In Episode 9 of UX Leadership by Design, Mark talks to Tom Scotto, a design leader and consultant. Tom explains how embracing a quirky and creative team environment fosters innovation and collaboration and provides strategies to navigate and communicate the disruptive nature of design, both within your team and outside the design walls. Tom emphasizes the importance of recognizing that all design is disruptive and encourages a shared understanding of this concept among team members and stakeholders. Gain valuable tips on presenting disruption positively and collaborating effectively across disciplines. This episode is a valuable resource for UX Design leaders looking to drive change, build collaborative team cultures, and facilitate effective communication.
- The value of fostering a creative, quirky, and collaborative environment.
- Disruption as an inherent aspect of design and its impact on all facets.
- Encouraging a quirky mindset within design teams for enhanced creativity.
- Balancing disruption with collaboration across different functional teams.
- The importance of understanding disruption within and outside design.
- Overcoming hurdles in communicating design changes and driving innovation.
- Strategies for effectively presenting disruptive design concepts to non-designers.
About Our Guest
Tom leads with his life experiences, leveraging his journey as a cycling coach, musician, and UX designer to connect with others to establish a shared vision for a winning experience. Tom’s genuine passion lies in the art of blending brainstorming sessions with laughter, creating an atmosphere that yields the most delightful and fruitful outcomes.
Resources & Links
Mark Baldino: Hello and welcome to UX Leadership by Design, the podcast buy and for for UX design leaders. I'm Mark Baldino, your host. This podcast is and always will be brought to you by Fuzzy Math. We are a user experience design consultancy that brings consumer-grade UX to the enterprise. I'm also a founder at Fuzzy Math. Would love for you to reach out and say hello sometime. At Fuzzy Math, we work on digital products, strategy and design. sort of collaborating and partnering with internal design teams just to help them grow and scale their impact within their organization. On the podcast today, we're talking to Tom Scato. Tom's a design leader, he's a consultant, brings his really unique personality to everything he does. He brings it to this podcast episode, and I'm smiling because we laughed and smiled a lot. And related to that, we talk about how quirky is good and bringing a group of quirky designers together really fosters a very creative collaborative environment. And then we talk about disruption, the fact that design is disruptive in every facet. But time is a great way of discussing it and presenting it to his team so that they know that they are disruptive in what they're doing, but also sharing that disruptive nature with others outside of the four walls of the design team in a really safe manner, which I think is really, really hard to do. So just want to thank you all in advance for listening. Please enjoy this episode. Mark Baldino: Tom, thank you for joining us on the podcast. Tom Scotto: It's a pleasure, Mark. Thanks for having me. Mark Baldino: Yeah, you bet, you bet. I'm excited for our conversation today. I would love for you to give the audience a bit of your background and I don't traditionally kind of reread a bio, but the last part of your bio I think is really interesting. It's genuine passion lies in the art of blending brainstorming sessions with laughter and then you talk about delightful and fruitful outcomes. Like, I love that you included. I want to know... I want to know why and what has that given you as a sort of design leader over the years focusing on laughter and joy and delight, which I don't see it a lot in business bios, so I loved it and I want to ask you about it. Tom Scotto: Excellent. Well, thank you for plucking that out. I was, I thought you were going to pick on the other part. Cause I always have, I always have a lot of interesting, I'll use the word interesting with air quotes, aspects to my background, which always sort of weave their way into my life. No, but as far as the, so that the humor and sort of delightfulness of my, the environment that I try to keep is I like to joke around a lot. Hopefully that will come across as we, you know, discuss and talk about whatever we're going to talk about. Um, but I think that humor is also disarming, uh, for a lot of folks. And I also like, uh, this sounds just odd to say it, but I think it goes well with the comment is I like to bring up a quirky in people and, you know, I think sometimes quirky gets a bad name. Uh, I think more recently people are like, there's like, Hey, quirky is kind of fun and sexy. But years ago, Corky was like, you were the odd kid that sat in the corner with the weird shirt and t-shirt that was handed down by who knows how many brothers and everybody picked on you. But what I kind of interpret Corky as is someone who is willing to be themselves. And when someone comes into work and instead of just saying, hey, I am a UX designer and I design interactions and I focus on user journeys and whatever other buzzwords want to throw in there. And I'm not that I'm making fun of any of that. But I think sometimes we can put on that work persona of here's who I am. But if you can create a lighter mode and even for me as a leader, um, I try not to take myself too seriously. I like to be sort of industry with the team. I don't like to be considered a stakeholder with sometimes when you're, you know, a senior level leader, people tend to treat you that way. And I, and I don't like that personally. I like to be part of the team. I don't want to micromanage. I just want to be part of the team. Like we all have something to add. But getting a team to a quirky state where they're willing to say whatever, be themselves, throw out that random, maybe bizarre concept and all of a sudden, you know, now we're brainstorming with a different, you know, set of fuel, if you will. And I think outside of the product