Welcome to the [Design Strategy Talks] series. Here, you’ll find different perspectives and insights from my colleagues around the world. The goal? To learn and improve on your design process!
We have another value-packed and passionate interview ahead of us. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, make yourself comfortable and enjoy this insightful chat with Devin Mancuso!
Devin was born in Adelaide, South Australia. He studied Computer Science and Business Management before going on to do his masters in Business Information Systems. It wasn’t until his final year that he discovered the world of UX, when he took an elective in Human Factors in Computing.
He landed an internship at Deloitte Digital in Adelaide and began working there as a UX consultant. As UX was relatively new in Australia at the time, Devin was getting a robust introduction to the entire UX process while being surrounded by business-minded strategists and consultants. He really picked up on the consulting approach and methodologies, and just assumed that this was how design worked.
Let’s fast forward to 2015, when Devin landed a job at Google and flew out to California to start his new adventure. He started in ads, but quickly decided that it wasn’t for him and moved over to Android to work on the Pixel phone. During his time in Android, he got the opportunity to work with a group of futurists working on projects that focused on rethinking core tenets of the mobile operating system.
He then moved to YouTube to ride the VR/AR wave and dive into immersive tech. By the end of his tenure there, he was the UX lead for YouTube VR/AR.
Eventually, he decided to embrace his passion for vision/strategic-oriented work and became a full-time Design Strategist in one of Google’s Strategy/Ops teams. The chance to test out some of his ideas about design and business alongside some of the brightest strategic minds in the world was too good an experience to pass up, and that’s where he works to this day.
When Devin started out in his first role, he thought that product design was the ultimate problem-solving challenge – each product had a unique problem that it was trying to solve within a unique set of constraints. It was like a fun brain puzzle to work through.
As he grew up, he became more aware of the impact that digital systems were having on our day-to-day lives. He began to understand that if they weren’t designed thoughtfully enough, they could actually have a pretty negative impact on our families, communities, societies and the world.
These days, he’s more passionate about designing things with humans in mind. He wants to ensure that the things he helps bring into the world make people’s lives a little bit easier and allows them to get things done in the way that they want to.
Devin thinks that when he started out, he wanted to design things that everyone knew and saw and interacted with (ego check, he says). Nowadays, though, he likes to design things that people barely realize are there, but actually make their lives a little easier without them needing to interact with them at all.
Devin believes that a design strategy must make explicit choices and define things that we are going to do, as well as things that we are not going to do.
“It’s not a concept vision of a perfect future, it’s a strategy – there must be trade-offs and there must be explicit choices made. The best product strategies I’ve seen don’t paint some rosy picture of an unrealistic future where everything magically works and everyone owns each device of a single brand. The best strategies are built upon the realities of today (and likely tomorrow). There will be device fragmentation – not all developers will adopt these fantastic new APIs, platforms will have conflicting standards, etc. They incorporate these realities into their product visions and their decision making.”
Devin is a big fan of Nick Foster’s The Future Mundane. The best product visions and strategies have a little taste of the mundane in them, to keep things grounded, while the narrative tells a tale of a compelling future direction.
In addition, the most successful design strategies sometimes don’t simply paint a single vision of the future. Instead, they present a selection of possible futures and work with teams and leadership to evaluate and map opportunities
One aspect of a design strategy that Devin would emphasize is the actual process that is used to arrive at the final strategy deliverable, as well as the experience of the decision makers who are engaged in that process.
You can’t shut yourselves away and conceive the perfect strategy to present to leadership. The best strategies are those created with significant input from leadership along the way, such that they feel a sense of ownership and buy-in before the final presentation has even begun.
Devin continues: “Let’s say your final deliverable is a slide deck. At the end of everything, your deck will be sliced and diced and copy/pasted into 100s of other decks going forward. Over the course of 3 years, people may not even remember your original strategy deck. It’s less about that final deliverable (though that is important), but how people felt being part of that process; whether they feel like they had input, whether they feel represented in the ideas outlined in the report, whether the right trade-offs were discussed, etc. Because it will be those people who carry the strategy forward long after you have left the project and rolled onto the next one. Their understanding of the plan and their buy-in is critical, maybe more so than glossy visual mocks and the perfect product narrative.”
