Christopher Ireland knows a thing or two about designing change. In fact, she (co)wrote the book on it.
Christopher sat down with Marvin to talk about the important role UX designers play in leading positive change. She shared anecdotes from her time at her award-winning design firm Cheskin and provided practical tips on how to get people to stop resisting change.
Here’s a summary of what you’ll learn:
- A brief history of designing change
- Defining change in the design space
- Challenges in designing change
- The importance of research in designing change
- Design rerspective: a unique skill set
- Tips for designing change in an organization
A brief history of designing change
Christopher and her co-author Maria Giudice followed similar career paths as strategic design leaders in Silicon Valley in the 1990s. Among a handful of female leaders in a male-dominant industry, they struck up an enduring friendship.
With revolutionary software and hardware launching at a rapid pace, they had to be extremely adaptable. Working closely with large tech companies like Apple and GM for over 25 years led to both firms being acquired; Christopher and Maria now teach at Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program.
They also wrote two books together. Changemakers: How Leaders Can Design Change in an Insanely Complex World, their second collaboration, acts as a blueprint on how to drive positive change in an organization. First-hand witnesses to rapid technological innovation, Christopher and Maria learned to roll with the times and change every year.
Changemakers draws on their research and design backgrounds, and decades of industry experience in helping their clients navigate this type of change.
Defining change in the design space
Change is a comprehensive and multi-faceted word; it means different things to different people.
When Christopher and Maria defined change in Changemakers, they went down to the microscopic, biological level:
Our brains are hardwired to sense any change as a threat. This makes sense — when we (or any being in the animal kingdom) perceive a new stimulus in our environment, our senses heighten and our brains are on high alert, looking to avoid the impending change. Every time you are a harbinger of change, you’re operating at a primal, biological level with your audience — they sense it in their bodies.
When Maria first approached Christopher about writing the book, Christopher said, “God no, nobody wants to read a book about change!” Biological forces at play.
But… change is integral to design. In fact, design IS change.
As Christopher pointed out, “Anything that’s designed represents change; nobody hires a designer to maintain the status quo.”
Challenges in designing change
Designing for change has become more challenging over time because, “The nature of problems we face have evolved,” Christopher said.
Feats of engineering from the 18th through to the 20th century were astounding. The problems they dealt with then were more understandable and linear. Want to connect San Francisco to Marin? Build the Golden Gate Bridge. Thanks to the pace of innovation today, problems and their solutions aren’t as straightforward. Christopher unearths and untangles new, intertwined problems (and eventually solutions) every time she interacts with a client.
(You might remember: Gina Rahn is another design leader who continually deals with change in her role at LINQ.)
Christopher uses hierarchical systems for decision making to illustrate her point. “Even if you have a hierarchical organization, everybody still has an opinion and is able to voice it. So you not only have to solve the problem, you have to win people over to accept your solutions,” she said.
The scientists who created the mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 clearly set out to solve a problem. What a job they did, too (they recently won a Nobel Prize). What they didn’t anticipate was they’d have to deal with celebrities who were worried about their virility, or masses who thought horse pace was a substitute for the vaccine.
Expect the unexpected.
“Understand it’s a very complex, multidimensional world that we live in. We have to anticipate the craziness that all things are possible,” said Christopher.
Do your research
No matter how brilliant you are, there are things you don’t know. To unravel the craziness and the complexity in the world requires thinking systemically about a problem. It involves research.
“The role of research is to clarify the problem and discover a range of possible solutions. I never think of research as providing the answer. If you do that, you shut down all other contributions that can come later,” she said.
Research may not give you the answer, but seeks to incrementally clarify the problem space you’re working in. Due to the complexity and interconnectedness of problems (see above), research is an iterative process, like peeling away the layers of an onion.
Over the years, Christopher has seen many small companies skip conducting research altogether. Management goes with their gut instead of delving deep into research.
“It’s perceived as optional…when I don’t think it is,” she said.
What happens when you don’t conduct user research?
Christopher cites a famous example from the early 2000’s, one she witnessed from a front row seat. Segway (the mobility scooters) generated significant funding and marketing buzz around their product. Touted as the replacement for cars and bicycles, the product’s engineering was brilliant. What happened next?
“It failed miserably. They assumed that the engineering was so good and the concept so smart that everyone would want it. They blew the design, pricing and the introduction,” she said.
