It takes a tremendous work ethic and commitment to wait for lightning to strike
- Rick Rubin, Design Matters

None of this is fact.

These are my current thoughts and opinions about teams, collaboration, and creative work, formed over the past 13 years spent on the difficult and rapidly evolving task of creating things that other people find valuable enough to pay for.

Creative work is unpredictable, and quality takes time. My job as a design leader is to foster an environment that increases the odds of lightning striking — meaning high-quality, innovative work output from the team at a relatively rapid and predictable rate.

This means inspiring the team to show up and imagine new possibilities every day, creating space and rituals for people to work alone and together, and celebrating the great things that come from the team — whether they ship or not.

This page introduces some frameworks that drive my approach to design and team leadership, and that help simplify the endless complexities of cross-functional product design and development.

People > Process > Product

Consider the product design and development workflow as a pyramid with 3 layers, each foundational to the one above:

A foundation of great people, working with intentional tools and systems, are most likely to create a successful product


People are the foundation of everything.

Nothing gets done without the right people in the right positions, aligned, motivated, empowered, and working together toward a shared vision.

But great teams aren’t great simply because they’re full of individual rock stars.

Great teams embody a 1 + 1 = 3 dynamic — meaning that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

They operate on a foundation of trust, and value diversity — meaning they understand that no individual can accomplish what a team of complementary skill sets can.

They're comfortable with respectful, open debate, and are willing to challenge each other’s assumptions.

They push one another to empathize with unfamiliar points of view, and then imagine new possibilities.

They leverage each other’s strengths and cover each other’s blind spots.

They share victories, and learn from failures, together.

If the People layer is not working well, then the rest of the pyramid will fail. Processes won’t work, no matter how intentionally designed, and a great product will never be delivered.

Some signals that there are problems in the People layer are:


Process is the middle layer.

It covers the systems and tools that a team uses to get work done — collaboration, communication, sequence of operations, approval gates, norms, and rituals that the team follows to keep work on track and running smoothly.

There’s no one size fits all process that every product team should follow.

One team may do best to follow a strict, highly regimented process — for example, a large cross-functional team working on self-driving car technology that is heavily regulated and puts lives at risk.

Another team may best operate with very fluid, almost non-existent process — say, a small team of founders working on a new mobile game proof of concept to shop around to investors.

The right process for a team can vary widely based on variables like company size and stage, level of product-market fit, number of teams and their size, product ecosystem, skillsets and skill gaps within a team, company or team goals, leadership style, and general company / team culture. It can and should evolve as the business does, adapting to fit the current state of the business and teams.

Even with a well-functioning People layer in place, if the Process layer isn't working, then the team will not deliver on the top Product layer of the pyramid.

Some signals that there are problems in the Process layer are:


The top layer of the pyramid is Product.

Delivering a winning product requires that the two layers below are both working well — we have the right People in the right positions, and they’re empowered by effective Process to do high-value work, efficiently.

Good people together with sound process create a higher chance of building and scaling a successful product. But the reverse is also true — good people without clear ways of working and collaborating, or a team of unskilled people following the most mature processes from the most successful business in the world, will struggle to achieve a successful outcome.

Aligning Teams Toward a Vision

As soon as we have multiple designers contributing to a single product experience, it becomes important that each designer's deliverables fit into a cohesive whole that adds value at each stage of delivery, rather than fracturing and diluting the overall experience.

A concentric model for coordinating multiple teams working toward a single vision, delivering value to customers along the way

This is a concentric team model, with each team aimed toward the same long-term vision and outcome. Their deliverables complement each other’s at every delivery stage so that as delivery milestones are met, value to the user increases.

Conversely, a parallel team model has teams operating and delivering separately from each other. It tends to index on team autonomy and speed, but the trade-offs are quality, consistency, and long-term value for customers. This “speed” optimization is short-sighted, as teams effectively silo from each other, and risk delivering inconsistencies that devalue the overall product experience. This introduces new types of cost and thrash in the form of design and technical debt, bugs, and customer complaints. Now the team is stuck delivering short-term, incremental fixes that slow progress more than if they had simply strategized together from the start. Most importantly, this chips away at customer trust and sentiment, risking potential churn.

But getting this right doesn’t have to be difficult. It takes:

The Design Loop

Designers are uniquely equipped to craft useful products for people by leveraging their superpowers of curiosity, empathy, visualization, rapid prototyping, and ongoing learning and iteration.

We dig in to understand a problem space, explore possible solutions and make them tangible for others to experience and evaluate, and ultimately discover the best solution to execute and deliver, based on value to the customer.

Understand user needs, explore and evaluate potential solutions, then decide on the highest ROI solution to execute BEFORE fully investing in development and delivery

This drives value for businesses because it’s a cheap and fast way to understand the nuances of what works and what doesn’t before investing in high-cost product development and delivery, and without risking delivering a solution that misses the mark.

The product and UX design loop covers three main phases: Understand > Explore > Execute.

Phase 1: Understand

This is all about building empathy for customers and the people who use our products. We dig in to understand their day-to-day behaviors, challenges, and overall problem space. The goal is to uncover actionable insights and opportunities that may be worth exploring in more detail.

How It’s Done

This is all about building empathy for customers and the people who use our products. We dig in to understand their day-to-day behaviors, challenges, and overall problem space. The goal is to uncover actionable insights and opportunities that may be worth exploring in more detail.

Why It Matters
The better we understand the specific needs of our users and customers, the more focused our design and development will be. This saves time, resources, and headaches as we move through the product development process, and also helps us tell a more effective customer story in our marketing and sales conversations.

Phase 2: Explore

This is all about exploring potential solutions to the problem space from phase 1.

Through ideation, testing, and feedback loops with users, we evaluate ideas and narrow down toward the best solution based on utility and usability for users, feasibility for our teams to execute, and viability for our business to deliver and maintain.

How It’s Done

Why It Matters
The goal is to build confidence in a direction — or kill it — before moving into development and delivery phases, which are more time-consuming, resource-intensive, and higher risk to customers.

Work done in this phase tends to be thrown away, and that’s perfectly ok. It’s the time to be creative, explore ideas that the team wants to learn about, and uncover answers to specific questions to inform further investment.

Phase 3: Execute

This is all about scoping, documenting, and articulating the full experience to be developed and delivered.

How It’s Done

Why It Matters
By this phase, we’re confident that our delivery will bring value to customers, so it’s all about setting our development and delivery teams up for success.

We nail down the details, evaluate tradeoffs, and document everything for efficient, low-risk development.