In motorsports, the contact patch refers to the surface area of the tire that’s in contact with the road surface at a given moment. It’s the small place where all of the effort, engineering, and talent of a team make contact with the one thing that can propel it to success.
Designing for impact is an exercise in focusing on the contact patch between an organization’s goals and a user’s needs. On the organizational side of that intersection, Design has to transcend silos and bring disciplines together to solve common problems. On the user side, it means making sure you have a real-world feedback loop between Design and the people who use what you make.
First, on the organizational side, design leaders have to take up the charge to identify problems they can help with. It’s your job to help the organization understand how to use you and your team as an asset, not the other way around. Get to know the whole business. If you want to solve a problem for a design target, how do you approach it? Be a design researcher. Build empathy. Identify unmet needs and tensions. Do this with the business, and then focus your team towards those opportunities.
Once your team is tackling the right work, focus on how your team operates. Create a design approach with your team that’s inclusive and accessible for non-designers. Defining an inclusive process for design solves 2 things: it creates clear points of engagement for colleagues who aren’t designers so that they can participate and contribute, and it lays out the rules to the game so that everyone, designers and non-designers, can play together and continually improve. Without those basic rules, how can we play together as a team and an organization?
On the user side, set up as many feedback mechanisms as you can to get an accurate view of what real people think (feel, perceive, misunderstand, love, hate) about your work. Sure, maybe not everything that drives people’s experience comes directly back to the design, but it’s all a problem to be solved and that makes it your business. How your organization solves problems is one of the key areas where design can add value.
More significantly, this information and its accuracy is the best fuel you can feed into your team to have impact on your user’s experience. Designers care deeply about things that most people don’t even notice. This attention to craft is what makes a designed experience so different (and better) from one without design, but it will most certainly come into your conflict with your mission for impact as a design leader. Should we spend the next week making another round of refinement to the new icon designs, or should we move on to the new feature that is going to answer an unmet need? Help your team by connecting them with what real people care most about by creating feedback loops for your team from data to customer service to usability sessions to ethnographic interviews to empathy building exercises and beyond. No amount of time spent in design reviews steering your team towards your understanding of the user’s needs can replace the efficiency and quality improvements you’ll see when your team has the information they need to solve the right problems.
If you make it your mission as a design leader to ensure your team is focused on solving the right business problems and that your team has an accurate picture of your user, your team is in a position to have significant impact on the contact patch between the two.