Profile picture of Craig Phillips

9 min read

Design for impact through defining moments

Our role as designers isn’t just about impacting users; we should strive to craft meaningful moments in our own everyday lives.

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Thinking back over your career, what stands out?

Sit with this question and chances are certain memories come easy, while others are fuzzy. And most of it is completely forgotten.

In a single year, we work somewhere around 1,700 and 2,000 hours. Whether you've been working for one year or 30 (that's 60,000 hours), it's surprising how few memories we can quickly recall from our careers. Sure, we could press ourselves to remember more, but the things that stand out are arguably the things that mattered most.

For better or worse.

I'll take a guess that the memorable moments look something like this:

  • Times of transition and change The start or end of a job, a role, or those very early (or very last) days of your working life.

  • Low points you might rather forget Times when you clashed with a difficult boss, got let go, or were in a dark place questioning your own value and abilities.

  • High points that still give you a buzz Times you were especially proud of your work, had exceptional support from a mentor or supervisor, or got a big promotion or bump in pay.

These memories impact us as individual professionals. They shape how we work, how we think about work, and how we think about ourselves.

What makes these moments memorable? And why is so much of this time spent working so utterly forgettable?

Moments worth remembering

The NYT best selling book, The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath, offers insight into answering this question. In it, they explore the concept of defining moments, or short experiences that are both meaningful and memorable.

Memorable experiences are made up of moments that fall into one of three categories: peaks, pits, and transitions. The highs, the lows, and the times of change.

Your boss mentions you by name in an all-company meeting to praise your work (peak). Your toddler throws up all over the rental car on the way to the beach (pit). You meet someone who inspires you to do a thing, leading to the start of a new career direction (transition).

Vector illustration of four people working on laptop during the day and night

Something about these memories that we might overlook is that there’s always someone behind them. An actor, orchestrating your moment. The mentor, the colleague, the speaker, the friend. The one who, intentionally or not, allowed this moment to take place through their actions, words, or the environment they created.

Life is a string of memories created by people we come in contact with. Our work lives aren't too different. Meaning-making at work is just as important as in any aspect of life. Our pits and transitions are meaningful. They help us grow as individuals and professionals.

Playing this role in others’ professional lives is profoundly meaningful, both for you and those you impact. These actors—the peak-builders—impact us and our organizations. In many ways, they are the meaning-makers of our work lives. And through their meaning-making, they create teams, cultures, and companies that we want to be a part of.

Creating peak moments for the organizations and teams we work with is a critical, yet overlooked, opportunity for us.

Anyone can create peak moments at work, and due to work environments often lacking in meaning, there is plenty of opportunity to create them. Everyone—from the CEO to the interns—should. In doing so, they not only impact the organizations, but countless individuals within the organization.

And you? Well, as a designer, you're uniquely equipped to identify, design, and implement activities that create peak moments for others. It's who we are. So why do it?

Designing for impact

Designers, like anyone, want a career where impact is possible. Most of us want to make a difference to something outside ourselves.

But what do designers talk about when we talk about impact?

So often it seems we focus on how the outputs of design drive impact. How design can be utilized to impact market expansion or brand expression. Or how design's success metrics (on the output) must align with those of the business to make an impact.

We look at design's impact on improved usability or consistency in complex systems. Or how our design helps end-users achieve something they couldn't have done without what we've produced. Or how design impacts the bottom line. It seems that design's impact is intrinsically linked to what comes after the doing of design.

First, this all makes total sense. The advice out there is often practical and actionable. But there's more to design's impact than what comes after we produce a deliverable.

Vector illustration of people working on laptops

Impact and our journey through moments

Reading between the lines, we find hints of other types of impact we should be thinking about. Creating peak moments for the organizations and teams we work with is a critical, yet overlooked, opportunity for us. When you’re in a position to establish positive culture beyond your own org, that’s impact too.

In an article by Paul Murphy—Senior Product Designer at Intercom—he sheds light on how their team thinks about impact. Paul describes a designer's work beyond product, including work for process and people. In all of these arenas, there's potential for impact.

He breaks the end results of our work into 1) outputs (the work we deliver), 2) outcomes (what our work achieves), and 3) impact (what changes as a result of our work). Looking specifically at our design work around process and people, and considering the change we seek to make, we arrive back at the value of creating peak moments for the environments we work in.

