Why is AI critical to the future design leader?

I’m probably steeped in AI more than most designers. My day job at IBM is to design AI for a suite of supply chain software, to build patterns, and to foster the community of practitioners there. I published one book on it, am working on three other books about it, keep a sci-fi blog that discusses it a lot, back in the pre-pandemic days I spoke about it on stages around the world, and have of late been writing fiction about it as a very nerdy hobby.

I expect all design leaders and leading designers, for that matter, are aware of AI. You just may not be ready for how quickly it’s going to go from a flow to a flood. AI is one of those rare things that grows exponentially. When demos of AI capabilities are first released it’s all hahaha that’s so dumb until suddenly it’s daaaaaamn, AI can do that? You don’t want to get caught unawares.

And while I am very hesitant to get into the business of prognostication, I feel strongly about this bit: AI is going to touch everything. Everything against which human intelligence has been brought to bear in the past, and, eventually, much more. And while there are very important reasons to keep it contained, it’s very much like a force of nature in that there is massive momentum—that no one person or group is in particular control of—that are motivating its continued development and evolution. For this reason, I believe that human-centered designers need to be deep in the mix of people developing it, helping to make sure this tech is discoverable, smart, conversant, helpful, deferent, consistent, ethical, humane, and effective.

You need to learn it. Most of the texts out there discussing AI are loaded with confusing jargon and technical terms. (Classifiers? Clusterers? Regressors?) But it is possible to sift through the material to find what is of issue to users, and thereby what is of issue to designers. It’s complicated, but tractable.

You need to know how to design for it. Because AI can exhibit behavior and agency, it’s unlike any design material that has come before. If you’re designing conversational interactions in natural language, the rules are different than the GUI you’ve been steeped in, right down to the psychology and linguistics of the person using it. And its constraints are often uncanny, confounding the usual ways we solve problems. Our intuitions in this space will only take us so far. You have to begin to learn this new material and build a craft around it.

You need to know how to lead for it. AI is rarely implemented in one-person teams. Rather it’s a partnership of stakeholders, engineering, data science, business, design teams, all working side-by-side and hopefully collaboratively with users. Once you get into team efforts, it raises a host of leadership questions: What investments should an organization make around it? Do you roll-your-own or buy off the shelf? How do you structure research and user testing around it? How do you train existing designers? How do you hire? How can AI be made useable and useful for your users, and your organization?

Rather than be blindsided, or even responsive to executive requests, design leaders can get out ahead and champion this change. It’s coming, and if you, the user-centered design leader, carry the banner, it’s more likely to be a user-centered (and world-centered) implementation. As Alan Key said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

  1. AI can optimize for many things. As a design leader, you can ensure teams are optimizing for humane, ethical experiences as well as business outcomes.
  2. An organization inherits its ethical stance from the top. As a design leader, you can ensure that your organization keeps its AI 
  3. Designers have traditionally been translators between business goals, development capabilities, and user needs. With AI we bring data science to the table. As a design leader, you can help translate between these disciplines to keep teams focused and communicating as you incorporate AI.

As with any new-ish and evolving technology, no one person will have all the answers. I won’t have all the answers. But I have a lot of research, experience, and practice to share with you as we ourselves adapt to it and lead the way.


If you’re not already a member, join Ambition Empower to get continuous competence development within design- and product leadership from such thought leaders as Chris Noessel, Kim Goodwin, Per Axbom and Susan Weinschenk! It is optimized for your busy life, allowing you to spend as little as one hour per week, and still stay ahead of the competition.

Leadership as mindfulness plus precision medicine

The best product and design leaders don’t just help their organizations deliver a great experience. They cultivate skills, motivate teams, improve processes, strengthen human-centered values, and build relationships – in other words, they foster sustainable systems and cultures that will continue delivering great experiences over time. Sometimes, I think the best measure of a leader’s impact is what happens (or no longer happens) once they leave the organization.

