Audrey Crane is the Head of Growth at DesignMap, a product and strategy design firm. She’s also the author of What CEOs Need to Know About Design, a book that helps leaders understand and tap into the power of design in their organizations. In this, Audrey’s second appearance on the show, we focused on how organizations can ensure they’re getting the best design work for their money.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. We get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

If you're enjoying the show, please rate or review us in Apple's podcast directory:

This episode's transcript was produced by an AI. If you notice any errors, please get in touch.


Jorge: Audrey, welcome to the show.

Audrey: Thank you, Jorge. It’s always so nice to talk to you.

Jorge: Yeah, same. It’s always nice to talk to you. And this is your second appearance on the show. I was looking over the show roster before we started talking and realized that it’s been a little over three years since we did that, which seems like a long time.

Audrey: It does. I would never have guessed that. That is a long time.

Jorge: We were long overdue to talk again. And you’ve written a couple of really interesting and valuable posts that give us the perfect opportunity to catch up again. But before we get into that, for folks who might not have heard your first appearance on the show, how do you go about describing yourself?

About Audrey

Audrey: Oh, how do I do that? I’m Head of Growth at DesignMap. I am lucky enough to be able to work on some projects as well, which is nice to use my design and research background a little bit. DesignMap is a product and strategy design firm. And, so we’re focused on enterprise software, mostly B2B IT developer tools, healthcare, and finance.

But before that, I was freelance and internal at companies as well. I was at Dubberly Design Office. I’m very proud to say I was, Hugh Dubberly’s first employee there. And I was very, to work alongside Hugh before that at Netscape.

And, I had moved to California to act. “act” for a living. But dad is in tech, and so, I’ve always been around. We had a RadioShack TRS-80; we had Apple IIs. My dad was writing software for that stuff. And my summer jobs were like, instead of waiting tables or whatever were QA, for my dad’s software, wherever he was.

And so, I went out there thinking, “Oh, I’ll get a day job in, in tech so that I can act.” But I met Hugh at Netscape and learned that the empathy and bounded problem-solving that comes with acting as well as the intuition and logic from my math background, which I also studied in college, was a really nice fit for design.

So I got to work with Hugh. I got to work with Marty Cagan. And I remember being in the room when Ben Horowitz first brought out his “good product manager, bad product manager” kind of short list, which was pretty amazing and groundbreaking at the time. So, super lucky to have somehow moved from math and theater into to design and tech and been doing it for a long time now since the olden days.

Jorge: I was going to say for folks who might not have caught the reference to Netscape, that means that you’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time and you’ve seen a lot of stuff, right? And I think that the blog posts that we’re going to be talking about are reflective of that. I will also add in the, in the spirit of, full transparency that I have done work for DesignMap. I have contracted with you all and it’s been a fabulous experience for me.

Audrey: For us to it’s always we’re always so excited when we get an opportunity to work together.

Jorge: Great.

Understanding Shadow Design

Jorge: So let’s get into the subject of your posts. I’m going to dive in by referring to the latest one and I’m just going to put out there. There’s, it has a phrase in the title that I found really intriguing when I first read it. The title of the blog post in case someone wants to search it up is The Cost of Shadow Design Teams. And I will include links in the show notes, but let’s get into it. What is shadow design?

Audrey: Yeah, so shadow design is design work that’s happening in organizations outside of the design team. So just to be like very clear and fair, we hope that product managers and engineers and business analysts and executives are drawing stuff and are participating in the design process, which we believe should be collaborative. I’m saying we, as I, as both DesignMap, and I’m sure you agree, Jorge, that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about shadow design.

Now, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about shadow design is those folks who aren’t trained or experienced designers doing design, that’s meant to be the last step in the process, either a workflow or a screen that is going to go into production. And you can imagine being in design consultancy, we debated the term for a long time, but there is this nice reference to shadow IT, which refers to “non-sanctioned” work that normally would be done by the IT team or at least known about and vetted by the IT team happening in other places in the organization. And so, we’re borrowing from that.

Jorge: Yeah, I had caught that reference. And when, when I think of shadow IT, I remember the days… Because I should say again, in terms of context, I think that you and I are more or less contemporaries in this industry. I have seen people running production servers from computers that are tucked under their desks. And that’s what I have in mind when you say shadow IT, this stuff that gets done outside the bounds of what the organization’s official IT department sanctions in order to get things done quickly, and, in so doing, incurring in a bunch of risk. Now, I get the sense that when you’re talking about shadow design in this article, the activities are not as unsanctioned as that, like shadow design is somehow being done unofficially.