of that, you know, which is, you know, maybe it's successful, maybe it's not, it's so much more fun of an experience to have that as your environment and your culture. Mark Baldino: I think we have the title of this episode, which is how to get your team to a quirky state. Tom Scotto: OK. Mark Baldino: I love it. Tom Scotto: Sure. Mark Baldino: You know what I'm gonna ask now is like, how do you do that? Is that a consistent thing? I mean, part of it is your personality, of course, and I'm always trying to help people. I can't change people's personalities, but like come to come as a leader of who they are and play on their strengths. So like... I don't know if there's even tips or tricks, but like, how do you get people to their quirky state? How do you get people comfortable enough to feel like they can express that in a non, I am this role in the business, or in the company, and I need to provide this sort of service to my team? Like, how do you break some of those barriers down? Tom Scotto: Well, I think three things that I've seen work for me. One is I tend to joke around a lot and just be that type of person. So that definitely helps. It gives people the, you know, kind of opens the door if someone wants to walk in or not. That's their choice. Sometimes my comments fall flat. I'm, you know, known as to be a one-liner kind of guy, throw things out, especially when things get tense. Like, it's usually my way of kind of like, all right, everybody needs to chill out a little bit and realize what we're doing here. I think that the second piece of it is, and this might get me some side eyes from some folks in the UX field, is I don't tend to hire traditional UX people. When I built the team at Wayfair, I started as a team of one and we built it into a team of 80. I went to one place and I met someone who was an anthropologist. I just loved the way they thought, the way they told stories. I had someone else who was a neuroscientist, another person who was a jet engine, uh, you know, engineer. And we just, I, I just said, and they would say to me, you think I can do this UX thing? Like I don't know how to, you know, use the tools. I'm like, anybody can learn how to use the tools. Like it's just drag and drop. It's the thoughts, it's the ideas, it's understanding people and behaviors. And so I think that kind of lends itself. It kind of breaks the bubble, if you will, from the You know, everybody's a trained, certified UXer, not against that at all. That's just like, I just go after personalities and how people think and like what's missing in my think set. I have this many people, but I'm missing other ways of thinking. How do we include those in what we have to have a more robust, you know, way of approaching something. And then I think the third way that I've done this, and then this is really accelerated, I think some of these fun cultures is is really championing someone who does bring that to the table. So, you know, with a similar team, I had someone who had brought in a stuffed giraffe and the stuffed giraffe, I forgot how big it was, it was maybe like 16, 18 inches tall. And we, I'm not sure who named it, but it was now named Gloria. And Gloria became our mascot. So to keep the, you know, the long story short, by the end of the team we had, which was like four years, I think we had eight stuffed animal mascots on the team. And it was to the point where like two things, one, if someone did something that we thought was, all right, that was a questionable UX practice, all the stuffed animals would wind up on their desk, particularly the one that was mine, which was a Rottweiler. He had a little jacket that somebody made and it said UX canine patrol. And like they would basically stare at the person. Yeah, you better not break any user guidelines and best practices for the next week or, you know, whatever. And we also brought all of these stuffed animals to our meetings to the point where we went to a meeting once and I don't know who it was. I think it was Fernando, which was our unicorn coming out of our cup. Someone forgot him. I'm like, we cannot start the meeting without Fernando. I made someone go like two flights down to go get Fernando. They left on somebody's desk before we can start the meeting. So I think it was like stuff like that. We just kind of built and riffed off of each other. So, but anyway, it was that that's the environment I love working in because it's not, that's not what's happening, but that's the energy on which the creation and innovation is, is being, you know, sort of worked in. Mark Baldino: Yeah. So I mean, it's great and I applaud the effort. Just personality-wise, I can be… my team will tell you I can be a little too buttoned up at times and taking things a little too seriously. So I love the idea of just fostering a bit of creative energy, quirkiness, supporting that within your team members. And that sounds like it gels really well as a group. How does that allow your group to… operate better and maybe it doesn't, but does it allow them to operate better with sort of outside of the design team as they're working with other groups as they're presenting designs, presenting work, collaborating? Is it always a benefit? Is there a drawback to that? I can see a bunch of designers because I have a team of 20-some-odd designers really vibing off of that and it feels like it's fueling the creativity and then I'm thinking about us working with some clients and thinking like, how does that... translator, some stakeholder. So what's your experience there getting it outside of just the design team? Tom Scotto: I think it's definitely helpful for the team itself. I think going outside the four walls of design is a little bit more challenging, like bringing that energy outward. It can be seen as clickish sometimes, you know, where people are like, hey, they got this thing going on a team, what's going on there? You know, are they going to gang up on me on this roadmap that we're about to do because they're so tight and close? And now product and engineering are feeling like the outsiders. I mean, I want to feel, I want to say, I think