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The Design Leadership (R)evolution: A Conversation with Jared Erondu

Lattice’s first designer shares his thoughts on the evolution of the practice, his outlook for the future and provides tips on how to grow into an effective product leader.

2022 saw a slowdown in economies all over the world, and mass layoffs show us that big tech is not immune to economic downturn. 

Lattice’s VP of Design and GM of Performance Jared Erondu isn’t fazed.

A technophile by nature, Jared was always fascinated with building a business from the ground up. One day he got a call from Lattice co-founders, who passionately spoke of helping people maximize their job productivity. He was sold on their vision. He’s spent the better part of the past six years building the design function at the HR tech unicorn. 

Jared recently sat down with us to talk about the evolving role of design. He offered optimistic advice to future leaders in design and research who are worried about the current environment: “The superpower of the design discipline becomes more pronounced when resources are strapped.”

How do designers activate their superpower?

  1. Understand Value. Designers at tech companies need to have a deep understanding of what’s important to the business. How does your organization deliver value to your users? If you understand the business problems and objectives, you can devote more energy to big-picture thinking that directly improves the bottom line.
  2. Take an Organizational View. Awareness of pain points prompts further exploration. Designers can look at the organizational chart and identify what gaps have been created with a dearth of resources. You have the ability to look across the organization, which can lead to discovery of opportunities that the business hadn’t considered before, which is “very powerful and rewarding.”
  3. Reduce “Time to Learn.With the design toolkit in their arsenal, designers can quickly ramp up on a new problem. Your ability to assemble visual artifacts gives people something to interact with and react to. They can conduct testing with prototypes, then examine the way forward based on empirical results.

“If we were to pursue this, could it actually result in X, Y and Z for the business? When resources are strapped, when you have a reduced number of people to do a thing, that’s when the superpower really shines,” Jared said.

The Evolution of UX Research & Design

Researchers and designers alike have the skills, abilities and tools to look for opportunities and gaps within the organization.

Jared is quick to dispel the notion that research is only the act of talking to a customer.

“The reality is that the research toolkit is very, very wide. It encompasses quantitative methods, qualitative methods, and if you go down the sociology and psychology path (like Ph.D. programs), researchers go beyond just hopping on a customer call,” he said.

This is where “experience design” comes in: The design process does not begin when a user enters or uses your product. It begins when a potential user becomes aware of your offering.

“Every touch point — from seeing the first ad, talking to a customer, talking to a sales rep, purchasing a product, installing or downloading the product, using it, to eventually turn(ing) off the product is all within the agreement of design,” Jared said.

With this wide-lens view, how has the role of design evolved during the last decade? 

Jared used the double diamond design framework to illustrate the recent shift in design responsibilities.

Visual of the double diamond design process, which showcases how research informs the best designs.

Research and design have moved upstream. Even just a few years ago, most design teams used to focus on the second diamond (designing things right). But the design role has now emphasizes the need for the first diamond (designing the right thing).

Formerly relegated to the latter stages of the build, researchers and designers collaborate closely and devote more time on doing the right thing for our users.

“Our job is no longer to add a coat of paint on it,” Jared said. “Advancements in tools and technologies, design systems, allow us to spend less time on building the thing.”

Jared argues that as common processes get commoditized, it frees up designers to think of root problems. “The energy of the design mind being put more to building the right thing is actually great for society. In turn, it might unlock a lot of new opportunities that we’re not seeing right now.”

Be Ready for these UX Design Leadership Challenges

As designers and researchers take on more strategic roles, their responsibilities have grown. The fact that they were once clamoring for a seat at the leadership table is no longer an elephant in the room, Jared explains.

“Now, we’re at the seat.”

So what has been the biggest challenge now that designers finally (and rightfully) occupy their spot?

Communication problems. “When you sit down, you speak a different language, you can’t understand them and they can’t understand you,” Jared said. “So over time, design leaders had to learn that other language — the language of business, and in doing so, we became bilingual.”

