XD Professionals, There’s a Target on Your Back

by Harold Hambrose | Chief Strategy Officer

Part I: If discussion threads on LinkedIn are a reliable measure, the past twelve months have seen soul searching and job searching in equal measure for the design profession. Corporate XD teams seem to have been particularly challenged. Having experienced geometric growth over the previous few years, contraction was inevitable. However, considering that their investment in XD may have been a company’s first significant commitment to design, how can a retreat from design be stemmed so that designers don’t give up the influence they have only recently gained? As corporate design investments shrink, XD professionals may want to examine a few causes so that they can regain footing and come out of this trying time stronger than ever.

XD May be Suffering from the Effects of Guilt by Association, or “DTD”

The design world is a very confused professional landscape these days. Used to be, architects, graphic designers and industrial designers comprised the breadth of design practitioners and their respective specializations. Enter UI, UX, HCI, CX, service design, systems design, transition design, and a dozen or more specializations and it’s more than just confused. And because XD is one of the many characters thrashing about in this mosh pit of a discipline, XD professionals within the business enterprise may unknowingly be wearing the scarlet letters of Design Thinking Disappointment (DTD).

Ten years ago, in their search for Steve Jobs’ magic touch, industry created a design feeding frenzy. When Steve Jobs told the world that design was his secret sauce, all hell broke loose. And certain industrious designers from within the design establishment cashed in by devising a Hamburger Helper version of formal design training called, Design Thinking. Although well intentioned, and meant to transmit design’s value far beyond the historically discrete design studios and departments staffed by highly specialized design professionals, there were unintended consequences.  

Forget the years of rigorous, formal education, natural talent, and the earned stripes of years of professional practice, Design Thinking’s on-line seminars, professional certificates, and weekend workshops promised all of design’s value and impact for the price of a pile of post-its, a box of Sharpies, and a couple of hours asking the question, “How might we?” Huge investments were made in Chief Design Officer positions, the construction of trendy Design Thinking environments, workforces being sent to the D School for certificates, and workshops running around the clock. While it all looked innovative and transformational at the time, eventually it rang hollow. Workshops were fun and generated interesting ideas, but it was usually impossible to transform these sparks into much more than momentary bright ideas. Design Thinking workshops ceased, Chief Design Officers lost their seat at the table, and even the venerable D School rethought its mission.

Lately, inside the business enterprise, the mention of Design Thinking is accompanied by an eyeroll. Because XD can be seen as an affiliate of Design Thinking, and may even employ its techniques, it may be the victim of the dismissive attitudes that relegate operational trends (think Six Sigma and TQM, for example) to the ash heap of business enterprise fads. XD professionals may sense that their product team counterparts would like them to “just draw what I describe,” while developers may be reaching into design decisions that were once exclusively the XD professional’s. If it feels like XD may have lost some clout, you may have.

Eventually, the Value of Every Expense Is Measured

One reality of the capitalistic workplace is the need to measure return on investment (ROI). As XD teams expanded within the business enterprise, it was natural for the Weights and Measures Department to arrive to make their assessment of ROI. Designers have never been very good at attributing hard numbers to the value they bring to projects. Ask a designer about the value that they deliver, and they’ll talk about the satisfaction, ease, or even delight that their skills and methods have brought to their product’s intended audience. The problem with qualitative metrics like these is that they are usually only as valuable to the business as their quantitative counterparts.

One performance metric that may impress the assessors is the number of wireframes and screen flows that an XD organization pushes through product development programs. An XD professional’s mastery of Figma and the creation of libraries of reusable controls and design standards make XD teams very efficient producers. When the XD organization points to production levels as an indication of value, these teams should reflect carefully on what they are pointing to. In more mature organizations, the rigor that has resulted in these comprehensive catalogs of reusable design assets and rules may turn out to be something of a poison pill where they were once an operational tonic.

You May Have Standardized Yourself Halfway to Obsolescence

Among industry XD professionals, the past several years has seen a constant exchange of standardized methods and best practices all geared at systematizing XD work. XD organizations do not lack for process, tools, and standards. With these effective, comprehensive XD environments in place, a business’ digital products can more easily proliferate while maintaining consistent, effective experiences for user audiences. These successful standardization efforts, built in the name of efficiency and effectiveness, may be just the ticket for generative AI to deliver product designs far faster, and perhaps more effectively than the XD professional.

Consider the intention of design libraries and the reality of XD professionals working with them. More often than the custodians of these libraries would like, XD professionals are creating deviations from the existing standard to satisfy a design challenge that they have decided cannot be addressed within the existing vocabulary of controls and record of existing designs. In such cases, additions are made to the library and the product design stretches one more increment away from the fundamental goal of product design consistency. Given the nature of generative AI, might we expect this technology to find within existing standards, options that represent desired reuse and consistency, perhaps where human eyes had found none and chose instead to introduce deviation? We have heard that a critical role for human beings in the generative AI world is the curation of output. How influential is an XD team when their role has become largely curatorial?

Time to Pivot

Whether you agree with these assessments or not, things are changing for corporate XD teams. These days the consultants at ZENDA are finding themselves helping our clients’ XD teams pivot. Screens can no longer be the currency of tomorrow’s designers. Figma expertise is not a design credential. User-centered is not a thing. We are seeing XD organizations retrench by looking carefully at their skill set, redefining their role in problem solving, making new and different artifacts, and having the impact on business that Design Thinking promised, but couldn’t deliver. They are even being so bold as to call this Design.





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