Three mindset-changing tips you won’t learn in design school

Jhilmil Jain

I’ve managed UX teams at Google for nearly a decade. As a result, I’m frequently asked, “What are your tips for success at Google?” It’s usually not what you learned in school.

To set yourself up for a successful UX career, you need to shift your mindset from that of a product designer to a product owner by embracing the business side of design. While it’s difficult to change your thinking habits, it goes along way in making you more effective—both with your immediate team and in the partnerships you need to forge to turn your ideas into fully realized products. Here’s how that’s possible.

Illustrations by Alice Yu, Google UX Designer

Learn how to “speak shark”

I am a huge fan of the reality TV show Shark Tank. For those not familiar, the basic premise is that entrepreneurs come out and pitch their business or product ideas to an audience of seasoned, successful businesspeople— the Sharks. Sharks grill the “guppies,” asking them detailed questions about how they’ll take their products to market, how they’ll make money, what their sales projections will be, and so on. Sharks then make offers to invest, so entrepreneurs get knowledgeable investors, Sharks get equity, and everyone wins. Or, quite often, everyone loses.

The antics of this entrepreneurial pressure-cooker are entertaining, but the show also demonstrates that business acumen and product savviness go a long way when trying to sell your ideas. The more knowledgeable and business-smart an entrepreneur is, the better they do under questioning. It’s an immensely valuable skill. I call this “speaking shark.” It means thinking like a CEO.

Fully understanding the product area you’re working in is one of the best ways UXers can position themselves as experts, united in true partnerships with both cross-functional teams and their end users. It’s not enough to just do product research, like competitive analyses or market surveys. You are the expert on the user, and that means understanding the full landscape in which your users exist. To get the lay of the land, read industry news, and understand where that industry and competitors are going. The goal is to build a POV on the product and business.

As a manager, encourage your team to think about the following prompts:

  • What business are you in? What problem are we solving?
  • For whom? Why?
  • How do we compete? What is our differentiator?
  • How do we make money?
  • What is the growth strategy? What are the ecosystem risks?

Upping your vocabulary and understanding of basic business and product terminology is another fairly simple way of being able to speak shark. Get familiar with business metrics like KPI, sales revenue, net profit margin, gross margin, customer lifetime value, and product metrics like daily/monthly active users (DAU, MAU), churn rate, conversion rate, engagement etc.

The type of product you work on — subscription vs. content sites vs. API products vs. e-commerce — will determine the metrics you gather. Regardless, as a design leader, you have to be able to understand the product and business metrics to be able to demonstrate how UX drives business value.

Hone your sales skills

Everyone will tell you that selling is a big component of design. But for me “selling” is not just about good presentation skills. I often see UXers focusing too much on the process or the craft in presentations. The medium of the presentation can be anything you want (wireframes, videos, prototypes), but what’s critical is how you bring it back to a company’s mission.

Pitch your designs by creating coherent arguments that align with the business objectives and key results. (Read more about how Google sets OKRs.) For example, if the product success metric is to grow more customers, then explain how the new design concepts are enabling the business to do so. What adoption problems are you solving? What is the expected opportunity and growth percentage as a result?

It’s also important for UX teams to expand our frame of reference around what “sales” means. There are lessons to be learned from how huge sales organizations typically train their work-force on objection handling, or being able to reply to customers’ concerns in trustworthy ways. Consider what questions you and your teams are asked frequently, then create a doc with the prompts and make sure team members answer them consistently, and with a business mindset. We’ve done this for certain functions here at Google, and it works really well for keeping our objectives top of mind and actionable.

Measure. Measure. Measure.

“If you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen,” is a common refrain heard at Google. Even the best, most well-intentioned efforts won’t make it past initial pitches if they don’t have metrics and data to back up why what you’re doing is necessary and important to the user.

Therefore, as with understanding the product space and honing your sales skills, having a solid grasp on metrics drastically improves the impact we are able to make as UX practitioners, especially within large organizations.

Define UX metrics and what goals and behaviors you’re trying to improve with your designs. I highly recommend getting familiar with frameworks such as HEART (happiness, engagement, adoption, retention, task success). The important part is being able to clearly show the impact good design has on your business. For example, if improving ease of use is a top-line UX metric for your product (it often is), break down ‘achieving ease of use’ into key user tasks; you can then start to map specific UX improvements to each task, or lifecycle stage. Finally, map all these improvements to a business metric, like transactions completed. This is the direct, measurable link between good UX (improved ease of use) and good business (improved sales).

At Google, we focus on setting ambitious objectives during our annual planning sessions, and making sure that the key results for each of these objectives are measurable. This allows us to connect how improvements in UX are ultimately driving the business objectives.

In today’s competitive industry, excelling at your craft is mere table stakes if you want to have a successful career in UX. But that doesn’t lessen the importance of it. At the end of the day, if you don’t balance the above tactics with craft, you’re left with a lot of empty promises that you won’t be able to actually execute.

A well-rounded designer (or researcher, writer, etc) is one who keeps business principles in their toolkit alongside ones of their craft. The more we can fold business principles into our day-to-day UX practice, the stronger and more impactful we can become.

This is my perspective, but what has worked for you? I’d love to hear your ideas. Please get in touch via LinkedIn.

Jhilmil Jain is the Director of Product Design and UX for Google One — a premium membership to Google. In eight years at Google, she’s led large multidisciplinary UX teams for Google Ads, Android, and Google Play. When Jhilmil is not focused on leading teams that execute research and design to inspire product innovation, she can be found volunteering at Humane Society of Silicon Valley, sponsoring multiple diversity efforts within and outside of Google.