This could’ve been a potential roadblock, but the best leaders turned it into a new skill. Talk about the superpower of designers.

“We can show up to a design meeting and speak to designers, but also can show up to leadership or executive meetings and speak to non-designers,” Jared said.  

It’s not all rosy, though. Lately, he’s observed some of his colleagues try to emulate their peers. He spoke of an obsession with writing documents, conducting meetings and calls before any ideas are put down on paper. He encouraged designers and researchers not to lose sight of the skills and value they bring to the table: “We need to recognize the uniqueness of our seat. We’re a craft-based discipline. Our craft can’t get lost or pushed to the wayside. It needs to run parallel to the rest of the business processes.”

For instance, there isn’t a need to interview 50 people when five will do. Acting on a quick hypothesis to identify an opportunity and creating a quick mockup can cut through the red tape and reveal whether it’s worth following through to the next phase. “I’ve seen that cut through so many meetings about meetings and documents about documents. It’s an artifact — people can react and think, let’s pursue it,” Jared said. 

Moving forward, Jared believes that design leaders will look at the customer lifecycle more holistically. 

“The next piece is really going to be the evolution of the design leadership practice. Widening our aperture, what’s the horizon with which we’re looking at our customers? And how are we beginning to have an influence on other touch points outside of the time when they are actually in the product.”

Top Leadership Tips for Growing Your Network as a Designer

Jared shared plenty of useful advice for professionals at different stages of their careers. He encourages young professionals to “optimize for learning” and simply pursue what you’re interested in with little risk. 

For mature practitioners looking at leadership roles, he highlighted the importance of identifying your leader archetype.

“There are certain profiles of leadership that are conducive to certain environments and certain stages of business,” Jared said.

He cited the example of how different leaders come in at different phases of a company’s growth, according to evolving business needs. Some may prefer to build the business from the ground up, like Jared. Others may like to enter the fray later on, bringing structure and processes into the mix. And once these processes are in place, others will thrive at accelerating the business to scale.

“Find opportunities that help you maximize the value you can have on businesses,” Jared said.

Jared also stresses the importance of building a mentorship or support group. A key consideration is understanding the difference between a mentor and a coach.

“A mentor is more like a pull relationship. A lot of people email saying ‘hey, I’d like you to be my mentor. Can we meet monthly?’ That’s not a mentor, that’s a coach,” he said.

When it comes to mentors, don’t stop at just one. Jared has an entire rolodex of names who specialize in different areas. “Understand what each is uniquely good at,” he explained.

Who is the subject matter expert at a specific topic? They may exist within or outside of your circle. The idea is to keep asking around until you find them. Then leverage their knowledge to improve your own skill set.

“It’s good to have people who are ahead of you, people moving alongside you and people who are behind you,” Jared said. “The mentor and coach, the people who are ahead of you can give you guidance and help you avoid a wall. But it’s also good to have people alongside you, dealing with the same challenges – this allows knowledge sharing and transfer. With the people behind you, there’s a selfless benefit to it, but there’s also a selfish benefit to it. Coaching someone actually reinforces your own learnings.”

If you can’t think of anyone in your immediate circle who can fill these roles, worry not. Just don’t be afraid to ask.

“Ask your folks, for folks. People tend to undervalue the richness of their second-degree network,” said Jared.

When he was creating Playbook, a knowledge exchange platform by and for designers, he understood that essentially, he was creating a Q&A platform. In order to learn more about Q&A design, Jared reached out to his network. He was eventually introduced to Bob Baxley, the first design leader at Yahoo! Answers. What began as an exchange of tactical questions has developed into a mentor-mentee relationship. To this day, Jared considers Bob one of his closest mentors.

If you never ask, you’ll never know…

Want to learn even more about growing your leadership career within UX research and design? Watch the on-demand conversation at “Product Design in 2023 & Beyond: What it means for your team.”

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

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