What determines the impact we have as leaders? There are plenty of fundamental skills, like communication and coaching, that always make a difference. However, I would argue that there are four meta-skills necessary to bring all the other leadership skills together:

  1. Accurately assessing the multiple factors that influence a situation.
  2. Adapting our approaches to what’s most likely to work in that situation.
  3. Knowing when we are not suited to lead in a situation – whether we lack the skills or lived experience, have conflicting values, or just find it too draining – so we know when to step aside and let someone else take it on.
  4. Being mindful enough to do all of those things, consistently and over time.

In healthcare, where I often work, there is a growing belief that some of the hardest problems–like defeating certain cancers or convincing people to get a vaccine–require individualized solutions. One person might be able to prevent a disease with more access to fresh vegetables; another may require an individually tailored drug. Our genetics, environments, behaviors, goals, and other factors all combine to determine which approach is best for us. This is the promise of “precision” healthcare.

Leadership in an organization is a sort of precision health intervention, too: promoting strength and resilience, identifying dysfunction before it becomes a problem, and treating any major concerns that exist. As in medicine, the thing that works for me may not work for you. The approach that worked in your last job may not be effective in this one.

Consider just a few examples of why this is the case:

  • Large, mature organizations need us to be good at optimizing: using data to fine-tune an established process or important metric. Using an optimizing approach when we don’t yet have product-market fit, though? That’s a disaster in the making.
  • Coaching team members requires understanding not just their skills and goals, but also their confidence level. An uncertain team member might need a small success to keep them motivated; an overconfident one may need more room to fail and learn.
  • What works to ship a consumer app feature in a sprint can fall apart in a specialized or regulated industry. Co-designing with subject matter experts, navigating multiple internal and sometimes external approvals, and thorough documentation can be burdens or benefits, depending on how we approach them.
  • An organization that’s just invested in a high-stakes “transformation” can be dogmatic about process; a team that’s digested things for a while may be more open to adapting.
  • Our relative power (and societal privilege) affects how others perceive us, what leadership risks are safe for us to take, and how we perceive and influence others. Who we are affects whether the same action is considered assertive or abrasive, bold or reckless, confident or arrogant.

Contextual differences like these are why I often see people struggle when they change jobs. The product manager who can’t let go of how they did things at another company. The big-company executive who struggles to build new capabilities in a startup. The front-line manager starting a director role and not being sure how to empower their management team. The engineering whiz who thinks they’re going to “fix” government by making it more like tech. These people aren’t making good assessments about the situation (or themselves), so they’re not adapting as they need to.

Being able to assess and respond appropriately to varied situations starts with understanding the evidence. What makes people trust leaders? Are job simulations (like design exercises) usually good predictors of success? What factors lead to improved decision-making? Most of these questions are not new or unique to technology teams. Other disciplines, like industrial/organizational psychology, can teach us a great deal about what works and why.

The second ingredient in developing these meta-skills is practice. Have you ever worked with someone who made leadership look effortless? Somehow, they can wrangle stakeholders one minute, handle a tricky coaching situation the next, and never seem to sweat. That’s because they’ve encountered similar situations a dozen times already, so they’re more prepared to diagnose and intervene in a constructive way. What we don’t see is the first three or four times when they got it wrong….or all the behind-the-scenes effort it took to set up that effective meeting agenda.

Leader-context fit is an essential but often neglected aspect of any conversation about leadership. Knowing when we’re not the right person to lead is a matter of introspection and willingness to be honest with ourselves–which can sometimes be the hardest part. We need to normalize the idea that no leader is the right person for every situation, and that a mismatch is not necessarily a judgment on that leader’s skill or value.

Finally, effective leadership is not just a skill set. It’s a conscious daily practice. Bringing our best leader-selves to work every day is far more difficult than learning how to lead. Do you have a mental list of times when you weren’t the leader you wanted to be? I certainly do. We mess up as leaders when our minds are on other things, when we forget that conversation IS our main deliverable, or when some need of ours is not being met. We may know the most effective approach, but that knowledge doesn’t help if we aren’t in the right mental space to apply it.

What makes a leader successful in one place? It depends. What makes a leader successful for a whole career? In my view, it’s the meta-skills: developing an observer’s perspective on ourselves and our situations, applying the right approach for the task, knowing where our limits are, and doing what it takes to bring the best, most mindful versions of ourselves.