The Impact of Shadow Design

Jorge: Why do organizations engage in doing shadow design?

Audrey: It’s a really interesting question. We’ve seen, a range of reasons for that. One is that a product manager or an engineer really likes doing design and they want to… sometimes they’re good at it. Sometimes there’s that. Dunning-Kruger effect, right? Where you’re, think you’re better at something that you know less about, but sometimes they are good about it or are good at it.

Sometimes they don’t know how to access design resources in their organization. Sometimes they don’t know that design can and should be doing the things that they’re doing. and sometimes design is just under-resourced, and so, there isn’t design available to do it. I guess I would add, I’m thinking out loud here, but certainly we’ve also seen lots of organizations where one designer is supposedly covering, six projects and they’re not like — of course, it depends on the project, but the likelihood of one designer successfully covering six projects is pretty low. So, there’s this perception that it’s covered by the executive team or leadership management, but in fact, the designers just not available to do it. So, I guess that’s a variation of design being under-resourced. It’s both under-resourced and the under-resourceness is hidden.

Design Maturity Model

Jorge: And, what that points to, I think, is building on the other post that you’ve written in the series… The shadow design post is the second of two, right? Where the first one is about a maturity model for organizations that are practicing design. And I think it’d be really valuable for you to describe that model for folks.

Audrey: Yeah. And I’ll say, I’m glad that we’re talking because I realized that there are actually three posts. So, we wrote the first two, and then I was chatting with Peter Merholz, actually, about it, and he said, “Do you write anything about what to do about it?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, duh.” So there is a third post, which is a little bit more about what to do about it.

So, anyway, there are lots of models of how effective organizations are at leveraging design like the design maturity model from InVision is one that I’m thinking of that’s like the standard, but I’m also I think of that as like how mature the design team is. And maybe I was just reading it wrong when I first read it, but I really think of it as design capable of and participating in these things.

And I do some thought partnership with some of our clients, so folks who lead design teams. And what I saw is that even if the design leader and the design team was capable of and excited about contributing at a higher level, the organization didn’t understand, didn’t believe it, didn’t care, wasn’t willing to change most often how they did things. And so they were bumping up against, these design leaders, are bumping up against what the organization was capable of taking part in and whether the organization was capable of letting the design team contribute what they were capable of.

So, in the first one and the second one, you could see my frustration showing through the first blog post in the second blog post where the first one, I was realizing like these companies are just not going to get there soon. And At some point, why are we banging our head against this wall?

It’s a good fight. I’m glad that design leaders are in there doing it. But in some cases, I just thought, this org without changes happening at the C level… so, let’s say like a bank, it’s a bank and they haven’t quite got their heads around digital transformation, much less the value design. So should these leaders and should these teams stay there? Should they move on? Let’s be aware of of where they’re at.

Design ROI Shortcomings

Audrey: And then, the second blog post, which is really about the shadow design phenomenon, was partially a result of the frustration of this, value of design or ROI of design conversation, which I know you’ve seen, Jorge. How long have we been talking about that? Five years? More? I was a big fan of Leah Buley when she was a analyst at Forrester; she was writing and talking about this a lot. And I remember a few years ago, I wish I could remember the reference, but I remember Leah saying, I thought that was gonna be the argument that was gonna make sense that we were talking that the language of business and that they were going to be ready to invest in design because the ROI was there and I gave up on that.

And so, the shadow design post for me, at least right now, and sorry, I hope I’m not talking in circles that are meaningless. I have a little cold medication going on too; you could probably hear. It’s God, I’m tired of talking about that. And there was a great, very popular post about the about gaslighting around this whole conversation. And I just, we have been talking about it for years and it is not making headway or at least enough headway as fast as I want it to.

And especially right now, we’re seeing tons of designers get laid off, whole design teams being let go. We just saw the cuts at IDEO. It’s not just consultancies though. It’s internal teams as well. I just saw a big financial services company, let go like 150 strong design team. Just let them go. It’s amazing.

So here, the shadow design argument is, “Let’s stop talking about ‘give us more money, give us more headcount, see our value.’ Let’s all measure how valuable we are.” Like, I’m not going to curse because it’s your podcast, Jorge, but I like insert curse word here like mmm that. Let’s just talk about the money that you’re spending today and the money that you’re spending today is not being spent well. So, let’s measure how much money you’re spending poorly today, and let’s spend that money, at least some of it, a little bit better by moving that from wherever design is happening in the organization through shadow design into a design team that can, support products better with better quality work, more efficiently, right?