Devin often sees design strategists as being responsible for working horizontally across product development, strategy/biz ops and leadership. They help to unlock ambitious, multi-year product plans, growth strategies, and new products to allow teams to take leaps beyond the current, incremental, roadmap.
“Design strategists combine a rigorous design thinking approach with an understanding of business models, external forces and emerging industry and cultural trends. They’re connecting design to the bigger picture and communicating its value in terms that leadership can understand and advocate for. Ultimately, they assist companies in creating a competitive advantage by helping to drive decision making around an integrated set of choices that uniquely positions the business within a market,” Devin says.
While product teams are often practical and incremental in their thinking and approach, R&D teams tend to maintain a healthy disregard for the status quo and are far more ambitious in their visions. Design strategists can form a unique bridge between the two groups. From the R&D team’s efforts, they identify the opportunities that could help the organization to materialize some competitive advantage within the next few years, yet they remain aware enough of movements on the ground to help product teams direct their work towards a shared future vision.
Devin believes that successful design strategists tend to be extremely fungible. They must be comfortable traversing across the organization, speaking about Critical User Journeys with product designers one minute, then evaluating macro-level trends and total addressable market numbers with BizOps folk the next.
Design strategists are typically people who love highly complex, fast-paced challenges. “Thrives in ambiguity” is a bit of a trope nowadays, but honestly it couldn’t be more accurate here. You’re not going to be following an established career path, you’re going to be blazing a new trail and there are going to be many things to learn as you go.
A unique aspect of design strategy work is that you have to deal with delayed gratification and influence over ownership.
You might not see your project work materialize for 3 years. The question is -are you okay with that or will that frustrate you?
You’re going to influence the direction of roadmaps and product directions, but you don’t get to own it all the way to launch.
Are you ok handing over your baby to the product team and moving onto the next project? Sometimes, you’re going to be so proud of your work that you’ll want to stay behind and shepherd it through to launch, but unfortunately, that’s not our job! Welp.
In terms of skills, Devin sees the following as some key ones to have, but the full list is longer:
- Interviewing stakeholders and users to uncover insights.
- Translating foundational research into actionable insights that go on to inform strategies.
- Divergent, generating lots of ideas quickly.
- Convergent thinking – using tools and frameworks to prioritize ideas.
- Crafting compelling product narratives that resonate with product teams and leadership.
- Strong presentation skills, comfortable leading a room.
- Able to develop trusted relationships with senior leaders across the organization.
Design strategy is not just speculative work – you get to be more practical (yet ambitious). For me, that’s the most rewarding part because it combines the future with management/consulting approaches. We are not just dreaming blue sky, but taking real steps. You also get to see your products in real life, even if it is in 3-4 years. Hopefully. At the very least, you get to see people feeling excited about them,” Devin concludes
Devin views classic design as desirability, business as viability and tech as feasibility, but he’s starting to think that design’s role goes beyond just focusing on what is desirable.
As a designer progresses into leadership roles, their responsibilities grow to include decisions that impact both customer value creation and the company’s bottom line. How do these differ from the responsibilities of leaders from other areas of the business? They don’t really, so perhaps a designer’s role in business becomes more ‘business-centric’, and therefore perhaps more strategic.
We could also look at a design maturity model like The Danish Design Center’s The Design Ladder, from 2001.
In this model, design moves from an invisible part of the product development process that is handled by non-designers and is given to the designer working directly with the company’s owners and management, with the intention of either completely or partially rethinking the business concept.
A similar model was proposed by InVision in 2019, where design trended more strategically as it matured within the organization.
So, if you believe that design can be a powerful influence on the creation of competitive value, then I’d say the role of design teams within an organization is to establish themselves, build relationships and gain trust to mature and move along that spectrum. Eventually, they will be in a position where they can wield influence over the underlying business model decisions to create a more useful and desirable experience for people.
