indicators for product and design can help guide what companies need from design and what CEOs can do to turn design around within their companies.

When it comes to assessing a company’s relationship to design, it really boils down to two things: (1) design team morale and (2) product quality.

Design team morale is a leading indicator for a company’s design health. Are the designers in the company positive and happy, or do they complain about feeling disempowered or disenfranchised? Product quality is a lagging indicator for a company’s design health, because it reflects all the actions, decisions, and processes the company makes, from the CEO and throughout the organization.

The morale of a UX team is a canary in a coal mine because everything a company does and is impacts the end user experience — the strategy, scope, process, and talent all manifest in the design. Yet the design team often feels the least empowered to fix the experiences they’re responsible for designing. If designers are not happy, it likely reflects larger issues with the company that impact current and future products under development.Moreover, if designers are not happy, it’s really hard for them to create a joyful experience.

You can chart the relationship between design team morale and product quality into a 2×2 box to infer where things are at and what is needed:

Let’s take a look at each box and what it means:

Design team morale is negative;
Product quality is poor

Under this scenario, it’s likely that the company lacks a strong vision for what it wants to do and/or how to get there. The product is confused because internally the company lacks clarity. The design team’s morale is low because they don’t feel empowered to solve the company’s problems; the problems go beyond the purview of the design team.

What’s needed from design and the CEO: The company needs a strong vision that senior leadership can communicate and sell to everyone. Design can help shape strategy by making vision tangible and helping leaders understand possible outcomes. In order for this to be possible, there needs to be a healthy, close relationship between the design leader and company leaders. If a clear vision for the future exists, it’s incumbent upon the design leader and CEO to rally the team to see the opportunity ahead and be excited about delivering it.

Within product development teams, designers suffer the most when there is insufficient process. Process can often be overlooked or undervalued within companies trying to move quickly, but a little bit of the right process can help teams move even faster toward the desired goal. Process can keep a team focused by clarifying escalation paths and how decisions get made. The first design created is rarely the best; use process to carve out sufficient time for designers to explore, design, prototype, and iterate.

Design team morale is positive;
Product quality is poor

There can be a variety of explanations for this scenario but rarely are designers ever happy to work at a company that is shipping a bad product unless they believe in the future. Under this scenario, the company is likely orchestrating a pivot or change that gives the designers hope.

What’s needed from design and the CEO: Designers are gaining power and influence and need to step up their efforts to get the company aligned in a single direction. They feel support from the CEO and believe they are set up to succeed. Many designers will overlook opportunities at companies in this box because they only focus on the lagging indicator of bad product quality. However, the leading indicator of design team morale suggests that things will soon improve and there is a chance to play a huge role in turning things around.

Design team morale is negative;
Product quality is good

It might be surprising to know that a design team’s morale can suffer even when they are shipping products that are well-designed, but it does happen. Under this scenario, the product has likely reached some level of maturity, but the company has stopped innovating, growth is starting to stagnate, and the future is uncertain. The company ships reasonably good products but designers feel they are not helping to move the needle forward significantly.

Another reason for this scenario may be that the designers are overwhelmed and cannot keep up with the internal demand for their skills. They are spread too thin across too many projects.

What’s needed from design and the CEO: The company needs to chart a future beyond the status quo, and design can be instrumental if not crucial. Companies in this box might fund innovation centers staffed with designers to disrupt or augment their current business, or they might fund skunkworks projects which include designers.

Alternatively, if design team capacity is the problem, the team needs strong management: allocate more headcount towards design to keep up with the demand, and prioritize aggressively. Rarely are there ever enough designers to go around. Rather than spread few resources across too many projects, redirect designers’ energy toward working on a few projects really well.

Design team morale is positive;
Product quality is good

Everything is running well and people are happy. While the product is successful and there is company growth, positive design team morale reflects opportunities for their growth and development, not stagnation, and such opportunities are typically the outcome of a strong vision for the company and a clear direction for how to get there.

What’s needed from design and the CEO: With growth and success come challenges related to designing at scale and creating a coherent, consistent design. Style guides, design principles, best practices, and codification of design process are important endeavors that enable a design team to stay effective at scale. Engineering can best support such efforts by building front end infrastructure that allows design to be propagated consistently, and product managers help ensure a coherency in the product by prioritizing such “design infrastructure” projects.

What this means for designers

Designers vetting different job opportunities should pay attention to both the morale of the design team and the quality of the product. Either in isolation will only tell you part of the story, but combined can give you a more complete picture.

Once you have made that assessment, consider what the company needs from design, and decide for yourself whether you want to sign up for that challenge. No single challenge is more or less worthy than the others; everyone’s temperament and appetite for these different challenges vary. The better you know yourself and what kind of work nourishes you, the better equipped you are to choose what makes sense for you.