Segway isn’t the only one. There are numerous examples of famous products with (almost) everything right, missing a key piece of the puzzle. “Why did Google Glass fail? Why is Alexa struggling? Why are most VR devices failing? I would suspect they scrimped on research,” Christopher said.
Learn when to use the right research methods — qualitative or quantitative.
Design Perspective: a unique skill set
We use MS Office products everyday, and have done so for the past 30 years. During the early stages of Office, Christopher’s firm was working with Microsoft. Her team asked people the three attributes they felt best exemplified Office at the time. Employees came back with – a sense of power, control and freedom. Christopher and her team embedded these three words into all aspects of their product – development, promotion, packaging, and positioning.
Christopher’s team gave clients like Microsoft content that was hard to get and made it understandable. They spoke the same language to different silos within the company, and employees began associating the language with design and research. This practice made them highly influential in the organizations they worked with.
According to Christopher, anyone with a ‘design perspective’ is uniquely poised to help companies deal with change. What does having a ‘design perspective’ really mean, and what qualities enable designers and researchers to access this ‘hard-to-get’ information?
“Their ability to visualize is a superpower. A good designer can illustrate an entire concept and help you grasp it very quickly. That empowers people on the team — they understand the problem and can(then) bring their talents to bear,” she said. Designers and researchers unlock the door and inform company-wide decision making.
Emotional Quotient (EQ)
Designers have the ability to understand human psychology and apply it to design and engineering. “Good ones(designers) understand the value of emotion. They’re not just about the intellectual or logic driven part of any process,” Christopher said.
Similarly, Rida Qadri examines how South Asians are misrepresented in text to image generative AI models in her field work. In an effort to be more methodical and all encompassing, Rida suggests going back to creators and asking them to make their models more inclusive – representative of niche cultures and ethnicities. That’s a high EQ.
Designers must be able to communicate effectively through written, performance or visual means. Among peers that Christopher has worked with, she rates the highly collaborative types as most effective. “They don’t think they have all the answers from start to finish. They work with, and understand the value of others.” It’s important to arrive at a consensus, by working closely with everyone to get on the same page.
As a footnote, Christopher suggests that the tools developed by designers are also conducive to reflect the true nature of change. Design and research tools encourage visualization of concepts and ideas, facilitate collaboration and reflect the convoluted emotional aspects of change.
In a nutshell, a design perspective is, “a marriage of astute psychological understanding of what users value, and the ability to communicate that,” Christopher said.
Designing change in an organization
Researchers and designers are armed with a unique design perspective. Christopher shared tips on how they can begin designing change, build their social capital and steady the ship, so everyone can better adapt.
Don’t come in too hot
Christopher and Maria use this expression throughout ‘Changemakers’. Entering a company thinking you’re the messiah or the greatest thing since sliced bread is a recipe for egg on your face. (Anyone suddenly feel the urge for breakfast?)
“You can’t walk into an organization as a new UX professional and say, ‘hey, I’m an expert. You guys all need to heed my advice,’” Christopher said.
She told the tale of a young designer hired to bring a fresh perspective and invigorate the innovation process at Nike. He was overconfident that he was the answer to all their prayers. Many senior experienced designers at Nike simply sat back and watched him run into a wall. The designer learned the hard way that he’d have to treat his internal team as users as well.
Too many professionals enter an organization with messiah syndrome. It’s important not to begin too intensely and overwhelm employees. Christopher advised that design professionals go about their business with caution and humility.
Find Your People
Find the other early adopters who are willing to try something new. Work with them until you can demonstrate that what you’re saying makes sense, and then roll out to the rest of the organization.
Christopher shared an anecdote from Autodesk where Manette Norman tried to get people to use GitHub. Top engineers were staunchly resistant – no one likes change, remember? However, Manette found a small group of engineers willing to try it. Slowly but surely, they succeeded in providing value to the organization, becoming heroes along the way. It went from her pushing her idea onto the company to other departments pulling.
A similar push and pull occurred at IBM: Christopher likened the efforts to an internal marketing campaign to get people onside with change.
Communicate the value of UX
[Insert highly overused quote about “actions speaking louder than words”]
We love waxing lyrical about our work. However, nothing beats showcasing the value that it brings. Convince leadership and your peers of the value of designing change by sharing your insights with them. It opens a path of dialogue, a back and forth that involves constructive feedback about your work, and how it can better help your peers.
For those who think they don’t have something concrete or worth sharing (yet) – draft a simple email to your stakeholders. It keeps them in the loop that you’re up to something that they can expect soon.