But once a designer gets a seat at the table, they should be wary of two things:
- Most of the time, the people at the table don’t speak the language of design. If you’re going to have influence over the decision making, you’ll need to meet them halfway and speak their language of business. For many designers, this is a whole new set of vocabulary and it takes some time to become fluent.
- Devin suspects that in some respects, design can be quite insular and we have the bad habit of placing ourselves at the center of the diagram sometimes. As such, every problem becomes a design problem.“Once you get to the table, you realize that there are trade-off decisions being made every day, and design and product UX is just one factor of many being considered and weighed in. When you’re ‘at the table’, you can be an advocate for design but you can’t be ignorant of considering these other influences that also impact the choices being made,” Devin says.
We should always be aiming to align our metrics with the objectives of the overarching business. It doesn’t make sense to pursue metrics that leadership doesn’t care about.
Ideally, as design matures within an organization, we can wield our influence to ensure that delivering a desirable experience for users is incorporated into higher-level metric settings.
If we’re not in that position of maturity, we should instead look for ways to illustrate how our design metrics directly impact things that the business leaders care about.
Ryan Rumsey outlined an approach to connect desirability objectives to viability objectives in his e-book Business Thinking for Designers, where he talks about how organizations can link their efforts to higher-level organizational priorities.
He outlines the practice of creating conditional statements to highlight design ROI, which is a great way of illustrating how design could become a competitive advantage in a systematic and rigorous way.
However, Devin thinks that the analytical approach often needs something a little extra:
“I see some people in strategy and business ops who are really fantastic at identifying opportunities, or really strong at seeing trends amongst complex data sets. But when it comes to translating that and communicating a compelling product or platform story, things sometimes fall a bit flat. I think this is because the analytical storytelling that these strategists use is fantastic for problem-solving and decision-making reports, but less effective at rallying people around a compelling vision of the future. That’s where designers can leverage narrative storytelling, compelling visuals, videos and prototypes to tell a story about the future direction of a product or an org, in a way that aligns teams, leaders and decision-makers alike.”
Devin thinks that there are several qualities of an effective design organization or department:
- A physical and digital space/environment where people and creativity can thrive.
- An internal culture that welcomes healthy and constructive design criticism amongst teams.
- The organization has a strong vision, not only for the products, but for the role that design plays within the organization itself.
- Incentive structures that support meaningful work and thoughtful design.
- Creating a safe environment to experiment and fail in.
- The organization does not operate design inside of a silo. It has an appreciation for the role that design plays within the bigger picture and does the necessary legwork to ensure that it connects effectively with other teams, engineers and PM counterparts.
At Google, I work in a small pod of people but I’m connected with a larger group. Our manager is working with us. We often get people from other teams to work with us. Often, those people are very excited to help us out for a couple of weeks
In his role as design strategist, Devin sits within Strategy & Operations. Their challenge is to connect with the Design, Product and Engineering teams when they work with each other on a new vision for their product or organization.
Funnily enough, it’s not always Design Leaders who bring them in for an engagement. More often than not, it’s been the Product Managers who are most excited to work with them!
We’ll typically take on 1-2 transplants from the host team to work alongside us for each project. This is often a win-win for both teams. The transplant designers get to work on something really exciting and innovative, while their leaders feel comfortable that their political view will be incorporated into the vision via their transplants. For us, we get deep institutional knowledge embedded in our team, as well as a point of contact who can connect us with the right people on the host team’s side.
Devin’s ideal design strategy team runs lean – a max of 6 people, remote, and spread across a handful of continents.
Skillwise, it’s probably a strong cross-functional group: lots of mixed methods folks, odd-ball polymaths who don’t fit traditional design job descriptions, and all coming from a diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences.
Ideally, each person would have some mash-up of 1-2 of the following capabilities, but a curiosity and willingness to jump into any of them and learn something new: business strategy, quant analysis, qual analysis, ethnography, narrative writing, video product, brand marketing, engineering, prototyping, video production, and product design. Am I asking for too much?
“A successful design strategist leverages rational know-how and technical skills with political understanding surrounding internal efforts within the organization. The closer you get to the business decision making, the more political things become. Therefore…
Ensure an adequate portion of your time is dedicated to cultivating relationships, Devin says.