we've done a good job in being. Inclusive. But I think to the quirky point, I would say in my perspective and what I've seen, it had more value inside the team. You know, when we were ideating and, you know, doing retrospectives of whatever, whatever it was, it just gave us more freedom and unfiltered environment in which to really discuss things. Mark Baldino: So when we think about getting, as you said, outside the four walls of design, like with your group orientation, it doesn't have to necessarily focus on the kind of quirky component. But like, what do you think are some of those hurdles in communicating design and driving change via design? Like, what have you bumped into? Has your team bumped into? What are some ways that you all have tried to work around that to drive change? Tom Scotto: Yeah, no, that's a great question. Regardless of whether you have the best design in the world or the worst, design is disruptive by nature. And I think that's something that I would like to see more designers embrace as an understanding. And the reason I say that is, and I recently had done a talk at MassArt to their design department on this as well, because they were looking to kind of like broaden their mind beyond their craft. Like how do we get our design ideas out there? And like, well, part of it is understanding what your design, how your design impacts others. And we oftentimes look at, you know, the health benefits of something or the, you know, how it's gonna physically, you know, help someone's business or life, whatever the product, whether it's software or a tangible product or service. But looking at how to bring that product to your audience, there's usually a lot of folks involved, even if you're a small startup. And that great idea that behavioral change, whatever it is, is going to cause a number of people to have a very disruptive work life for a period of time. And that disruption can vary based on the size and the scope of what it is you're trying to design. But I don't think, at least I've not witnessed a lot of understanding outside of the four worlds of design on the level of disruption caused by our creativity and our approach to solving problems. Mark Baldino: And I think sometimes designers don't always want to be disruptive, or they're told not to be disruptive, not don't be a disruptive person, but the design that you're integrating, it should follow traditional patterns of e-commerce. It should be frictionless. And I'm not equating disruption with frictionless, but Tom Scotto: Mm-hmm. Mark Baldino: I think sometimes people maybe... play it safe and that's probably the environment that they're working in and the team that they're working in. How do you, as a design lead, encourage your team to be disruptive? And then the flip of that, how do you get others outside of the four walls to embrace that disruption without sort of beating them, maybe with a club, like, this is good, this is change and change is good. What are your tips to get your team to think disruptively? And then how do you sell those disruptive ideas? Tom Scotto: Sure, so I think the first thing is all design is disruptive. And I think getting that into my designers. And so even the most basic thing that follows traditional patterns that we've either established within our design system or within our application flow, any change is going to be disruptive because someone has to plan for it, there's resources, et cetera, et cetera. The level of disruption is, that's the piece that we have to kind of figure out. No, okay, we have this grander idea. You know, can we break it into smaller iterations to make the disruption less of an issue or more digestible? But to the second part of that question, so I guess the first part is, I want my designers to know that everything is disruptive and I don't use disruption as a bad word. I just, it is a fact. Like this is what happens when you design something you're expecting change, good, bad, indifferent, whatever. Someone has to do something about it. It's going to be disruptive. Uh, I think part of my role as a leader is to pave that way for change. Um, and, you know, part of that is, you know, working with the team and doing a lot of stuff we just talked about as far as creating the culture, getting people sort of thinking first before they start applying process so that process doesn't supersede thinking. But also, you know, I'm speaking to my cohorts. I'm talking engineering and to marketing to analytics and product and everybody I can talk to, to number one, get an understanding of what their priorities are and where they're at. Like how are they doing with staffing? And even an engineering team that we were working with once, they were one of many engineering teams that we were working for in a particular part of the product. They had six engineers which for that particular part of the product was well suited, except that they were junior engineers. They just built the team. So that's also another thing to take into consideration. We're going to throw, you know, some maybe concepts or integration or whatever it is at this team and they're going to stumble with it for a bit because they're a younger team as opposed to a team of three where they're all principles and they eat that stuff up and probably come up with better ways of doing it than we even suggested. So, um, I think that's a part of that is for me to lead the way in doing that. letting people know that this is what I'm doing, being a transparent leader. Okay, I'm talking to other people. Here's the Intel I'm getting. I'm trying to get this understanding so that when we go and propose something, small, medium, large, I've got a sense of sort of the playing field and where those gotchas are going to be. And then we can work on helping people and listen to like, how do we get this idea into actual production in some form or another, first we all have to align it as the good thing to do, but being the good thing to do doesn't always mean we're going to do the whole thing lock, stock and barrel. We have to figure out what that life looks like. Mark Baldino: Right. It's almost