Six Best Practices for Becoming a Data-Driven Design Organization, Part 3

July 11, 2016

In the first two parts of my series on becoming a data-driven design organization, I described how aligning different customer-research methods with business goals and requirements can help you to build a customer-centric framework for your organization and develop a data-driven approach to design. I also showed how metrics can demonstrate the value of making customer-experience improvements to both your organization and the business.

Now, in this third and final part, I’ll discuss how employing right-sized processes and having the right customer experience–design (CXD) professionals to support them can affect the outcomes of using customer-research methods and the resulting customer data.

Best Practice #5: Right-Sized Processes

A CXD strategy is actionable and demonstrable and identifies metrics and desired outcomes. One way to make CXD strategy concrete is to devise flexible, right-sized processes for CXD projects.

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The Challenge or Opportunity

As the workload of our CXD team continued to increase, it became clear that we had to find a way to manage scope, goals, and stakeholder input for any given project. For our own sanity, we needed to make sure we were on the same page as our business owners and manage scope creep. We also needed to communicate more effectively to management and among ourselves regarding the number of projects and assignments each designer was working on and their timeframe.

One challenge was—and in some organizations still is—that stakeholders often seem to have an allergic reaction to the word process. So I had to assess what would be right-sized processes and demonstrate through results how our processes were appropriate and necessary—for example, efficiency in time management and stunning designs that met business requirements and goals.

The Process

With the help of my team, I instituted two new, right-sized processes:

  • developing a Creative Brief at project kickoff
  • tracking projects in a collaboration tool

The Creative Brief

I facilitated our including a Creative Brief (CB) as part of any project. This served as a baseline for scope, dates, targeted metrics, resources, and stakeholders and defined the CXD team’s project roles. Of course, projects can change over time, but the Creative Brief helped us to note changes and their impact on resources and schedule, providing transparency to our management.

Our Creative Brief template evolved over time to adapt to business needs. We went from having a short form and a long form to having just one form. There are still times when our CXD team members must advocate for getting the CB filled out for a project. However, we are careful not to insist on the full completion of the template to the extent that the effort would become unnecessary overhead for the organization and, therefore, prompt resistance.

Project Tracking

While the Creative Brief provided a baseline at the start of a project, we also needed a way to track a project through the different phases of execution. Again, we needed it to be simple, lightweight, and easy! I researched and evaluated many options, but most focused on project management and were overly complicated for our needs. Then a colleague introduced me to an online solution, called Trello.

Working with the CXD team, I set up this tool to reflect the phases of any project. From project kickoff, when we created the CB, to assigning design resources, conducting a stakeholder review, delivering design assets to development, and final QA (Quality Assurance). We also created a parking lot and a place for ad hoc projects. I’ve given all relevant stakeholders access to this tool, including management and other colleagues. Now, at a glance, they can see the progress of a given project and assess our throughput and velocity.

The Results and Business Impact

These two relatively lightweight processes helped with both the visibility and scope of projects. First, they enabled us to focus our conversations with stakeholders. We could document what was necessary to complete a project successfully and by when we’d be able to complete it. From time to time, we get project requests from outside our organization. Our CB template made those projects more seamless as well. As a result of increased clarity, we’ve been able to complete projects with greater efficiency and quality. Using our online, design project–tracking tool, we can provide visibility to management into the increased volume of our projects. I’ve also used the online, tracking tool to manage team members’ workloads and stay on top of resource allocation. Periodically, business priorities shift, and the project board helps us accommodate the changes and adjust assignments accordingly.

Best Practice #6: The Right People

To build your organization’s CXD expertise, you must hire people with the right mindset and be willing to mentor your team members, colleagues in other disciplines, and your organization’s leaders.

The Challenge or Opportunity

I’ve quickly learned that processes and methods are only part of a CXD strategy when your goal is to create a data-driven design organization. Knowing what to do is certainly valuable, but having a dedicated, passionate team of CXD professionals to make it happen is critical. What brings everything together is the people. Now, I’ll describe how I’ve learned to hire great CXD professionals—what I look for—and how my team members create synergistic collaboration. We are a high-performing experience-design team, as UX Magazine acknowledged by including us as finalists in its Design for Experience award category in 2015.