What this means for CEOs

For CEOs, design team morale is a both a leading and lagging indicator, because morale is deeply affected by the sum of how the company thinks and acts. If CEOs care about the success of future projects, they need to pay attention to the morale of their design team. Connect with the design team to understand:

  • Are the designers proud of the work they create? Do they feel like they can do their best work? Why or why not?
  • Does the company have access to all the skills needed to create great design? For example, do they understand who they’re designing for, what they need, how they think and feel? Do they have the skills to create beautiful products? Do they know how to move people through an experience so users feel satisfied and delighted? Can/do designers explore a range of solutions before narrowing in on the best fit for a problem?
  • Does the company implement designs with a high degree of fidelity, or is it usually “close enough”?
  • Do designers feel they are constantly catching up and servicing requests from stakeholder functions or do they offer equivalent leadership to the rest of the organization?
  • Can you attract the best talent in the industry? If designers keep rejecting your company, why do they choose to not join?
  • How much pride does the company take in the product or service offered? How does the company prioritize respect for craft vs. getting things done?
  • Does the company commit to iteration or do they move on to the next feature and never look back?
  • How do design decisions get made? Who decides, and what is the company optimizing for (e.g. quality, speed, ease of implementation, etc)?

With insight into these questions, you can start to uncover that factors that contribute to low design team morale and take steps that will ultimately benefit product quality.

How to choose which job to take

“Which job offer should I take?” is among the questions I get asked the most these days. While I rarely tell people exactly what to do (almost any opportunity can be a good or bad one depending on what you want to do and what you make of it), I offer questions:

  1. Which opportunity will allow you to grow in ways you want to grow?
  2. Which opportunity will allow you to avoid the things you don’t enjoy doing?
  3. Which opportunity has the culture and people you will most enjoy?
  4. Which opportunity best sets you up to do work you’ll be proud of?
  5. Which opportunity would make you the most jealous if your best friend took it?
  6. Which opportunity best supports your highest intention/purpose in life?

Let’s take a closer look at each of these…

Which opportunity will allow you to grow in ways you want to grow?

Any transition in life, whether it’s a relocation, a breakup, a job change, is about change and growth. If you’re looking for new career opportunities, it’s because you want to grow. Consider what you feel is lacking in your currentsituation, and use that to inform your next move. Are there specific skills you’re hoping to learn? More senior people you want to learn from? A change in your work environment? Different problems you want to solve?

Beyond skills, experiences, and culture, what are you curious about? What kinds of endeavors require effort and hard ware that feels like play to you?Use your next career move to feed your curiosity and gives you a chance to play.

Which opportunity will allow you to avoid the things you don’t enjoy doing?

It’s much easier to know what you don’t like doing than it is to know what you like to do. How would you know whether you like broccoli or not if you’ve never tried it? On the other hand, if you’ve tried it before, it’s easier to know whether you like it or not.

The same is true for knowing what you want to do in life. It’s easier to know what you don’t enjoy doing in your daily work life than what you do like.Make a list of the activities that deplete your energy and take care to avoid a role that requires you to do those activities, at least, on a regular basis.

Which opportunity has the culture and people you will most enjoy?

People work for bosses, not companies. Working with a great team and supportive manager can have a significant impact on your career and emotional health which ultimately affect your well-being. Moreover, you’re likely to spend more time with your coworkers than your own spouse, children, and friends. Choose carefully!

As you interview for jobs, take time to get to know the people you would potentially work with. Who are you going to look forward to seeing when you have to wake up in the morning to go to work? Do people seem happy or are they negative and stressed out? Do they laugh and have a good sense of humor or do they make inappropriate jokes? Look at the work environment. Is there delightful energy in the office or does the place feel frantic or dead?

Which opportunity best sets you up to do work you’ll be proud of?

There are few things that are more demotivating than putting in your best effort into an endeavor and feeling like you have little to show for it. Life is short — don’t waste time climbing uphill battles if you feel your best efforts are going nowhere (on the other hand, if you feel that every place has uphill battles you don’t want to or can’t fight, maybe you’re the problem).

When choosing amongst different job opportunities, consider which one will give you freedom to be creative in ways that play to your strengths.

Which opportunity would make you the most jealous if your best friend took it?

Jealousy and regret are great litmus tests because they instantly tell us what the heart wants. Imagine if one of the opportunities were taken away from you, by a friend or rival. How would you feel? If you think you would regret not acting sooner on the opportunity, your heart is telling you something.

Watch out for your ego though — if you want a job because it confers greater status or more money, that’s not going to sustain you in the long run.

Which opportunity best supports your highest intention/purpose in life?

We get the most fulfillment and satisfaction from work when we find the best intersection between what we enjoy doing and what the world needs from us. The more you understand what your life’s purpose is and what is meaningful to you, the more clear you will be about whether an opportunity serves your highest intention in life.