Leaders across your company probably think a lot about cultivating their relationships, and so should you. Design strategists should ensure that they are having regular opportunities to catch-up with key contacts across the organization, whether that be a chat over coffee or a virtual lunch to get the latest intel on what other teams are working on across the company. A design strategist will often have a lot of success bringing disparate ideas and teams together, but that requires keeping up-to-date with the goings-on of different teams.
Devin has two pieces of advice to offer all design strategists.
- Know when to play dumb and ask basic questions – even when you might know the answers.”One of my superpowers is being the person in the meeting who is not afraid to ask the basic questions out of fear of looking stupid. Typically, there’s at least one other person in the meeting wondering the same thing, and by asking basic questions you’ll sometimes uncover fundamental mindsets, language and understanding of core ideas. These can give you great context and insight into how someone is thinking about something more complex and abstract,” Devin says.
- Read, read, read. Read broadly – books, magazines, business news blogs, design twitter, Youtube comments, whatever. And not just tech or design blogs. Read all sorts of journalism, journals and books. Read diversely and keep really good notes. Develop opinions on things and look for the threads that begin to emerge between disparate industries or problem spaces.
A poor piece of advice that Devin often hears is: “You should stay in a role for a minimum of 2 years before thinking of moving on, as it’s good to have that time with your ‘feet under the desk’ on your resume.”
This is bad advice. Don’t stay in a toxic environment or waste your time solving boring, meaningless problems if you can see an opportunity to take on more inspiring work, just because of how it will look on your resume. Some of the best designers I know are constantly ‘moving to where the cheese is’ because they want to spend their human cycles pursuing meaningful work. You only get one life!
Not appreciating how little time people have on a daily basis is a rookie mistake, and it’s one that Devin notices a lot.
If you want to be a better design strategist, or simply a better co-worker, make things easy for people.
- Make sure that your reports have a succinct summary
- Make your emails easy to skim-read
- Make your requests clear and direct
The more senior your audience, the more time you should spend on making your communication concise and easy for them to digest and form a decision on.
Bloom’s Taxonohis is a nifty reference to help your report writing when you’re searching for the perfect verb.
In 2019, Devin shifted to an iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil 2 for a lot of day-to-day work. Concepts + Procreate have made sketching on the go a core part of his workflow.
Digital tools will come and go, so Devin tries not to rely too much on just one. That said, it’s hard to look past collaborative spatial canvas tools like Figma and Freehand. He believes that any tool providing a sort of sense of presence (even just a moving cursor) and real-time collaboration will be hard to overlook in the future.
Actually, he keeps finding new non-UI uses for Figma, such as mind maps, note-taking, and brainstorming. Turns out that when you give people a giant blank canvas and some tools, they start to come up with creative ways to use it!
Devin provided us with a neat list of reading materials! Go and check them out.
His favorite blogs and newsletters:
Devin always has 3-5 books on the go. To list all of his favorites would take too long, but here are a few that he finds himself coming back to again and again:
And here are two independent magazines that Devin enjoys:
Offscreen is an independent print magazine that explores critical perspectives on technology and examines how we shape technology and how technology shapes us. It’s produced by Kahe Brach, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, and who also happens to publish one of Devin’s favorite email newsletters, Dense Discovery.
Logic is a print magazine about technology that publishes three times a year. Each issue focuses on a topic, from failure and intelligence to sex and justice. It includes a range of essays and short stories that offer a critical look at the intersection of technology and society.
Wow, that was an amazing and inspiring interview! Thank you so much for taking the time, Devin!
Oh boy, let’s do our usual 3-bullet recap. Seems almost unfair, but here we go:
- Make explicit choices and clearly define things when creating a design strategy.
- Involve decision-makers in your design strategy process, as they are the people who will carry your strategy forward long after you’ve moved onto a new project.
- Pursue and showcase metrics that your leadership cares about in order to influence their opinion.
If you haven’t quite had your fill of design knowledge and want more, more, more, sign up for my free design strategy email course. It’s been made with curious folks like you in mind. 😉