I’ve been working in the field of Customer Experience Design for almost 20 years. During that time. I’ve learned that CXD is a multi-faceted field, including customer research, interaction design, information architecture, visual design, motion design, and in some cases, the development of content that is integral to the overall customer experience. The opportunity for a CXD manager and strategist is to assess—quickly—what CXD skills are necessary to support the organization’s succeeding in its business goals—as well as the level at which and the extent to which they are necessary. I’ll address how to do that and provide some helpful guidelines. So, what do I look for and what do I do to build a high-performing CXD team?

The Process

Essential to hiring great CXD professionals is evaluating both the current and future experience-design needs of your organization. To do that, I had to understand and really get inside the business. I asked myself, What CXD skills do we need to support our projects—both in the short term and, more strategically, in the future? (In some cases, management had not yet directly articulated that future, but I felt it was my responsibility to look into relevant domains and consider the strategic work the organization was pursuing as a path to growth.) In answering this question, I combined my own observations, domain knowledge, expertise, and intuitions with what I learned through discussions with colleagues.


While I’ve been able to balance out my team members’ skillsets—including visual design, information design, interaction design, motion design, research, and usability—equally important is each person’s temperament, passions, interest in learning, and openness to working collaboratively with a team. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “Collaborative Overload”:

“The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more….”

Since we spend the majority of our time communicating with colleagues—whether in face-to-face or online meetings or chats, as is the case in our business context—teammates willingness and ability to communicate is key.

Successful and Effective Teams

Recently, a friend sent me an article from The New York Times Magazine, “How to Build a Perfect Team.” In this article, the authors describe the results of research Google did to determine what makes a successful and effective team. They realized that group norms made functioning as a team pleasant and easy. The norms for each group differ, so the opportunity is to identify the norms that work for a given group. Bottom line: individuals’ accomplishments or degrees are not what are most important. What is most important is how people treat each other.

Team members demonstrate their respect for one another through the floor time all team members get during meetings. As the Times article stated, “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well.” If, during any given discussion, each team member got air time for their views—or at the very least, felt uninhibited about speaking up—the team established a feeling of well being. This article validates one of two important aspects of building an effectively functioning team. In evaluating potential team members, it’s critical to assess people’s authentic interest in—and even enthusiasm for—building on each others’ ideas, having respect for others, and being personally interested in their well-being.

Hiring Good Teammates

When hiring, in addition to evaluating candidates’ skillsets, I consider their willingness and interest in being managed by someone who prefers to focus on mentoring and coaching and assess whether they have the right mindset for professional growth and seeking new opportunities.

I also look for team members who are socially sensitive, intuitive, and empathetic toward others. I associate these attributes with emotional intelligence. In the Times article, they characterized this as “average social sensitivity.” When we feel that others have a sense of our common experience, it engenders a feeling of psychological safety. Building on and supporting new ideas and outside-the-box thinking is key to the kind of work environment I want to create. The Times article described this as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

While, over the last several years, I have been leading by intuition and learning by doing, it is validating and affirming to see the results from a study that highlights these issues and articulates them so clearly.

I should mention one more important element that is particular to our domain: the growing body of work on design thinking. When hiring, I look for individuals whose baseline is a customer-centric point of view and who can live with evolving definitions and ambiguity. Does an individual understand that our role, as CXD professionals and customer advocates, is to integrate the needs of people, the current and future possibilities technology offers, and the current and strategic business goals that are fundamental to our successfully supporting the business? I expect my team members to play the role of customer advocate and evangelist. I ask them to make the customer central to any conversation or experience-design solution they create—whether for internal or external customers—and to ensure they deliver intrinsic value and address specific business requirements.

The Results and Business Impact

We can see the direct business results of building this kind of CXD team in the way we’ve influenced the customer-centricity of our internal design processes. The larger organization reaches out to us for both the work we do and the processes we’ve implemented, which provide a model for others to follow. We’ve facilitated research whose findings have contributed to roadmaps that the organization has implemented to improve the customer experience. Our customer-journey research is still valid, and we continue to leverage it today. Our colleagues ask us to review their research results and help incorporate them in their work. We have achieved this outcome because we’ve made our work actionable and demonstrate results through metrics and business outcomes. This is the essence of CXD strategy and is certainly central to being a data-driven design organization.