If you’re not already a member, join Ambition Empower to get continuous competence development within design- and product leadership from such thought leaders as Kim Goodwin! It is optimized for your busy life, allowing you to spend as little as one hour per week, and still stay ahead of the competition. Get your 1-year-membership now!

AI Mastery for Design Leaders – with CHRIS NOESSEL!

Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a fundamental part of many of the products and services we use: everything from email to vacuum cleaners to music services. Yet, if there’s one phrase that is sure to give design leaders anxiety and imposter syndrome, it’s “AI,” followed closely by its subcategory “machine learning.”

This technology is everywhere and more is coming. What is it? How do you design for it? What are the pitfalls? How do you sift through the jargon to know what’s real? How do you hire for it? The short answer is that it’s a rapidly-changing field, and these answers are changing all the time. The long answer is to join Chris Noessel, AI designer at IBM and author of “Designing Agentive Technologies: AI That Works for People,” as we try to get designers and design leaders comfortable with this new normal.

The AI Mastery for Design Leaders track will continually adapt to the needs of the members, but likely topics include:

  • Time to lean in – how to generate AI possibilities for your organization
  • What are practical, useful definitions of AI for designers? What’s hype and what’s reality?
  • So, your boss (or marketing) has asked you to “add some AI in there.” What next? How are AI design processes different from traditional design processes?
  • What is an AI Design skillset? How do you hire for it? How do you train staff?
  • How do we collaborate and what are the “boundary objects” between UX Design and Data Science?
  • How do we equip our teams to advocate for everyday AI ethics? What examples should you have on hand for discussions?
  • What are modes of agency? How do we design for them? What is conversational design?
  • How do we help ensure that the AI we put into the world doesn’t worsen inequality and community problems? Global problems? What do you do if you discover that’s part of your mandate?

Designing AI solutions for IBM by day, writing books and novels on AI and sci-fi by night. No designer, anywhere on the planet, gets AI and design the way Chris Noessel does.

Chris is a former leader at Cooper in San Fransisco, co-author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction (Rosenfeld Media, 2012), co-author of About Face, 4th Edition (Wiley, 2015), and author of Designing Agentive Technology: AI That Works for People (Rosenfeld Media, 2017). Recently he’s begun publishing sci-fi short stories, and he’s is currently contemplating books about meaning machines and interfaces that improve their users.

Join Chris, and the rest of the fantastic track leaders, and get your own 1-year Ambition Empower membership now!

Hi Dan Kindeborg, UX Director at Hemnet

Hi Dan Kindeborg, UX Director at Hemnet. You were one of the first to sign up for Ambition Empower. Why?
– I think it seems like the perfect format. Conferences are fun but the talks often just scratch the surface of things. Courses are usually time-limited and expensive. This seems like something in between, I can learn new stuff and reflect every week.

What would you say are the greatest challenges in your own professional growth, and how do you think Ambition Empower can help you with them?
– I am really curious but there is so much available to read, watch and listen to. I hope this can help me to learn about things that matter to me continuously without having to choose so much what to learn about. I want to be spoon-fed. 😁

The program starts in September, and you’ll have complete access for a full year. So far we’ve only revealed Kim Goodwin and Susan Weinschenk as track leaders. What are you most excited about?
– Kim! I’ve been a fan since I saw her talk about organizational culture in 2014. The topic Design + Product Leadership is right up my alley.

🙏 Thanks Dan! We’re really looking forward to having you with us this fall!

Sounds interesting? You should join too! Check out Ambition Empower to find out more!

THANK YOU! Our first six months in review!

THANK YOU! 🙏 We started Ambition only 6 months ago. We never thought we’d get so far this quickly. And… it’s all because of you.

Here’s where we’re at:

👂 We’ve interviewed more than 50 design and product leaders, and senior designers, in order to really understand the challenges of learning new things while working (often more than) full time, and often with schedules full of private commitments as well.

