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From Designer to Design Leadership

January 24, 2022

Finding the Sweet Spot where Design and Business Intersect

When the pandemic started last year, around 70 million consumers were converted from offline to online shoppers in Southeast Asia – roughly the equivalent of the entire population of the United Kingdom.1 More than ever, UX design, hailed as the modern-day counterpart of visual merchandising, becomes imperative for companies to gain solid footing in this explosive online growth. In addition to that, as of last year, the fifth most in-demand skill on LinkedIn is UX design.2 In a race to capture consumer market shares, businesses wanting entry on this rapid shift and demand on e-commerce must also consider architecting smooth and flawless transactions on their platforms. UX design ensures that whereas design leaders bolster the foundations for these designers to grow and thrive.

We talked to Stevanus Christopel, VP of Design & Product at OVO Indonesia. OVO is Indonesia’s first fintech unicorn and is the country’s leading digital payment service. Steve is an experienced UX leader and strategist, and he has led two Indonesian unicorns’ design teams, namely Tokopedia and OVO. He also advises SEA startups on UX matters. Steve shares his learnings in his transition from designer to design leader, his current challenges in leading his team in the time of COVID, and his motivations in growing design leaders. 

Designer to Design Leader

Designers are naturally solo workers who nurture a tumultuous relationship with their craft. With a good amount of focus and flow, designers helm innovative ideas and creative solutions which change the way we move, live, and work. Once designers level up to become design leaders, the relationship with their craft dilutes to focus their energy and attention in growing designers. 

Steve experienced it firsthand when he transitioned from a designer to design leader. He recalled the solitary experience of designing by himself, following deliverables expected from him. He was a senior designer around that time but his colleagues would approach him for one-on-one sessions. At first, they approached him with design problems. Sometimes, they would open up with personal problems. Steve happily guided and coached them and he felt a different kind of happiness and fulfillment. He reflected that maybe it was the next step for him. Growing into a leader, he sees fulfillment in the gratitude, happiness, and success of his colleagues.

As a first time leader, Steve realises that the proportion of shifting mindsets from craftsman to leader is huge. He heads meetings to define broad concepts such as strategy, design objectives, and customer research and in another meeting, he drills down to the finer details such as pixels, sketches, and illustrations. He devotes a 70/30 split in setting his priorities to ensure that he is really building his team – 70% on the strategic level and 30% on checking that the tactical steps are aligned with their current strategy. Steve admits that designers moving into leadership roles are hampered by their perfectionism so he advises design leaders to check on the organisation’s level of maturity and evaluate whether they still want to go deep in terms of specialty, or to just go broad, meaning produce a good design and good user experience at scale. 

Designers shifting to leadership roles need to consider three aspects as they leap forward to their new roles:

  1. Craft leadership 

Craft leadership is the ability to direct a design project, communicate it to other stakeholders, and ensure project and business success. It is going beyond the comforts of our design space and having a bird’s eye view on our projects.

  1. Operational leadership

Operational leadership is the ability to empathise on business operations and evaluate it vis-à-vis design processes. It is optimising and improving the process, assessing if it can be scaled to other projects as well.

  1. People leadership

People leadership is the ability to grow and nurture design talent. It is ensuring that designers thrive in our environment. 

In deciding the next steps for designers, Steve believes that it is a matter of aptitude and interest. Designers, like engineers, fall into two groups: specialists and generalists. Specialists dive deep into their areas of expertise and become the gurus and masters of their craftsmanship. Their main focus is their craft and once having earned their stripes, they can coach juniors, and build curriculums teaching other designers gain the same skillsets that they have. Generalists, on the other hand, are more likely to level up to leadership. They define strategy, build the team, secure buy-ins for strategy, and coordinate with other teams within the organization. Steve observes that colleagues oscillate between these two groups shifting from specialists to generalists and vice versa. What is crucial, however, is we recognise the best way we can contribute to the company and to ourselves. 

Leading in the Time of Covid

One of the more pronounced impacts on UX design during this pandemic is the lost opportunity to directly empathise with customers, shares Steve. Their usual mall or field research are upended by the extended lockdowns. However, UX designers adapt and innovate, as is their nature, and they have moved the research avenues virtually and remotely. Remote research has its own benefits as well. It affords designers and test users time flexibility in testing during their most convenient hours. Test users, on the other hand, would not wince nor hesitate to touch screens and keyboards as they are assured that they are in the safety of their own environment.

Another challenge Steve experiences is forming authentic relationships with his team while working remotely. During onboarding, Steve is conscious to make new hires feel included. It can be as simple as making sure he is seen during workshops and interacting with them to learn more on how they can work better together. During team meetings, he asks about their weekends or their hobbies – discussing things beyond work to augment human value. He wants to ensure bonds are being formed to ease the team in doing collaboration. For him, authentic relationships mean “every interaction is not transactional.” Team members learn to work together and help each other without the intent of expecting something in return. 

Growing Design Leaders

Looking into the future, Steve wants to grow more design leaders in Southeast Asia as talent is still raw in the region. Currently, he coaches designers but fast forward to a few years, he hopes that he is coaching design leaders. He observes that current designers struggle to influence and gain trust from other stakeholders in the organisation. To secure buy-ins for design ideas, he recommends finding that sweet spot where design and business intersect. It’s clear that everyone’s end goal is customer satisfaction but different stakeholders hold different priorities. While there is no need to go deep into learning business fundamentals, Steve cites merits in understanding a baseline to support business and balancing it with customer expectations. Instead of presenting design ideas within design linguistics, he says, “talk from the business point of view, but show the design impact with that point of view.” That way, we are able to communicate how design contributes and understands the business perspective.

Steve actively joins events and gives back to the UX community because he acknowledges that he grew and learned from there. There weren’t many UX learning resources in Indonesia back then so he credits the supportive global community. He has taken it upon himself to give back and reshape the industry, sharing his pain points and teaching designers how to gain trust and influence. He recognises that the technical details of design are important but an even more vital role is pushing ourselves out of our creative zones and infusing ourselves into varied roles and perspectives. From there, we amplify the design value and seamlessly weave its impact on that particular perspective. 

Final Thoughts

Designers moving up to design leadership need to consider a shift in their mindset – shedding away their solitary roles and extending their space to grow and nurture fellow designers.

  • Design leaders move beyond the craftsmanship role and double down on operational and people management to drive design teams to the next level.
  • Form authentic relationships even during this challenging time of remote work.
  • Find that sweet spot where design and business intersect to gain trust and influence with other stakeholders.



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