Jorge: Yeah. The way that I understood the argument, and I think it’s reflected in what you’re saying now, is that design is happening one way or the other. And the argument seems to be that if the resources that are supporting design work are invested in — I’m going to use the phrase “professional design teams” or like dedicated design teams — the resources will be better spent. Is that a fair take on it?

Audrey: Absolutely.

Assessing Shadow Design

Jorge: And the post provides a way for organizations to assess the degree to which design work is happening through extra-official channels, right?

Audrey: Yes.

Jorge: How does that assessment work?

Audrey: So it’s a, survey. We have a copy of it that people can just grab from our website from the blog post and run themselves. And so, the idea is that as many people as you can get to take the survey, take it. Engineering teams, QA teams, executives, engineers, obviously, product management, business analysts — everybody that you could get to take it, should take it.

And then, you collect those data. And in doing this a couple of times with a couple of clients, we have a pretty nice deck to present the findings as well, which you can also grab a copy of from the website. It’s generic, so it’s not super branded or pretty looking, but it does some interesting things that we’ve actually learned from some of our clients who’ve run this, where instead of saying like X many hours are happening, we’re looking at…

One client had a design team of twelve in an organization with several hundred engineers and ran the survey and found twenty-two full time employees worth of design happening through shadow design. So convert, you could imagine we could come back and say however many thousand hours, but to say twenty-two full time people, which, which by the way, again, you’re paying. It’s not invest more. You’re the opposite of good design. Is it no design? It’s bad design, right?

Maybe some of them did a good job at twenty-two full time employees. So she was able to — this particular client that I’m thinking of — was able to bring that back to her. Leadership and not say, “Hey, lay off a bunch of engineers,” but “Hey, we’re doing planning for next year. We know the engineering team is planning to grow by X many heads. Let’s give a couple of those heads to the design team.” Or “Engineering has X much budget to spend on consultants. Let’s give that some of that budget to the design team.”

So, we don’t want anybody to get fired or laid off. We’ve had enough of that in the industry. But running this survey and then presenting that to executives has invariably resulted in design teams getting more recent more resources one way or another.

Jorge: And have you tracked the effects of having more resources allocated to the design team? Has it somehow improved delivery or…?

Audrey: We are encouraging folks to run this survey a couple times a year, like twice a year, and to be able to… but we haven’t been doing it long enough to be able to follow along with anybody. And, of course, there are other numbers that would be interesting to measure, like more outcome-focused numbers, but we just haven’t been doing this long enough to see.

Jorge: I want to circle back to the maturity model because, first of all, I want to reflect back to what I heard on the way that I understood it when reading the post about design maturity. My sense is that the distinction there is not about measuring the maturity of the design function within the organization, it’s about measuring the maturity of the organization in recognizing the need for a professional design function. Is that fair?

Audrey: Absolutely. That was said so much better than I said it. Yes. Thank you.

Progressing Toward Maturity

Jorge: All right. And, you lay out four levels, right? Four levels for the organization’s, degree of maturity of understanding that they need design. And the way that I understood it — and please correct me if this is wrong — is that the shadow design problem doesn’t emerge in organizations that are at the lowest level of maturity. It’s about getting organizations from the second highest to the highest. Is that right?

Audrey: Yeah. I think at the, lowest level, which we call “design ignorant” — I think I borrowed from Jared Spool — the kind of lost in the wilderness. Like, often the only thing that’s happening there is shadow design. There’s no design team; product managers and engineers are doing all of it.

And I don’t really… I’m sure that somebody wants to go in there and try to help it turn around, but we think that we can get more leverage where in organizations where they’re at the second level, which we call “design aware.” They’re not totally aware of how design can add value, how it should work in the organization, but they know that they should have a design team.

And we hear this, is who I wrote the book for, What CEOs Need to Know About Design. It’s a very one-on-one-y book. Hopefully, Jorge, you’ve never read it, because you’d find so many things left out and so many things oversimplified, but that’s who I wrote it for. Or the folks that we talk to that say, “Oh, why is there no color in the wireframes? Like, won’t there be color?” Right? We don’t want to have that conversation with them. So that’s who the book is for.

