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Design Leadership Interview with Matt Davey

We caught up with Matt Davey, Chief Design Officer for 1Password, to get his thoughts on design leadership and best practice:


Could you tell us about your career so far?

I always wanted to work in design since I was a child. I moved to Germany after graduating, where I worked for a German agency doing website design. After that I started contracting and one of the clients I worked with was 1Password, a password management tool. I did a lot of work for them as a contractor before joining them permanently as their first designer and 20th employee overall. One of my first tasks was to help design their Android app. The company has grown a lot over the years, with the most recent funding round valuing the business at $6.8bn.

Today I lead the design and user research function as Chief Experience Officer, leading a team of 35.  


What is the purpose of design as a function in your view?

If you are building something, there are three things that need to be correct – business viability (typically managed by the product management organization), technical feasibility (managed by the engineering team), and a good user experience. What designers are essentially responsible for is to make it something desirable, something that customers want to use. There’s always alternatives to solving a particular problem – it’s either your products, or your competitors, or perhaps some sort of hacky workaround. Strong design creates a desirability that stops people looking elsewhere.


“What designers are essentially responsible for is to make it something desirable, something that customers want to use.”


How do you measure user experience? 

I think it depends on the type of thing you are looking to build. If you’re starting out – it’s better to measure what you can whilst accepting that no form of measurement is perfect.

You need to think about whether you are measuring engagement or enjoyment for example. If the product is a tax application, or something customers have to use, then measuring broad engagement might be pretty irrelevant. In this case, enjoyment might be a better thing to measure as that might help to decide whether your product is more attractive to use than alternatives.

Understand your objectives – are you trying to make the process faster because no-one enjoys it? Alternatively you might be trying to make a process as invisible as possible. As a password manager, we often want people not to interact with our product – with confidence that it is working well in the background.


As Chief Experience Officer, which functions report to you?

It has changed over time but a combination of product design, content design, and user research. Before the company rapidly scaled functions from the design of the product itself through to the design of our website and marketing communications were reporting to me with a less specialized role.


Should brand design report into marketing or the design function?

I think this is a slightly “religious” debate. There are obviously tenets of brand that belong to marketing. I do feel that in a product-centric company, it makes sense for brand design to sit within the design team as customers tend to experience the company brand most through use of its products. Brand design of course needs to be consistent across different customer touchpoints.


Lots of companies still have this old-fashioned approach towards design – decisions around products and technology strategy are made elsewhere and designers are there to make it “look pretty”. If you are a design leader in the environment where design is not influential as it should be, what can you do at a practical level to have more influence? 

I think most design leaders would say that they do not have as much influence as they should have, user experience leadership as a whole is really still finding it’s feet. What can make a difference between the approach of product leaders and design leaders is the ability to make bets. Product leaders often have more confidence to make bets whilst design leaders tend to have an attitude like “Product makes the bets, and we have to make the best of it”.

To make that better, I’d recommend finding a mentor who is a design leader in a company where design is more influential, to get yourself a view of how design can be more of a powerful voice within a business.

You need to make sure that your designers are inspired and passionate about their craft. User research is a “superpower” – it has vital insights which you can use to influence the product roadmap. Look to the future, and use insight from user research to see what new features customers are requesting.

Concentrate on the impact you’re having over the work you’re doing. When you get to a stage of leadership, use it. Be the dreamer, the explorer and represent design as the creative art it is don’t try and be product or engineering.


I posted a poll on LinkedIn about whether design should report to product as a function, and was surprised that 80% of respondents thought that design should report into product management as a function. If design is a key differentiator for many companies, shouldn’t it report directly to a CEO as an important function?

As your prior question about measurement shows, I think not many people see design as something easily measurable. However, in order to get a leadership seat, design needs to be able to talk in the language of tangible results. You have to explain ideas as product leadership does, like “This needs to be improved and this is the problem we are trying to solve. This is how much we think it’s worth.”

After that, you can slowly put your creative self to the meeting room and explain what you think will make customers happy even if it does not immediately increase the profit. I think the main reason design reports to product is that everyone in the room is talking about the business, not just at a product level and you need to be able to explain the impact that design has on the business.


“I think not many people see design as something easily measurable. However, in order to get a leadership seat, design needs to be able to talk in the language of tangible results.”


What advice would you give to someone who is looking to grow as a design leader?

The further you go up the ladder from a design leadership perspective, the less it becomes about actual design direction or the visual elements of products. It becomes more about creating the right environment for design to thrive. In order to move up, I would recommend looking at the environment in which you are working. If you want to make a better environment for designers, make a space for them. Provide the right psychological safe space for your team, that might be closing off meetings and ensuring a smaller group for things like critique. You are responsible for what happens during the meetings that you are not attending, you should have proper prep with your team.  If you want to make a positive environment for creativity, you have to make a safe environment for your team first.


How can we encourage more people from diverse backgrounds into the design industry?

A lot of tech companies are facing the issue and seemingly the best way is to talk about it and be intentional about everything you do. If your hiring process does not reflect your values, you have to change it.

If you are interested in hiring people with more diverse backgrounds, there are great communities to reach out to. Remote working often makes it easier to hire diversely and you have to make sure that your employer brand appeals to diverse communities. Having high profile role models within companies helps to show people from minority backgrounds that they can flourish within your business.


Neon River is a headhunting firm that specializes in working with high growth internet, software, fintech and gaming clients. If we can help you in the future, don’t hesitate to reach out.