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Ending the Seat at the Table Debate

If you’re a designer, unless you lived under a rock, you surely have heard some version of the notion that the famed ‘seat at the table’ somehow keeps eluding the designers who so dearly want one. Almost as if the industry colluded to malefically shove the Design function aside to never invite them at the table.

It’s only when you experience a real seat at the table, you realise what it takes to have one and hold one. It becomes very clear why Design at majority of the startups doesn’t get the reverence it so achingly craves.

The crux of the problem is this: The Design function for the large part is completely untethered from reality in most startups.

The Design function for the large part is set up completely untethered from reality in most startups.

Let’s get into the details. Observe carefully and you notice that designers don’t spend enough time helping identify or understand problems in the day to day environment. I’m talking about really simple and easy stuff: Checking feedback on the product, going through Play Store reviews, asking for data dashboards from your Analytics team, checking performance of your website or apps, testing them on different networks and so on. How many designers would’ve spoken to 5 users of their product? 10? 50? A shockingly low number I bet. Let’s keep going – if you’re a designer reading this, when was the last time you asked your CEO what the top 3 problems in the product were? If you did, how did you offer to help? When was the last time you went through Play Store reviews and user interviews to surface the 5 biggest problems your company must fix in the product?

I say this as someone who has made the same mistake. As a designer, it feels shockingly normal to not bother about any of this. Tools are comforting. Open your laptop, jump into Figma, play with pixels and go home. But that’s not enough. It has never been enough. Gladly I was told to do better by my peers and leaders back then, and I’ve been thankful for that feedback ever since.

Let’s talk about the other end of the cycle – solving problems. Design ought to take a shared ownership of outcomes. Any outcome – funnel metrics, sales targets, user retention numbers, CSAT scores, app rating. If you’ve spent any time in the industry, you know that designers usually get off on the easy by delivering their work that may or may not affect the intended outcomes. That simply cannot do.

If you want to have a say, if you want to affect decision-making, you ought to help solve real problems. Putting your skin in the game, tethering your function to reality, that’s what gets you the Seat at the Table.