And then, “design agreeable,” they’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna we have a design team .We’re investing in the design team. We still don’t totally get like how it’s going to add value, but we want to learn and we were willing to change to try to have it add value to our business again, not just design for the sake of design.” And there, it’s often where they don’t know how much to invest, right? They don’t know, like, how big the design team should be.

And, thank goodness, Marty Cagan is out there saying, one to ten, one to eight — giving people ratios. And that’s a nice, broad rule of thumb. But until you really know what’s happening in your org, it’s hard to feel clear or confident in what to invest so that you can see design start to get some traction and add value. So that’s what we call “design agreeable,” that third level.

And so those two, “design aware” and “design agreeable,” is where this survey can really help. It’s almost, “Oh, I know I should eat healthy and not eat too much like butter and fat.” And I understand the general guidelines about that, but now I got my cholesterol checked and I see my cholesterol is high and I need to do something. So it’s, almost like the difference between these ratios and actually running this survey in your organization.

Interestingly, sometimes there’s pushback within the organization to run the survey. because leadership may have, a different agenda. And I won’t pretend to know what it is, but we’ve seen that a couple of times where sometimes they’re like, “Cool, great. Yeah. We want to know.” And those probably are “design agreeable,” that third level design agreeable organizations. But some are like, “No, what would we do with this information? I think things are going okay.” Or , yeah, I don’t know. Again, I shouldn’t pretend that I know I imagine some reasons for not wanting to run it.

Achieving Enlightenment

Jorge: The highest level you call “design enlightened,” right? And what I’m thinking in hearing you describe it this way is that it’s an aspirational state and perhaps somewhat rarified. What’s your experience in interacting with organizations? Are there a lot of them that seem to be “design enlightened” or are most of them kind of playing in those two middle layers?

Audrey: I, have not met very many of these design enlightened. And to be honest, this model is a bit of an abstraction, but a lot of times we’ll see organizations where the CEO often has had a successful exit and they felt like design was an important part of that exit.

It could be highly strategic reasons. Like, I really understood what our customers were trying to do and design helped us come up with an innovative and really powerful way of supporting them doing that. Or it could be like, “Oh, I wanted to get acquired by so-and-so and design helped us look like we could just plug right in.” So, when you have somebody in leadership that was part of a successful exit and they saw design be a part of that, then those are true believers. And you can get this design in lines sort of organization.

I still have one of the folks I interviewed for the book, which is a couple of years old now. So, it’s not, an older example, but man, this guy was… so, I was interviewing business leaders who really believed in the value of design and supported it in their organizations to see like where their gaps were and where their shared understanding was so they could write to fill in the gaps.

And I remember so clearly talking to the CEO who went on and on about the last company he sold and how valuable design was and what a meaningful exit that… what a meaningful contribution they made to the success when they were in business and their exit. And that’s why he believes so much in his new organization in it and was really behind the design team. And, then he said, at some point, I can’t remember how he got to this, but he said, “My product managers are designing some screens.” And I was like, “What?!” He’s like, “Well, you know, the design team is on to the next thing and the product manager needs something. And so, they designed some screens.”

I’m like, “Oh my God. this was the most. enlightened guy, the biggest believer. And still you could see cracks in what design was contributing for him.” And because obviously if the design team was onto something else, this, “Oh, my product managers are designing a screen,” was a symptom of a larger process problem, in my opinion, right? The designers should still be around. They don’t need to be around full time, but they should be able to support the product, but they weren’t available.

So anyway, you asked me how many are design enlightened and I do think it’s maybe an ideal that we strive for, but never actually achieve.

Jorge: Yeah, that’s what I was, suspecting there, that it’s more aspirational, right? And my expectation would be that a lot of organizations satisfice when it comes to design, right? And that they try to go practically about it as you’re describing there.

How to Address Shadow Design

Jorge: So, I haven’t actually checked out the third post in the series, but I’m very curious about what folks might do if they discover that they do, in fact, have a problem with shadow design. What can organizations do about it?

Audrey: Yeah, a couple of things, and it’s really helpful, I think, if possible, to have this conversation now while people are doing annual planning. We talked about you can get more headcount. So maybe if the company, the organization, is growing and a bunch of shadow design is happening in the dev team and they’re getting five heads, maybe you get one or two of those over on the design side. Same thing with budget. Okay, maybe some budget gets shifted over to the design team so that they can bring in a consultancy and, but a consultancy that they manage so that they can ensure quality and consistency across their product.