“If you don’t communicate, people are going to assume you’re not doing anything or you’re failing. Humans don’t like a void of information, and they will fill it with whatever they think it needs to be filled with. I will over email rather than under email,” Christopher said.
Use novel ways to share insights
Over time, Christopher realized that people were becoming inundated with emails — the mode of communication had become stale and wasn’t effective anymore. Researchers love populating multiple page reports with graphs, charts and long explanations. Reports are a mundane mode of communication – they usually sit on people’s desks, seldom perused.
To combat this, Christopher encourages out-of-the-box thinking to create new delivery methods. With the aim of fostering engagement, these attempt to help employees understand the value of design and research at a visceral level. Share information about users – don’t keep it hidden. “Make user information more attractive, consumable and more visible. That elevates you,” she said.
Outgoing people who are comfortable with public speaking – start hosting talks about users.
Fear not, introverts – we’ve got you covered as well. Begin creating artifacts to share your work. Christopher shares some innovative ideas she’s used previously:
- Posters explaining problems, user personas or journey maps.
- Postcards from the future that anticipated where the market was going.
- Creative news-style reports: “We turn(ed) our reports into magazines with headlines and special celebrity picks and quizzes that we thought were engaging. Just to make them entertaining because the goal was to get people to read them.”
Speak leadership’s language
There’s no getting around it. You have speak to business leaders in a language they understand.
“Build trust that you understand not only the users. That’s important, but not enough for senior management. Management wants to know that you understand the business, their goals and strategies, what they’re trying to achieve (and) what benefits the bottom line,” she said.
To elevate the significance of UX research, Christopher tailored her explanations to leadership.
“You have to present the value of your UX research in terms that business leaders can relate to. I would often talk about the ability of UX research to reduce risk or to protect the organization, protect a new product from cannibalizing other products, or give us insight into a competitor strategy, or reduce turnover,” she said.
It’s not enough to have only executives on board. Change affects everyone in the organization, and you need buy-in from the grassroots level. The light at the end of the tunnel is that over time, you can convince everyone.
Identify sponsors or champions for your cause
While teaching mid-career executives at Stanford, Christopher faced one question repeatedly from students – how do you recruit people in a firm as champions or sponsors of the design and research cause to help drive change?
If you work for an outside agency, the good news is that you have at least one sponsor (the one who engages you for your services in the first place). As you work repeatedly, you can showcase the quality of your work and attain more champions and sponsors that way.
The terrain is tougher inside an organization. Christopher conveyed some bad news on this front:
“Sometimes you can’t convince senior leaders that UX research matters. In those cases, honestly, it’s best to leave those environments because it’s a waste of your time and talent to be in a situation where senior management doesn’t really understand the significance of what you do,” she said.
Within a company, identifying people you can count on is merely the first part. Once someone notices you, take time to understand what they’re trying to do. They’ll have your back if you have theirs. Ideally, you want 2 or 3 champions or sponsors – you never know when someone might leave the company.
Design for change, plan for failure
“Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, you’re going to fail,” Christopher said.
To prepare for the inevitable, she suggests having strategies in place to help you deal with failure when it does happen. She shared some tactics that worked wonders for her:
- Pre-Mortems – Christopher employed this practice regularly at her firm. Before beginning a high-stakes project with a lot on the line, she would examine the various ways it could fail. She would then evaluate how to avoid it.
- Transparency – Christopher believes in open and honest communication with her peers; she consults with colleagues and asks for their opinions. She doesn’t hide her failures: “It’s unusual for a leader in a company to say ‘I failed’.” Over time, employees appreciated her transparency, trustworthiness and vulnerability. They started emulating her. It became part of the culture to accept that failure is a possibility. Christopher was quick to draw the line at encouraging failure versus accepting that it’s possible, though.
“If you accept it and understand that it’s going to happen, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s part of the process – you can’t be successful without failing at some points,” she said.
Designing Change and You
With her parting words of wisdom, Christopher shared universal advice for anyone who wants to become a champion for change — look inward:
“First figure out what your relationship with change is. Whatever role you’re in, you should be as good at accepting and leading change as you are designing it for others. Sometimes we skip that part. We design it for others without being very open to change ourselves. Start with yourself and figure out how you feel when change is forced on you or when you have to make change. By starting with yourself, you have more empathy for the stakeholders out there. You have more sense of what it takes to feel good about change, and you gain more insight into yourself, which is always good.”
Watch the conversation about designing change with Christopher.