✍️ We’ve sketched, prototyped, and launched, Ambition Empower – a whole new concept for continuous learning, that allows even people with crazy busy schedules to keep growing and learning new things.

🤩 We’ve signed some of the worlds smartest design, UX, and product people, to lead tracks at Ambition Empower. Kim Goodwin will lead a track on Design & Product Leadership, and Susan Weinschenk one on Strategy and Design Research. In August two more stars will be announced, and then… Well. We’re just getting started.

🥇 Within the first hour after launching the first members started to sign up for a full year of learning. Brilliant and eager minds from eg H&M, Polestar, Zington, Hemnet and Yale have already joined. Empower will be jam-packed with, not just the most interesting track leaders, but also with the very best design and product professionals.

🍊 We’re working closely with the incredibly skilled team at mat.se to explore and implement both innovative possibilities and efficient ways of working.

💕 We’ve created a great matchmaking offering, and are currently working with several clients to help them find really great design and product people (either as employees, or as consultants).

🚀 Finally. We’ve started to build a dream-team with the perfect skillset for this journey. There are five of us now, but already in September we’ll be twice that. All sharing the same mission – helping designers and innovative organizations to grow, both in capability and confidence.

We’ve come a really long way in an incredibly short time. None of this would have been possible without YOUR support. Thanks for the laughter, for the sparkling conversations, and the trust you’re placing in us. You have no idea how much we appreciate it. ❤️

Enjoy your summer. See you all, well rested, back in August! ☀️

Love,

/Nathalie, Anders Thid, Cecilia, Jane & Johan

Hi Iva Radosevic, Global CX Project Manager at Yale Global!

Hi Iva Radosevic, Global CX Project Manager at Yale Global, and former UX researcher at ASSA ABLOY. You were one of the first to sign up for Ambition Empower. Why?

– I love the concept of life-long learning, and am always keeping one eye open for things that can help me develop my skills and grow professionally. However, almost all resources are focusing on helping people go from beginner to intermediate. There are much fewer possibilities when you want to take the next step. Once I saw your Empower program, and saw the focus on design leadership and strategy, I knew I wanted to join. Also – after paying for specializations on coursera etc – the price for Empower was also a no-brainer! Especially with such strong names, and with such a smart setup for the program!

What would you say are the greatest challenges in your own professional growth, and how do you think Ambition Empower can help you with them?

– My challenge is that I get too comfortable with what I already know, and since I rarely have time to explore, I miss out on new angles and ways to improve my skills. Learning something new every week, and meeting with both people like Kim and Susan, and with other professionals, is perfect to help me break out of my comfort and help me to grow. I am super excited about this program!

The program starts in September, and you’ll have complete access for a full year. So far we’ve only revealed Kim Goodwin and Susan Weinschenk as track leaders. What are you most excited about?

– I am looking forward to both Kim and Susan! I had a chance to meet Kim in person at a UX conference in Portugal, and WOW, what an inspiring woman and great source to learn from! And as of Susan, I listened to all her courses on Udemy – she was the reason that I got interested in psychology and user research in the first place! I feel like I am repeating myself but with these two names it really was a no-brainer to join!

🙏 Thanks Iva! We’re really looking forward to having you with us this fall!

Sounds interesting? You should join too! Check out Ambition Empower to find out more!

Hej Anya Ernest, Business Designer på Polestar!

Hej Anya Ernest! Du är inte bara den första tjänstedesignern på Polestar, utan också en av de första medlemmarna i Ambition Empower, varför då?

– Vet inte om först är något att skryta om, det är ju som att tävla i en helt ny sport – lättare att vinna. 😉 Men… när det gäller Ambition Empower så tror jag verkligen på det här upplägget. Jag ser verkligen fram emot att lära mig långsiktigt, och tillsammans, under ett helt år.

Vad tycker du är mest spännande med just Ambition Empower?

– Utöver det jag nämnde nyss, så tänker jag att det handlar om att ta till vara på de fördelar som pandemin trots allt det hemska visat på. Att löpande ha möjlighet att träffas även om man inte är på samma plats. Hur annars skulle vi till exempel kunna möta personer som Kim Goodwin och Susan Weinschenk på regelbunden basis?

