Kate Keep and Brad Millen: How the relationship between Product Owners and Designers can impact human-centered design

6 min read Optimal Workshop

Working in a multi-disciplined product team can be daunting, but how can those relationships be built, and what does that mean for your team, your stakeholders, and the users of the product?

Kate Keep, Product Owner, and Brad Millen, UX Designer, both work in the Digital team at the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). They recently spoke at UX New Zealand, the leading UX and IA conference in New Zealand hosted by Optimal Workshop, about their experience working on a large project within an organization that was new to continuous improvement and digital product delivery.

In their talk, Kate and Brad discuss how they were able to pull a team together around a common vision, and three key principles they found useful along the way.

Background on Kate

Kate is a Product Owner working in the Digital team at ACC, and her team currently look after ACC’s Injury Prevention websites. Kate is also a Photographer, which keeps her eye for detail sharp and her passion for excellence alive. She comes from a Contact Centre background which drives her dedication to continuously search for the optimal customer experience. Kate and the team are passionate about accessibility and building websites that are inclusive for all of Aotearoa.

Contact Details:

Email address: kate.keep@acc.co.nz

LinkedIn URL: Not provided

Background on Brad

Brad is a Digital UX Designer in Digital team at ACC. Before launching into the world of UX, Brad studied game design which sparked his interest in the way people interact, engage and perceive products. This helped to inform his ethos that you’re always designing with others in mind.

How the relationship between Product Owners and Designers can impact human-centered design

Brad and Kate preface their talk by acknowledging that they were both new to their roles and came from different career backgrounds when this project began, which presented a significant challenge. Kate was a Product Owner with no previous delivery experience, while Brad, was a UX designer. To overcome these challenges, they needed to quickly figure out how to work together effectively.

Their talk focuses on three key principles that they believe are essential when building a digital product in a large, multi-disciplined team.

Building Trust-Based Relationships 

The first principle emphasizes the importance of building trust-based relationships. They highlight the need to understand each other’s perspectives and work together towards a common vision for the customer. This can only be achieved by building a strong sense of trust with everyone on the team. They stress the value of open and honest communication – both within the team and with stakeholders.

Kate, as Product Owner, identified her role as being one of “setting the vision and getting the hell out of the way”. In this way, she avoided putting Brad and his team of designers in a state of paralysis by critiquing decisions all of the time. Additionally, she was clear from the outset with Brad that she needed “ruthless honesty” in order to build a strong relationship.

Cultivating Psychological Safety and a Flat Hierarchy

The second principle revolves around creating an environment of psychological safety. Kate explains that team members should feel comfortable challenging the status quo and working through disagreements without fear of ridicule. This type of safety improves communication and fast-tracks the project by allowing the team to raise issues without feeling they need to hide and wait for something to break.

They also advocate for a flat hierarchy where everyone has an equal say in decision-making. This approach empowers team members and encourages autonomy. It also means that decisions don’t need to wait for meetings, where juniors are scheduled to report issues or progress to seniors. Instead, all team members should feel comfortable walking up to a manager and, having built a relationship with them, flag what’s on their mind without having to wait. 

This combination of psychological safety and flat hierarchy, coupled with building trust, means that the team dynamic is efficient and productive.

Continuous Focus on the Customer Voice

The third principle centers on keeping the customer’s voice at the forefront of the product development process. Brad and Kate recommend regularly surfacing customer feedback and involving the entire team in understanding customer needs and goals. They also highlight the importance of making customer feedback tangible and visible to all team members and stakeholders.

Explaining why the topic matters

Kate and Brad’s talk sets a firm foundation for building positive and efficient team dynamics. The principles that they discuss champion empowerment and autonomy, which ultimately help multi-disciplined teams to gel when developing digital products. In practice, these principles set the stage for several key advantages.

They stress that building trust is key, not only for the immediate project team but for organizational stakeholders too. It’s just as crucial for the success of the product that all key stakeholders buy into the same way of thinking i.e. trusting the expertise of the product design and development teams. Kate stresses that sometimes Product Owners need to absorb stakeholder pressure and take failures on the chin so that they to let design teams do what they do best.

That being said, Kate also realizes that sometimes difficult decisions need to be made when disagreements arise within the project team. This is when the value of building trust works both ways. In other words, Kate, as Product Owner, needed to make decisions in the best interest of the team to keep the project moving.

Psychological safety, in practice, means leading by example and providing a safe environment for people to be honest and feel comfortable enough to speak up when necessary. This can even mean being honest about what scares you. People tend to value this type of honesty, and it establishes common ground by encouraging team members (and key stakeholders) to be upfront with each other.

Finally, keeping the customer’s voice front and center is important, not just as design best practice, but also as a way of keeping the project team grounded. Whenever the project experiences a bump in the road, or a breakdown in team communication, Kate and Brad suggest always coming back to the question, “What’s most important to the customer?”. Allow user feedback to be accessible to everyone in the team. This means that the customer’s voice can be present throughout the whole project, and everyone, including key stakeholders, never lose sight of the real-life application of the product. In this way, teams are consistently able to work with facts and insights rather than making assumptions that they think are best for the product.

What is UX New Zealand?

UX New Zealand is a leading UX and IA conference hosted by Optimal Workshop, that brings together industry professionals for three days of thought leadership, meaningful networking and immersive workshops. 

At UX New Zealand 2023, we featured some of the best and brightest in the fields of user experience, research and design. A raft of local and international speakers touched on the most important aspects of UX in today’s climate for service designers, marketers, UX writers and user researchers.

These speakers are some of the pioneers leading the way and pushing the standard for user experience today. Their experience and perspectives are invaluable for those working at the coalface of UX, and together, there’s a tonne of valuable insight on offer.