How to increase your impact as a Product Designer

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A word that gets used a lot in relation to career progression here at Monzo is impact. This single word gets mentioned no less than 21 times in the Product Designer progression framework! And it’s not just important if you are managing people, as an Individual Contributor (IC) you are expected, especially as a Senior or Principal, to demonstrate ever greater impact in the work that you do.

I went on a bit of a mission earlier this year to understand what this term really meant and how to put it into practice in my work as an IC Product Designer. I was lucky enough to grab some time to chat with several senior Monzonauts who were recommended to me as highly impactful in the work they did. To complement these conversations I also joined an online course held by Frank Bach, Lead Designer at Headspace on growing your influence as a designer.

I learned a huge amount through this exercise and I didn’t want to keep it to myself, so I’ve tried to condense it down into a blog post. Hopefully you’l find it an interesting insight into how Monzo thinks about impact and come away with a few ideas to bring to your work.

Making an impact... through your work

Making an impact through your work starts with thinking about the bigger picture. In the words of designer Eero Saarinen, ‘Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

In product design, this could mean thinking beyond your team to ensure the work you are doing joins up with design work other teams are doing. Does everyone’s work come together to create a cohesive experience for the user? And if not, how could you design in a way that encourages greater co-ordination? On one level, this might involve thinking carefully about how new components should be designed so that they are reusable. Or it could involve using your skills to visualise the future the company wants to get to and working out what steps are needed to get there.

Perhaps most fundamentally, I learned that being impactful is about focussing energies on what’s most important right now. So being able to prioritise work and spot potential distractions is an important and under-rated design skill to master. One of the Monzonauts I spoke to mentioned that they wrote company and team OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) at the top of every document or figma board they worked in to ensure they stayed tightly focussed on the truly important stuff.

Finally, several Monzonauts emphasised the importance of simply sharing what you’re working on and thinking about. Just making your work more visible can increase the opportunity for it to have more impact, as it affects how others approach what they’re working on too.

Making an impact... through other people

Another way to create impact is through other people. This is obviously a key skill for managers, but it’s also important as an IC, though subtly different. Even if you aren’t actively managing someone, I learned there are still ways to be impactful through the people that you work with.

One simple way of doing this is to be more intentional about the feedback you give. Just by learning to frame statements as questions, you might be able to help colleagues realise they might already know an answer to something they’re stuck on and they’ll grow in confidence as a result.

It really helps to understand what motivates your colleagues too. If, for example, you know that an engineer is really motivated by mastering some aspect of their craft, how could you use that knowledge to influence them to build a more ambitious version of your design?

I spoke to one Monzonaut who said they always assumed they wouldn’t be in a team forever, which made them think from the very first day about how they could gently coach those around them such that the team could still function well after they’d gone. If others can learn about how you think and approach things, you can still make an impact when you’re not in the room.

In busy workdays it can often be easy to only see members from your immediate team or discipline, sometimes for many weeks. So one other way to increase your impact that I heard about is to break out of that pattern. Speaking with those in other disciplines or areas of the business (at Monzo we call them Collectives) helps you see the bigger picture and build useful relationships while doing so. This also gives you the perspective to spot what your own team’s strengths or weaknesses are and how to make things work better.

Making an impact... by knowing yourself

Something which cropped up a lot in my conversations (and which was strongly emphasised by Frank Bach) was the importance of knowing yourself in order to make the most impact through work. Frank had a concept he called your APEX, which is the unique mix of skills and abilities that only you can bring. As you become more senior in design it becomes extremely important to understand your special skills and perspective – and also to have an awareness of your weaknesses.

The question which I was encouraged to ask myself was: What work energises you? We can’t always choose exactly the kind of design work we get to do but we should be sensitive to that which we get most energised by because thats a sign of where we we’ll be able to go further and have even more impact than usual. Do you get fired up by wide open problem spaces and discovery work? Or do the intricacies of design system work get your pulse racing? Listen to those feelings!

On a similar note, one Monzonaut advised that it’s not worth obsessing over so-called horizontal impact (work that touches lots of different areas) and instead find your own way of being impactful instead, which might be going really deep into a design area or problem, as well as going broad.

How not to make an impact

Throughout the chats, I also heard some examples of how not to be impactful, which I’ll include here as useful counter-examples to everything I’ve written about above.

One pattern I heard about that reduced people’s impact was a tendency to consolidate decision-making in them. Besides being stressful, this means the best ideas might not get heard and others are deprived of opportunities to grow. As Molly Graham says, remember to ‘give away your Legos’.

I also heard about the problems that were caused when people had martyr-like tendencies. Hiding problems from others might feel kind initially, but in the long-term reduces your impact as a designer and can often lead to burnout.

Finally, I heard about the way some people wasted energy chasing visibility. It can be easy to think that having generally more visibility with a company (perhaps through a promotion or after presenting at a company event) might unblock design projects and grow your influence, but this is often not the case and can lead to frustration. Being truly impactful involves being more focussed about who you might need to influence and how you can help them. What can you learn about the priorities of important stakeholders so you can frame your design solution in terms that will be most meaningful for them.

So there you have it. A few hopefully practical ways to think about impact that you might be able to apply in your next design project. And if you want to join us and make an impact here too, we're currently looking for a Director of Product Design and a Senior Product Designer.

Huge thanks to Constantijn, Eleni, Frank, Katherine, Robin and Suhail for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with me earlier this year and helping to shape this piece. And thanks to Vuokko, Tom and Suhail for reading drafts and helping to edit.