Amongst whatever worthwhile intentions you may have to make the world a better place, remember too that your own happiness is at stake. Your job should fit into your life in a way that allows you to live the life you want.Among the considerations described above, prioritize them against other things that matter to you (e.g. the ability to pay off your mortgage or rent, being able to exercise every day, saving for your kids’ college education, avoiding a long commute, etc).

Some final thoughts

A few closing thoughts —

Don’t decide until there is a decision that needs to be made. I’ve talked to people who fret over the question “Which job?” before they even have a job offer in hand. There is no point in spending energy on this choice until a decision actually needs to be made. Until then, as long as an opportunity seems interesting, continue to have conversations with the company. Put one foot in front of the other: take the journey one conversation at a time.

Trust your gut. Pro/con lists don’t work in this context. It’s a major life decision, and decisions that matter come from the heart. If the heart doesn’t know, it probably means you need to spend more time with the people at these companies. And if you’ve spend enough time with these people and you still don’t know the answer, it means you need to sit with yourself to understand what the heart wants.

A job is not forever, and you are not your job. This may not be the first job you have ever taken, and it probably won’t be your last. Trust your gut, but if it proves to be a bad choice, you can leave and find another job. Whether it works out or not, you will learn something from the experience. And that’s really all that you can expect.

Khosla Ventures Design Internship Program

Design is a profession where people learn by doing.  The best designers are making all the time.  They have personal side projects; they’re constantly inventing and reinventing.  They cultivate a practice of self-reflection and iterate tirelessly. As an outcome of this practice, they become good designers because they’ve taught themselves how to be good.  At Khosla Ventures, we believe the best way to gain employable skills is to learn by doing, which is why I’m pleased to announce the launch of our Design Internship Program.

We’ve cultivated internship opportunities with some of the most interesting startups in our portfolio and are working with the top U.S. design schools to invite students to apply.  For students who want to pursue a career making technology, services and products of the future, there is no matter way to learn than by doing.

In contrast to school projects, real world settings introduce a whole range of challenges that make design hard that many people don’t fully understand.  What often gets in the way of delivering great design is not lack of skills or knowledge, but the context in which the work is being done.  Maybe there is too much design by committee and there is no clear decision-making process or owner.  Or maybe the designer isn’t empowered to make design decisions stick; after all, when design decisions are a matter of creative judgment, whose opinion is the one that matters?  Maybe there isn’t a robust collaboration between design and engineering that leads to useful, innovative technological solutions directed towards fulfilling people’s needs.  Even organizational politics or inertia just makes change hard.

That’s why so much of what it takes to be a good designer derives not just from hard skills and knowledge but soft skills that are rarely taught:  empathy, taste and working with other people.  In the design profession, the soft skills matter at least as much as the hard skills.  Soft skills are what designers invoke to work effectively with collaborators and stakeholders, to empathize with the people they’re designing for, and to bring inspiration and delight to these people through the experiences designers create.

Some designers struggle to land jobs because they haven’t gained enough real-world experience collaborating with cross-functional teams to build something greater than an individual working alone could ever do.  This is why we believe coursework would be interwoven with internships so that knowledge gained in an academic setting could be applied, and one’s experiences in the workplace would then inform future studies.

While many startups would love to hire interns, it can be really hard to connect with students.  Early stage companies often don’t have the brand recognition or resources to reach out to top schools to attract students for internships.  Yet, they are often great environments for students to gain real world experience.

Khosla Ventures aims to help solve this problem by connecting startups with design students.  In doing this we hope to create a win-win situation by advancing design education while assisting our companies.

We are now accepting applications for summer 2015, for any student interested in user research, visual design, interaction design and front-end development.  Applicants are considered on a rolling basis, so apply now to be considered for these opportunities.

“One Hundred and Eighty Degrees” by Federico Moramarco

“One Hundred and Eighty Degrees”
by Federico Moramarco

Have you considered the possibility
that everything you believe is wrong,
not merely off a bit, but totally wrong,
nothing like things as they really are?

If you’ve done this, you know how durably fragile
those phantoms we hold in our heads are,
those wisps of thought that people die and kill for,
betray lovers for, give up lifelong friendships for.

If you’ve not done this, you probably don’t understand this poem,
or think it’s not even a poem, but a bit of opaque nonsense,
occupying too much of your day’s time,
so you probably should stop reading it here, now.

But if you’ve arrived at this line,
maybe, just maybe, you’re open to that possibility,
the possibility of being absolutely completely wrong,
about everything that matters.

How different the world seems then:
everyone who was your enemy is your friend,
everything you hated, you now love,
and everything you love slips through your fingers like sand.

