Magazine

Peter Merholz: “All design is service design”

  • Katja Dreher

Always have the user context in mind: We are convinced that Human Centered Design is a crucial success principle in the digital world. We talked to Peter Merholz, design expert and co-author of “Org Design for Design Orgs” about the importance of “Design Leadership”. In his book, Merholz addresses the question of how design teams can be successfully built and managed within the company.

Design teams as major partners of the organization

Peter Merholz, what is the role of design in the creation process of new technology services?

Peter Merholz: It’s important that we clarify what we mean by design. In my book, and in my workshop, I argue that “all design is service design” because, basically, all the companies we work for are delivering services. Design teams sense customer and user need through their research efforts, take those insights and prototype new potential experiences, gather feedback on these prototypes and refine those ideas, and then work with cross-functional teams to see these ideas get produced and put into the market.

Design is crucial because, even at the earliest stages of the process, it makes ideas concrete, which allows people to understand the implications of a business’ strategy early in the process.

In your book “Org Design for Design Orgs” you explain about the qualities of effective design organizations. What are the opportunities for design teams?

The opportunity for the design team is to be seen as a peer and partner to other major functions in the organization, such as marketing, product management, engineering, and sales. In order for that to happen, the design team must earn that place – it’s not going to be handed to the team. We wrote that chapter to help design teams assess their maturity, and identify how they might be getting in the way of their own success.

In your book “Org Design for Design Orgs” you are describing core design skills. Which skills does a design team need and why?

It depends on the design team, and the service that the company delivers, but the potentially needed skills are many and diverse. Here’s how we show it in the workshop (see figure below):

The core design skills by Peter Merholz
The core design skills by Peter Merholz

How to develop a culture of design 

Thinking of design culture, how can design leaders develop a design culture and what do they have to pay attention to?

The most important thing about developing a design culture is to be intentional in doing so. Many design organizations don’t focus on this, and they suffer from a lack of shared understanding, values, and purpose. In the book, we provide a simple framework for thinking about culture (see figure below).

It’s important for design leaders to start with articulating the values of the design organization – what does it stand for? At Snagajob*, we had the values of Quality, Context, Evidence, Fearlessness, and Humility. Those guided how we worked and how we hired, and by making the values explicit, it helped ensure a coherence in our efforts.

Those values are then realized through the environments in which we operated, and the activities we engaged in.

The next role of the leader is to make sure they are embodying the values, that they demonstrate them through their actions. Design leaders are role models for their team, taking their cues from how their leaders behave.

Framework for developing a design culture
Framework for developing a design culture

The role of ethical values in technological debates

How can ethical values be taken into account in today's technological debate?

Designers play a key role in bringing ethics to technological services, because designers are typically the main engine of humanism in the product development process. They seek to understand their users and customers people, and represent their voice and desires to the broader team. This naturally leads toward an ethical stance, because this approach leads to empathy and compassion for these users, and a desire to treat them right. From my point of view, it’s not just that ethical values should be taken into account when developing technological services, but they should be foundational in their development, ensuring that what is built serves users, and society, in an ethical fashion.

What was your main drive to write a book about design leadership?

A key motivator for the book is a recognition that companies are investing more and more in design, but not setting up their design teams for success. Design leaders should attend in order learn what organizational practices make your team more effective, and thus realize more of the potential of that investment.

*Snagajob is an American online employment website. Peter Merholz has been the Head of Design at Snagajob since January 2017.