Som medlem får man tillgång till hela programmet, med allt innehåll. Än så länge har vi offentliggjort just Kim Goodwin och Susan Weinschenk som spårledare. Vad ser du mest fram emot när programmet drar igång i september?

– Det är mycket, men kanske det här med att kontinuerligt ha en dialog igång med branschkollegor, och människor som är bra på att formulera sina tankar. Det kommer bli dunder! Jag längtar också efter att typ mingla, även om det är online. 😄

Tack Anya! Ser verkligen fram emot att ha dig med i höst!

Häng med, och skaffa ett medlemskap i Ambition Empower du också!

Hej Tommy Marshall, VD på Zington Xperience!

Hej Tommy Marshall, VD på Zington Xperience! Du köpte precis 7 medlemskap i Ambition Empower, varför då?

– Enkelt. Våra konsulters kompetens är nyckeln till en lyckad affär, både för oss och våra kunder. När människor växer, växer företag. Vi har många seniora designers, och konsulter som ofta tar ledande roller i olika projekt, och här passar ju Ambition Empower perfekt.

Vad tycker du är mest spännande med just Ambition Empower?

– Jag gillar upplägget, där våra duktiga medarbetare får möjlighet att utvecklas löpande under ett helt års tid med flera spännande och kända ansikten från branschen.

Som medlem får man tillgång till hela programmet, med allt innehåll. Vad ser du mest fram emot när programmet drar igång i september?

– Jag är fortfarande nyfiken på vilka fler spår det blir. Men det jag ser fram emot mest är att få ta del av det senaste inom området med marknadsledande experter. Jag kommer förmodligen själv fokusera på designledarskap och följa Kim Goodwins spår.

Tack Tommy. Ser verkligen fram emot att ha dig och Zington med i höst!

Häng med, och skaffa ett medlemskap i Ambition Empower du också!

Hej Ida Bark Bjurman, Product Designer Competence Lead at H&M Group!

Hej Ida Bark Bjurman! H&M köpte precis 4 medlemskap i Ambition Empower, varför då?

– Vi ser det som ett fantastiskt tillfälle att bygga vår kunskap och stärka vårt designledarskapsteam när vi växer designteamet.

Vad tycker du är mest spännande med just Ambition Empower?

– Möjligheten att ta del av expertkunskap och samtidigt diskutera och lära tillsammans med likasinnade inom branschen, samt bygga nätverk. Smart och intressant upplägg där man lär och delar kunskap i olika typer av forum under en längre tid.

Som medlem får man access till hela programmet, med alla spår. Än så länge har vi offentliggjort Kim Goodwin och Susan Weinschenk som spårledare. Vad ser du mest fram emot när programmet drar igång i september?

– Oh everything! 😃 För mig just nu i min roll på H&M är båda dessa spår intressanta. Vi har nyligen gått igenom en stor agil transformation och har under det senaste året växt vårt designteam. Det ska bli mycket intressant att fördjupa sig i tex DesignOps och Design Research, och hur man kan få det att fungera i en stor och komplex organisation.

Tack Ida. Ser verkligen fram emot att ha dig och H&M med i höst! 😊

Welcome Mia Malmberg!

🎉 We’re growing! None other than MIA MALMBERG is joining Ambition! 🎉

Mia Malmberg is a creative and energetic UX Lead, service designer, and business developer with an incredibly broad background. Over the years she’s been working with everything from apps and websites to AI-driven optimization tools and complex administrative systems.

Mia is brave. She’s really quick when it comes to understanding complex systems, and great at both managing and developing them. Her 15+ years of experience from both the private and public sector is a huge asset, not least when it comes to projects in larger organizations. Mia gets things done, at high speed, and with an energy and an attitude that makes everyone around feel both safe and happy.

So. Mia is a real star 🌟, but… that is not why we really love working with her. The reason why we’re so happy is that she is really thoughtful and considerate ❤️ , and that she’s always there when you need her.

Welcome Mia!

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