The case for the Forward Deployed Designer
I’ve always thought that the most interesting things happen at intersections. While thinking about intersections from my own experiences, I’ve recently given some thought to the interplay between customer success (CS) and product design. A simple observation: while CS teams and designers both seek to understand users, each group gains entirely different kinds of user knowledge and understanding through their work.
CS teams learn about users through proximate, repeated interactions with broad samples of the userbase. For example: customer support calls or regular check ins with clients.
Designers learn about users through limited, coordinated interactions with selected parts of the userbase. For example: interviews with prescreened users that occur with larger projects.
Because it is difficult to establish regular communication with a diverse set of end users, designers tend to prioritize feedback from self-selecting groups: the most vocal, the most monied, or the most strategic. At one of my former organizations, an anecdote from a years-old interview with a single stakeholder was repeatedly referenced in meetings to guide product strategy. It is common and problematic for designers to overrepresent minority viewpoints from one-off interactions while overlooking feedback from everyday users. I believe a solution to this problem can be found at the intersection of CS and design.
By moving designers closer to business functions that interact with everyday users, I see an opportunity to imbue designers and product teams with deeper and broader user knowledge. This knowledge can lead to better product development and truly user-centered design. I’d like to propose and explore a vision for a new design role: the Forward Deployed Designer.
What would a forward deployed designer do?
- The Forward Deployed Designer embeds within a CS team and spends 25% of their time with CS responsibilities. They can take on a few support tickets each week. They can help onboard and implement a new account. They can co-manage a strategic account. Through acting as a customer-focused operator, the Forward Deployed Designer gains a new understanding of users and how they interact with the product and company.
- The Forward Deployed Designer approaches their CS responsibilities with their “design cap on” to identify patterns and problems from a designer’s perspective. What issues are users reporting and what product issues are revealed? What trends are surfaced during internal CS meetings and discussions that are not making it to the product team? What product problems are holding the CS team back or causing them the most trouble?
- Once issues and opportunities are identified, the Forward Deployed Designer designs. They generate multiple approaches to solutions and improvements. They gather feedback from their cohort of collaborators (users, CS, engineering, and product). They iterate until the best solution is shipped. Then they work to evaluate the efficacy of the improvements. Perhaps they handle all support tickets and write the help articles that relate to their shipped product. All of this is done while embedded with their CS team.
Benefits of the Forward Deployed Designer
Identify more opportunities to improve the product and user experience
New ideas and solutions should emerge from the collision of CS knowledge and design capability. When I worked on an enterprise CS team, we would receive thousands of inbound customer requests each week. The guiding mandates of the work were speed, competency, and service. We also had a hand in improving the product, but the volume of customer requests and the nature of the work relegated this to a secondary priority. I remember having neither the time nor tools to fully explore my nascent product improvement ideas because we had so many users and colleagues reaching out to us for help.
As a designer, I have spent innumerable hours finding participants, scheduling, and planning user interviews only to be ghosted. I now see any opportunity to interact with users as a gift. By diverting a portion of everyday customer responsibilities to designers, we provide designers with valuable information, insights, and experiences that drive new product opportunities, perspectives, and ways of thinking. Most importantly, Forward Deployed Designers can propose solutions to problems that have yet to be defined and articulated by product and engineering teams, who are distanced from everyday users.
Reinfusing inventiveness and ownership into design
By immersing in a problem space, the Forward Deployed Designer can investigate, think, create, and solve problems for users and peers. Often, designers are not involved in conceiving or generating the ideas behind products and projects. They are given an idea and are asked to enhance the fidelity of that idea until it is a visualized asset ready for handoff to a developer. Since the Forward Deployed Designer owns their own research, discovery, and execution, they are no longer just a cog in a product roadmap.
Better informed designers and product teams
Forward Deployed Designers bring entrenched CS knowledge back to product teams and tighten the user to product feedback loop. At one of my former companies, all new hire onboarding included a session for observing live support calls. This same company briefly tested a program where Product Managers answered customer calls. All of these endeavors are rooted in the same idea: abundant customer interactions, typically fielded by CS teams, are a great knowledge resource that should be better utilized by product teams.
Strengthened collaboration between CS and product
Through mutual investment, product and CS teams learn about each other, work together, and can explore further opportunities for collaboration in pursuit of common objectives.
Potential challenges and areas for further exploration
Because the assignment of the Forward Deployed Designer is so open-ended, it is possible that they may struggle to identify and execute upon a particular product solutions on their own. If this is the case, the Forward Deployed Designer’s collaboration with their embedded CS team will be critical. If the designer fails to identify issues on their own, they can work to support and develop ideas that CS team members may have.
Integrating Forward Deployed Designer outputs with the product roadmap
The nature of the Forward Deployed Designer’s work may not allow the designer’s output to fit neatly into a product and engineering roadmap. It may take time for a designer to uncover the right problem to solve. The problem that the designer works on may not fit neatly into the product team’s current sprint and priorities. This will require a shift in the way that teams view design outputs. Rather than expecting a pixel-perfect design handoff ready for integration into a development schedule, we should see the Forward Deployed Designer’s contribution as as exploratory, collaborative, and iterative
The Forward Deployed Designer represents a new approach to a core technology mission: understand and solve problems for users. Through creating a new hybrid role that bridges CS and design, we can create an engine for discovery, ideas, and exchange.