Another one is, I call “operation bear hug.” If somebody really loves doing design and they’re doing a ton of it, maybe they move over into the design team and they get to do it full time and then they are getting training and coaching and guidance and all that stuff to be a better designer. And then the last one is, call it “your parade and train.” We have helped organizations do this several times, especially with not just design, but research where it’s like, okay, it’s going to happen anyway.

I would be shocked if anybody eliminated shadow design for their organization altogether. But what we could do is we could teach people how to do basic design better, how to use a component library, how to do basic research better, which is a really big one. And so, all of this, of course, should be in service of some kind of design objectives.

So we’re not just doing this to grab territory, we’re doing it because we’ve got some OKR, KPI, or something. But, I think all four of those — and I’ve seen all four of those be successful. And probably it’s a combination of those that Is going to be the most successful at reducing shadow design and then improving the quality of the shadow design is happening.

Jorge: Would it be fair to say that some of those entail just eliminating shadow design and others entail kind of casting a bit of light into the shadows somehow?

Audrey: Yes. Nice. Absolutely. Yeah.

The Value of Design Consultancies

Jorge: I want to circle back to DesignMap. DesignMap is a design consultancy, as you have described it, right? So you are not an internal design team within an organization. Why put this out there for folks to use? I understand how it benefits these organizations, but what’s the benefit for DesignMap? Or, to put it another way, how can DesignMap help organizations who are doing this kind of stuff and who might need help in getting to that next level?

Audrey: I appreciate you asking that question. I think that, first of all, there is more than enough crappy software in the world to make all the designers on the planet rich many times over. So, I don’t think that we need to stake anything out. And if we can elevate the design practice at an org, then maybe their competitor needs help and they come to us or maybe they get more budget and they come to us.

We want to contribute to the conversation about making design more successful, whether it’s through us or through internal design teams. And if people do happen to run this survey and they get more budget and we can help them, then that’s great. But generally a rising tide raises all ships, right?

And so, we worked with Exact Target for many years, which is a marketing platform that was acquired by Salesforce and became the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. And what we saw is that, because Exa ctTarget really invested in design, both working with us and their entire internal design team, that the quality of software in marcom in the whole industry improved because they were setting a standard.

And ultimately, I think designers design because they want to make an impact on the world, right? if I was doing it for my own emotional gratification, I’d just go paint in the shed in my backyard or whatever. And so, contributing to the conversation and helping. design teams grow and make more valuable conversations is having a positive impact in the world. Not necessarily through design work that I’m doing, but through these conversations and these ideas.

Jorge: I’m just going to reflect it back to you. And this is a conversation that you and I have had, offline, so to speak, that design consultancies to have this ability to play a thought leadership role for, a variety of reasons, right? One is that, to your point, if the conversation around design is elevated in general, it’s going to raise the bar for everybody.

But also I think that there’s this other piece of it, that design consultancies, by the nature of the work, are exposed to lots of different design problems in different organizations, right? And there’s this capability to spot patterns, connect dots, in ways that internal design teams are usually focused on one set of problems in one industry, one vertical, one set of customers, et cetera.

So, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your knowledge. And by the way, you mentioned your book in passing. I have read it. This is going to, again, popoint to howast things go by, that was the reason why we spoke that other time, three years ago. So, it’s been a while. But, but it’s a great read for folks, especially for folks who are trying to grok the value of design in organizations, and yet another example of you contributing to raise the level of conversation in the industry as a whole. So thank you for that. And thank you for being on the show.


Audrey: Yeah, thank you. And if I could throw out one last call to action, I would love it if we could get like a dozen companies to run this in survey internally and then share the results with us. I think it would be, to your point of elevating design and what we can contribute in the world, it’d be really valuable to be able to imagine having a report where you could say on average, this many full time employees with the design are being done by non designers.

And so, if people do it and are willing to share results, they could obviously do that if they want help or they want to talk more about it.Every time the survey is run, it’s a forehead slapper, as I say. So imagine being able to have a report that generalizes across organizations. So please run it. Please let me know if you do, even if you don’t want to share the results of be very interested to hear. And, hopefully we can help others with the data.

Jorge: That sounds really exciting. Where can folks follow up with that?

Audrey: They can, email me at Audrey at designmap.Com. Just reach out to me directly.

Jorge: All right. And I will include links to the blog posts and to your book in the show notes. Thank you, Audrey, for being with us and sharing your expertise today.

Audrey: Thank you, Jorge. I really appreciate it.