UX book recommendations

I frequently get asked for recommendations for books on UX.  Here is my short list of favorites:

This seminal book on human factors and engineering psychology changed my life and set me off in a direction that changed the course of my education and career.

The Elements of User Experience, Jesse James Garrett
In this book, Jesse deftly describes the various facets of user experience and how they are all connected, from how the product looks to how it works to the overall company strategy.  It’s the first book I will send any executive interested in user experience design.

Even if you never run a usability study, it’s helpful to understand how studies are run.  If you are working in a startup, chances are likely that you will need to run a guerilla study sometime.

Understanding human cognition and perception will only make you a better designer.  Sadly, this book is out of print and can be hard to find, but it is one of the best books on visual interface design I have ever seen.  Well worth the expense and effort to get the book.

It’s also worth checking out the library of titles from Rosenfeld Media (disclosure: I am on the editorial and strategic board).  Rosenfeld Media is the best-known publisher of UX-related books.  Each one is beautifully designed and authored by an expert in that area of specialization.

Happy reading!

“On Children” by Kahlil Gibran

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

(Thank you Satish Ramachandran for sending this to me.)

Job Opportunity: Visual Designer, Lumiata (San Mateo, CA)

About the company:

Lumiata wants to change how we manage our health – as individuals and as a population.

Imagine a world where your physician is able to determine care plans not only for the conditions you currently have, but conditions you may be at high risk of in the near future.

A place where rural providers in underserved communities all over the world have access to the best of clinical knowledge in real time and can deliver the highest quality of care.

A place where care providers can analyze whole populations to identify patients who are not aware that they are risk of very serious conditions so we can deliver proactive care.

Lumiata seeks a visual designer to join the team.  We want people who are passionate about making brilliant products and improving how we offer health care at individual, societal and global levels.


As our Visual Designer, you will help lead the development of innovative, dynamic and elegant health information systems. You will be an integral part of the product team, working closely with the Chief Product Officer, to help inform and realize product visions. You will also have the opportunity to develop Lumiata’s general visual style and design sense across a portfolio of products and assets.

We aim to build products that people can’t live without, so you will work as part of a product team that focuses on users to create our product.   You will also collaborate with Lumiata front end engineers to execute our vision.

Responsibilities include:

  • translating the brand into the visual interface
  • creating an experience that is aesthetically pleasing and simple
  • developing a visual design system that carries through across the entire product (and/or suite of products), such as typography, grid, layout, button style, color palette, iconography, visualizations
  • prototyping for ideation and iteration

You must be:

  • driven by design excellence
  • user centric, with a strong understanding of users’ motivations, triggers, and goals
  • demonstrate clear and critical thinking
  • be comfortable exploring the unknown
  • understand how to dissect large problems
  • familiar and comfortable with agile methods in a way that supports design quality

To apply:

Please send your letter, resume, and portfolio to hello@lumiata.com

“In the End”

I came across this lovely poem by Tara Sophia Mohr, called “In the End”:

In the end
you won’t be known
for the things you did,
or what you built,
or what you said.

You won’t even be known
for the love given
or the hearts saved,

because in the end you won’t be known.

You won’t be asked, by a vast creator full of light:
What did you do to be known?

You will be asked: Did you know it,
this place, this journey?

What there is to know can’t be written.
Something between the crispness of air
and the glint in her eye
and the texture of the orange peel.

What you’ll want a thousand years from now is this:
a memory that beats like a heart–
a travel memory, of what it was to walk here,
alive and warm and textured within.

Sweet brightness, aliveness, take-me-now-ness that is life.

You are here to pay attention. That is enough.

Job opportunity: Product Designer, ThoughtSpot (Redwood City, CA)

ThoughtSpot is a startup that is revolutionizing the way companies do business intelligence.  They received $30 million in Series B funding led by Khosla Ventures, with partner Keith Rabois on the board.

Among all the companies I’ve seen working on business intelligence, I am most impressed by ThoughtSpot.  I know from years of working at Google that query formulation is one of the most difficult user experience problems:  how do you let users know what kinds of questions they can ask, and how do create an experience where they can ask intelligent questions and get meaningful answers back from the data?

With a clean, minimal user interface, ThoughtSpot’s UI is as simple as a consumer product, but as powerful as the best business software.  Their whole focus is to make the user experience as easy as possible to identify and display structured data.  CEO Ajeet Singh has personally invested a tremendous amount of energy and time into scouring the internet for the best people possible to bring on board, and the team and product reflect the fruits of those efforts.

The company is looking to add a few more designers to the team.  This is a great opportunity to join a terrific team, especially if you like to solve hard design problems.

Read more about ThoughtSpot in a recent article from TechCrunch.

Learn more about the opportunity to join as a designer and apply by sending your resume, portfolio, and cover letter to design@thoughtspot.com.