In his talk on designing for impact, Matt Godfrey—Head of Product Design at Redgate Software—says "Designers are uniquely positioned to bring others on a journey of what's possible." I like this quote for a few reasons.

He calls out designers as uniquely positioned to make an impact. And that impact is not defined just by the end result, but by what they can do for others. Others who are on a journey with them. And a journey to an undefined end.

I'd like to put emphasis on the word journey. As opposed to thinking about impact only in terms of the end result of our work, thinking about design's impact on the journey opens up new possibilities. Possibilities that we know and feel. But also possibilities that we don't always talk about, or articulate to ourselves and others.

Maybe it feels too fluffy. Not serious enough since it's difficult to quantify. We’re designers though, and we know quantifying the impact of design and research is hard. But I also feel that quantifying a business case for this isn’t needed.

Anyone can create peak moments at work, and due to work environments often lacking in meaning, there is plenty of opportunity to create them.

Creating meaningful moments for others is something that we do, not something we seek approval for. And in corporate environments where positive company culture and effective processes are sought after, the impact design and designers have on culture and process through moment-making will be something everyone wants. The proof is in the pudding, so focus on action, and start creating moments. So how do we create them?

Creating impactful moments

Creating peaks, or impactful moments, for others isn't easy. If it were, maybe our day to day work would be a bit more exhilarating. Fortunately (or not) for many of us, there isn't a lot of competition in creating peak moments.

Meetings are long, and often unproductive. Planning is disorganized. Execution is uninspiring. Social events at work, meant to be fun, are awkward—until the social lubrication of alcohol comes in. But, as we know, drinking in excess leads to the exact opposite of memorable moments.

In The Power of Moments, the Heath brothers write, "It's going to be way harder than you think to create peaks. But once you've done it, you're going to consider every ounce of effort worth it." Impact is never easy, but it's always worth what you put in. And creating moments is far from impossible. With a little creativity and courage, you're ready to get started.

The Power of Moments book by Chip and Dan Heath

The book states that peaks are created through one or more of these elements, all in a handy acronym (EPIC):

  • Elevation: Moments that rise above the everyday, and transcend the normal course of events.

  • Pride: Moments that catch us at our best, and make us feel valued and appreciated.

  • Insight: Moments that rewire our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

  • Connection: Moments that bond us socially, strengthened because they are shared with others.

Below are some practical suggestions for ways you, a designer, can immediately begin creating moments for your colleagues and clients that include these common elements. The categories below reflect selected chapters from The Power of Moments.

Break the Script

In the book Surprise, Tania Luna writes, "We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they're not." This quote gets at the heart of why breaking scripts are a means to peak moments. They're peaks because they're different, and when we experience something new and different we feel alive, and remember.

Our workdays are the epitome of repetition. Recurring interactions in the same spaces with the same faces. Breaking the script gets us out of auto-pilot, and makes us more engaged and curious about the topics we're working on.

This can be done in big ways, or little. Service Design consultant and trainer, Andy Polaine, recalls a workshop where he broke the script with a bit of shock factor, saying, "I once told a client leadership team that in 60 years almost everyone in the room would be dead as a reminder that their corporate power struggles weren’t as significant as they had come to believe."

Breaking the script can be as simple as a shocking statement. It can also take the form of introducing a new workshop or activity the team never experienced before.

What can you introduce to teams struggling to get clarity on a new feature set of your product? How can we better kick-off new work? How can you bring user-centered thinking to others who may not be familiar with it? How can you help engineers, product teams, or other designers by creating new moments that break the status quo of "how we do things"?

Trip over the Truth

Convincing someone with an explanation, or relying on reason or rationality, inevitably fails. Even when it succeeds, you can be sure the process getting there was not a memorable moment.

The idea of tripping over the truth is that you architect the environment where people will come to a realization on their own. And due to the fact that they arrived on their own, through a moment of insight, it sticks with them.

We all have had transformative experiences where we realized something we were previously blind to. Those things stick.

Keep in mind that this is not manipulation, or fabricating a scenario where someone thinks what you believe is true because you set it up that way. Help colleagues trip over the truth by helping them empathize with a scenario they may be neglecting, or unaware exists.