Last week I participated in the Interaction Design Association’s flagship conference, Interaction 20, in Milan Italy. I also moderated the Design Leadership sessions, where I introduced why design leadership is so critical in successful interaction design, how the landscape of design leadership is changing as products and services become more complex, and to introduce the speakers who were presenting their thoughts on design leadership as well.
As the interaction design industry’s premier conference, the attendees, speakers, sponsors, and volunteers travel from all over the world to discuss trends and patterns in the field, and what may be around the corner in 2020.
For instance, many of the talks, including the opening keynote by Pentagram partner Giorgia Lupi, explored ethical choices designers must make, particularly when designing with data and the decisions informed by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Lupi spoke to a theme of Data Humanism where she replaced a number of expressions or terms that are frequently associated with data to reflect a more human-centric relationship with data. For example, instead of ‘save time with data’, the keynote speaker replaced save with spend, suggesting that we perhaps should slow down and actually interpret what these data points could show, imply, or suggest.
During my design leadership breakout sessions, speakers explored several different perspectives confronting organizations and the managers who lead them.
The first talk was from Tim Yeo of Australia where he provided recommendations for introverts to grow their influence as design leaders. His suggestions, from having a plan to prepare for significant meetings, knowing the personalities of the decision-makers, and more, were all appropriate to both extroverted and introverted design leaders.
The second talk, delivered by IBM’s Doug Powell, examined how design leaders should focus their attention when managing up to senior leaders who probably aren’t designers. explored how designers need to redefine the missing skills they need to succeed in business and instead “retain, enhance, and maximize” the unique skills that differentiate designers from our non-design colleagues and executives.
Powell also discussed his approach to managing up to non-design executives by having quarterly reviews of the design program itself. In these meetings he discusses the following:
- Staffing and Ratios
- Locations & Studios
- Seniority & Careers
- Design Thinking Practice
- Designer Health & Attrition
- User Sentiment
Much of this echoed my own experience at Nasdaq when meeting with the executive leadership of different business units to remind them of the work we were doing and who we were. The adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is rarely a successful strategy when trying to improve or sustain influence in an organization, so these meetings help keep senior leadership aware and involved as your team does its daily work.
Similarly, Janaki Kumar’s Redesign the Designer – 5 skills designers need to master that they did not teach us in design school focused on the traits designers need to have to be successful leaders that may not be the same skills that made them effective designers. I’ve used the common refrain in my own talks to designers that “what got you here won’t take you there” when exploring this theme as well. Ms. Kumar’s talk also touched on how designers often aren’t provided any training to lead teams and manage projects–often they’re just thrown into the role and expected to be successful.
The final talk of the leadership-themed sessions was delivered by Rebecca Rusk of The Home Depot and Mail Chimp’s Tamlin Tromp. Learning from Leaders – A Comprehensive Look into Growing Talent in a Shifting Landscape summarized results from a survey Rusk and Tromp issued at the end of 2019. Their findings reflected a shifting landscape in design leadership primarily attributed to the changing world in which we practice interaction design. Specifically, they referenced the following factors as contributing to this new landscape:
- Always on connectivity
- The distraction economy (both as unwilling participants and designing tools that contribute to it)
- Expectations of design leaders by their directs and the broader organization
- Changes in UX education
- Improved design tools
Among some of their findings that stood out:
- 72% of survey participants indicated a stronger crossover between experience design and product as a top trend
- 21% of responses are seeing less top-down decision making in the design process
- 55% are using key performance indicators or OKRs to measure the impact of their teams’ design work
Those findings are all consistent with what we’ve seen both at Modus and more broadly when I’ve spoken to design teams and their leadership at conferences and meetups as well. More leaders are trying to tie their work to outcomes and value by establishing and quantifying the difference their work makes, regardless of the impact to a product or a person’s design career.
Ultimately, the Interaction 20 conference yet again proved it deserves its place as the most significant interaction design conference in the industry. I’ve long felt it is one of the entire design industry’s most important conferences, regardless of whether or not the interaction modifier is used.
Conferences must provide a diverse program of topics that may make attendees uncomfortable, challenged, and hungry to grow the practice and themselves. As the conference returns to North America to Montreal for Interaction 21, I have every reason to expect it will continue to exceed those expectations. Buono sera, Milano!