Co.Design

Quora on Designing an Organization That Designs Better Products

Rebekah Cox, employee number one at Quora, writes about what it means to be a designer at this new start-up.

Quora is a community-sourced site with a collection of continually improving questions and answers.

Quora's first employee, Rebekah Cox, a product designer and manager at the company, and a former product design lead at Facebook, wanted to take her experience as a designer and as a manager to create a new type of design role at Quora.

Here, she writes about how her previous work experience shaped that role at Quora.

One thing you learn when you've worked in many different organizations (higher education, corporate, startup) and had many different roles (programmer, designer, design manager, interim director) is how little a single great designer can do on their own in a large organization. There are so many forces exerting pressure on a design that even truly remarkable designers are often sidelined and fall victim to political pressures, limited authority, executive whims, and eventually, reduced motivation.

And yet, in all cases, the designer is ultimately responsible for the design. If something is awkward or doesn't work, it's the designer's fault.

Witnessing the forces of pressure on either side of the equation as a designer is heartbreaking. On the one hand, when you are the actual designer, you're vulnerable and suspicious of your own output, but on the other, as the design manager, you have to answer to stakeholders and fulfill responsibilities that are beyond the realm of pure product design.

I've designed the Quora product, and also how product design fits in the company.

A lot of companies have tried to support designers by giving them "a seat at the table." What this usually means in practice, however, is that a designer is sitting at the table well after the important product decisions that influence the design have been made. This is usually where complicated and muddy designs are born. Someone wants to do X, while control Y can afford compromise Z, and then it is all packaged up and given to a designer to implement. It's hard for a designer to argue against the forces that are leading to that compromise because it's already too late. This existing system, in my opinion, is fundamentally broken.

Knowing this and understanding the amazing opportunity of being the first employee of what I believe will become an important company—one that is trusted with helping everyone share their knowledge—I've spent a considerable amount of time not only designing the Quora product, but also designing how product design fits within the organization.

To start that process, I asked myself several questions:

- Where and how can a designer be most effective in creating a product and an experience that best meets strategic goals?
- How can the designer be best suited to interact with engineering, product management, executives, etc.?
- What are the strengths unique to designers? What are their weaknesses? How can both their strengths and weaknesses be leveraged to produce the best output?
- How can I use that understanding to craft a simple, powerful role?

And, most importantly:

- How can I help designers avoid all the obstacles that they typically have to deal with and nurture them to achieve their best?

To start, you really have to understand what design means, and in the context of a web product, it can mean a lot of things.

For Quora, it means designing for whys (the product) and taking the most straightforward route possible for the hows (the interactions).

Whys are questions like:

-Why does a feature need to exist?
-Why does a user want/need to take some action?
-Why can't they use some other, similar feature?

The hows are then driven by the answers to the whys?after all, why a user must enter a flow dictates how they progress through it.

This has all sorts of ramifications on what it means to be a designer at Quora. It means that you must understand the craft of creating something that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also functionally pleasing, and at its best, subconsciously pleasing.

Some tools to accomplish these goals include:

-Having a designer involved as early as possible and with as much authority and responsibility as possible
-Giving designers some expectations normally reserved for product managers
-Setting the expectation that designers should care deeply about the product
-Fostering ownership for the rules and rationale for every UI component
-Actively resisting the urge to build UI for UI's sake, and instead focusing singularly on the product's goals.

Designers at Quora are expected to care about everything related to the products they help create and they have the ability to do anything necessary to make each great. Supporting designers in that role is where organizational design is most important: designers need the authority and the tools to operate most effectively.

This is not for everyone and, frankly, not for most designers. Designers who are trained and optimized for the hows and those who have ignored the whys, are not great fits for this role. However, designers who are curious, designers who are passionate and designers who are talented enough to handle tremendous amounts of responsibility and authority are great fits for us. At many companies, even directors don't have a lot of ability to make something really great, but at Quora a designer can.

Finally, Quora Product Designer isn't simply a title, it's an amazing role at an amazing company with as much care baked into the organization as has been baked in to the product itself. At Quora, we're working on creating not only the best possible product, but also the best possible environment for designers.

[This post originally appeared on Quora; Top image: "Clearing the Way" by Kenny Louie]

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