Business impacts include a tremendous increase in the throughput of work my team has successfully accomplished. We have already created two global ecommerce Web sites. Plus, we are in the midst of creating a completely new ecommerce experience—actually, two new ecommerce experiences, because the organization’s goal is to sell multiple products online.

My CXD team works closely with others across the organization—from product’s business owners and stakeholders, to development and QA teams, to executives leading product groups and the larger organization. Through our efforts, we are now actively engaged with other CXD teams across the organization. Our collaboration will ultimately provide a seamless experience to our customers and contribute significantly to the business strategy and goals.

While our journey has been along a bumpy road, it has been a satisfying one. Customer-centric conversations and data-driven, experience-design decisions have risen astronomically since I first started over five years ago. Increases in our team’s throughput have paralleled improvements in the quality, the state of the art, and the current best practices our designs represent. We have introduced project processes to align stakeholders, current trends in technology and experience design, tools that make design specifications easier for developers to use, and artifacts that support QA processes. I know every member of my team has grown as a CXD professional and improved his or her abilities to contribute to any business organization.


In summary, I would like to focus on two things that are essential to creating a data-driven, high-performing CXD organization.

First, find a champion with whom you can partner if at all possible. At an organizational level, you’ll make progress much more quickly. Regardless of whether there is a partner with whom you can engage, be prepared to educate, educate, educate. Build your personal acumen for influencing others by demonstrating the value of CXD. Whenever and wherever possible, invite cross-functional business partners to join you and participate in your customer-research efforts. The more of your colleagues who are involved in research, the better the outcomes will be. Business owners and your colleagues will internalize the learnings from your research and, in turn, become advocates.

Also, find the right-sized processes that will help your team’s efficiency and effectiveness.┬áMake these processes flexible and adapt them to the context, but continue to advocate for best practices. Be prepared for naysayers and be open to those who propose different models. Take the long view. It’s not one and done.

My second point is to be a mentor to the people on your team. The Times article told a story about how a manager had learned to help his team by being vulnerable and transparent. Human, in other words. Know that mentoring will, at times, extend beyond your immediate team. Be generous with your time. Help your organization to build and develop a common, customer-centric language. Be flexible and creative. Apply design-thinking models to the way you work. Applying design thinking can be the driver for delivering better design solutions for products and services, as well as for the experience of working together effectively.

At the end of the day, CXD is a team sport. It takes an organization full of talented folks to address the various aspects of the customer experience. One unheralded role CXD professionals play is that of the connector. Because we think about the customer’s end-to-end experience, we have the capacity to bring people in different roles together. Bringing diverse roles together invites a broader discussion and encourages people to work together collaboratively, thereby increasing the potential for providing optimal experiences to customers. This is vastly superior to their encountering organizational silos across customer touchpoints.

I encourage CXD folks to look at various processes as opportunities to bring a systems-thinking approach to creating data-driven designs for customers and to build a database of customer research and information. Be in the journey for the long run. Know that your progress will not always be linear, but keep your lodestone in view. Finally, be willing to listen and learn. Always have a student mindset, as well as that of a mentor and coach. Respect is something you’ll earn over time by demonstrating results. 

UX Manager at Guidewire Software

Foster City, California, USA

Michelle BacigalupiWith over 18 years in User Experience, with an emphasis on design, strategy, and management, Michelle has worked for Fortune 500 and 100 companies, as well as startups. She is passionate about customer focus and changing the conversation from winning battles for feature parity to meeting customers’ needs and realizing business opportunities by embracing differentiation through design. Taking a holistic approach to creating design solutions, Michelle considers all of the service touchpoints a customer might encounter. She believes that, by collaborating with business partners, she can demonstrate how design thinking can catapult a business to a higher level and solve important customer problems. Michelle’s CXD team at WebEx were finalists in the UX Magazine 2015 Design for Experience Awards. Michelle has presented at international conferences, including: AVI Italy, CHI, Studio, and Interact. Most recently, she was on a panel at Cisco’s Experience Design Day, talking about design best practices and innovation for and associated digital marketing properties. She is the proud mother of twin girls; and enjoys rafting, running 10Ks and sprint triathlons, riding the Tour de Cure with Cisco colleagues, hiking, reading, art museums, live theater, and music.  Read More

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