Design Leader Insights - Eric Atkinson on UX Strategy and Inclusive Design

February 21, 2023


Alex Smith: Hey Eric, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Eric Atkinson: Hello, Alex. Thanks for having me. And happy to be here. 

Alex Smith: Of course. Yeah. And to get started, can you give the audience some background and context in your journey in UX? 

Eric Atkinson: Yeah, sure, happy to. I started my journey in UX way back in school, not to age myself here, but I have an education and degree in design and graphic design. So after school, I then moved into government and working for the government, their state and federal government in Virginia, and also the Federal Reserve a little bit. But from there, I moved on into what is kind of a hyper growth startup. After that, I moved to Seattle, Washington with my wife now, she's a professor at the local university here. But I joined Microsoft, after that, and help to kind of evangelize and do some mind shifting on being design lead in design thinking, and really helping product teams, leadership at product teams, up level and upskill their thinking around design and how it can be leveraged and used within their organizations to build better products and services, right? Microsoft and then Amazon and Amazon devices organization, and Alexa. Moved from that to back to Microsoft again. A little bit of a boomerang there, and then got on with the Surface team. And then most recently, I've joined Toast as a Director of UX Insights. But again, having a background and being able to have one foot in the world of design and the other in the world of research and strategy. 

Alex Smith: I think one of the things I want to talk about is you mentioned strategy a few times. I think it's kind of nebulous, occasionally, but how can designers or design teams influence and impact strategy, business strategy?

Eric Atkinson: I would say first and foremost is to understand the business.You have to understand the business to be able to inform the strategy, right? And oftentimes, we are brought into organizations or we join teams where there's a lot of work that's already been done, a lot of thinking and a lot of kind of thought put into the products and services and how to deliver on customer or either client value. Get up to speed on that is what I would encourage all designers and everyone under the umbrella of kind of design and UX. Know that intimately, and where you can inform change, because that will be the new unique or different kinds of levers that you can pull around where you can deliver on additional customer value, either new and new client value also. Understand the business and then get close to product and know that right now, there's a lot of thinking on how we can collaborate better, in UX and design with product. How those relationships are going at different kinds of fidelities and different kinds of industries across these different disciplines. But I don't see it as necessarily a contentious kind of relationship, I see it as a great opportunity for partnership. And so that's what I mean by get close to product and understand your rhythm of business. What I mean by that is that companies usually have some cyclical planning cycle, right or activity, whether that's annual planning or half over half planning, their QBRs, their monthly business reviews, there kind of operational planning, there's planning even at the scrum team level as well. And so no matter where you are in your career or where you are as far as the seniority of your craft, really understand the business and then also understand the rhythms of that business. That's where you can inform strategy, right? Through the rhythms of the business. Those are the canonical kind of documented mechanisms for the organization to do its planning and to do strategic thinking. 

Alex Smith: There's another piece of it, which you've done a lot in your career, which is research, be it consumer facing, user facing, stakeholder research. How does research inform the strategy?

Eric Atkinson: I think the most impactful research or insights, right is, is strategic. It helps to inform the strategy of products and services that can be at the feature level that can be iteration over iteration, or kind of new products and services that upstream research helps to determine will deliver kind of greater outcomes for the business. The way to get there, however, a couple of different mechanisms. One, you mentioned it around stakeholder strategy, going and listening to her, I would say I would encourage everyone, and even including very senior people, listen to the people in your organization about what matters to them, what strategic thinking they're doing in their orgs, or teams, and then that will give more insight into how design can play a role, how research can play a role into informing that strategy. And then one thing I really want to touch on is to challenge axioms, challenge the status quo, challenge those assumptions. There's a reason that we've been brought into these organizations and have been hired. And oftentimes it's for that new unique or either different thinking or fresh eyes approach to things. With great risk comes great opportunity not to use a Spider-Man quote, but literally, that's true, right? And so high problem risk, and low problem clarity, that's when research really needs to dive in heavily, right? And invest its resources, time, people, money. That's what we need to give folks air cover as well, so that they're doing their best work to be able to explore these kind of very nascent ideas that the company may have, or that your teams may have around how to inform strategy. But with that high risk and low problem clarity, there's a great opportunity, right? And every company is trying to out compete the other company or their competitors. And so how do you then identify like, what differentiates us from the competition, right? It can't be feature parity, it can't be doing things like they've always been done. It has to be introducing new innovative ideas into your products and services, but also your teams, and doing some mind shifting with that.

Alex Smith: Another area you mentioned in your intro, is inclusive design. An area that maybe doesn't get enough attention in tech. How do you approach that? Or how would you advise teams to approach that?

Eric Atkinson: With a lot of thought and mindfully. One way is to ensure that you are fostering and supporting inclusive leadership, and inclusive team members. I'm not going to run through all the stats and data, I don't have all the numbers in my head. But more inclusive teams actually deliver on better products and services, that's proven.They deliver on better outcomes for the business like the bottom line, that's proven. Start there, start with ensuring that you're fostering inclusion in your spaces. And the reason for that is so that you don't have this homogenous group take that happens sometimes in our spaces. And I don't mean if we're kind of like through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, I mean, truly about fostering innovation. So this is not about quotas, but more about how the decisions, how the design evolution, how the research and learning plans are landing within your products and services, that oftentimes depends upon how we are including our leaders and our teams into those conversations, into that planning, into the delivery of that planning. 

Alex Smith: Let's switch gears to advice you have for designers entering the field today. I feel like this talk up until now has been filled with that. So but maybe just some top strategies and tactics that you would advise new designers to think about? 

Eric Atkinson: Absolutely. The first thing I would say is just stay curious. Remain curious, remain inquisitive about all the things that have to do with your team, your own work, your business, as I said before, learn the business model and how the business goes about delivering value for customers. That's remaining curious, right and inquisitive. Challenge axioms also. Challenge some of the long standing beliefs or assumptions that teams or organizations hold customers and even how we think of b2b customers, right? Which aren't always considered customers, but they are they're just our continuum there.I think we need to hold on to those values more so than ever, instead of conforming to maybe kind of just the groupthink or that the long held views that we have within these spaces. How will we innovate moving forward if you're not asking these questions and challenging some of these things? 

Alex Smith: Well Eric, thanks so much for coming on the show today. Really appreciate having you on. 

Eric Atkinson: Thank you for having me. If anyone or yourself wants to talk more I'm more than happy to do so. And if you have questions, I can point to a few resources that I mentioned as well.