like you're doing a little bit of field research with the groups that you're working with. Understanding where they are at, where their heads are at, as you said, like resourcing staffing priorities, and then kind of putting a plan together for presenting, let's say, design work, understanding where there's going to be sort of stumbling blocks. So it's a lot of like, it sounds like a lot of prep. And I would think that designers on your team would respond well to that. Not everybody's really like... great on their, you know, on their feet. And I know a lot of people like to prepare a lot and know what they're getting themselves into is that, am I describing that sort of dynamic correctly? Tom Scotto: No, exactly. You're describing exactly correctly. And it is important that as I'm doing this, you know, in my sphere, and those that I have influence with and tables that I sit at based on being a senior leader, I expect my teams to do the same. Like they need to get out. They need to get their engineers. Like I've led teams where I've been fortunate enough to have both engineers and designers on my team, which is fantastic. But even they needed to go out and speak to other people with client architects, UI design, marketing, and get that same sort of level of understanding. And that goes back to my comment of wanting to feel like I'm part of the team. Just because I'm a senior leader or whatever, give me whatever title you want, I have certain information that I get based on where I sit. And I want to be able to contribute that to the team, just as well as I want to listen to other information people have gathered. so that we can bring all that together and make the best decision we possibly can based on the information we have at that moment. Mark Baldino: Yeah, yeah, that's awesome. Do you take the, do you like go out and plant the disruptive flag with non-designers? Like, I really like this, just this, not trying to explain how or why does design is disruptive, just saying like, it is, it's a fact, I'm happy to explain it, I'm sure you are, but like, this is just it. Whatever we're doing here as a design team is going to be disruptive in some way, shape or form. the user's engineering process, it's all going to require sort of disruption and change. How do you present that outward? And are you as like direct with it? And what are some methods to explain the disruptive nature to people who, I don't know, sometimes people hear disruption and they're scared or they don't want Tom Scotto: Sure. Mark Baldino: that or I'm a junior engineer or I'm a product owner or I'm an executive and I'm like, no, I just need to... I maybe need more throughput on the design team. We need to move a little bit faster and then somebody's coming and telling me things are disruptive. I think a lot of folks could sort of step back. So what are some tips? How do you approach that disruption concept with non-designers and what are some tips to sort of help explain that? Tom Scotto: Yeah, no, and I failed with this at first. Mark Baldino: That's good. That's why we're here. We all have. Tom Scotto: I did it. Mark Baldino: We've all made a few mistakes along the way and you sharing some of those mistakes will help other people in the future. So appreciate it. Tom Scotto: Yeah, I did, I did a miserable job, uh, marketing my, one of my teams. And, uh, it got back to me where it's like, yeah, we just heard from Tom, the head of blah, blah. And he basically said that UX is here to shake it up and just like, you know, just turn tables and I'm like, Whoa, what did I say? And then, you know, I've got some feedback. I'm like, okay. Yeah. I said that that, Ooh, that didn't come out really well. So, you know, part of it, I think my heart was in the right place. But my communication. of that particular concept needed to change. So I think I've come at it more of, what I've seen happen or play out better is going to someone like engineering and saying, hey, we just implemented X, Y, and Z, something really simple, I was trying to depict anything extreme. Like, what was involved in getting that production? Like that was really great. And I said, oh yeah, we did this, and then they'll give me a whole litany of stuff that they had to do. And I said, wow, actually it's amazing how even the... the simplest change can really disrupt our priorities and our roadmaps and all that stuff. So I try to use it in my more common language. And sometimes I'm as blunt as saying, I'm gonna say the word disruption because I know that whenever we propose something, and this is not to say that like every single move we make is disruptive. But oftentimes if you're really doing a full version of UX, which includes, you know, research at its core, you know, ideation, you got content strategy, and if you're dealing with accessibility, which hopefully most people are, you know, there's just so many different factors that kind of mold. It's like clay, and we're just kind of constantly pressing this thing until it comes out to what it is that we want. But when you include all those factors in it, oftentimes you come out in a place that you didn't think you were going to be. And that's where the main part Hey, we plan to do X in Q1 on the roadmap and we did X and Q1 on the roadmap. I didn't find that disruptive. Yeah, well it's when you said we're gonna do X and Q1 and we did research and we found out that they didn't want X. They wanted something else. Now we've disrupted the roadmap and do we have the right resources? Did we budget properly? It's the timetable even accurate. Like that's when, and by the way, are we aligned on this? Like this is what the users are saying. This is where we are as a business and that doesn't, the user doesn't always win, which might sound sacrilegious to some people, but I think you always have to balance what the customer wants with where, you know, what makes the business money. Not that you're gonna ignore the customer, but that has to be a balance with where is the engineering? Like does our tech stack support this? Can our tech stack support this? Et cetera. So, you know, there's always a lot more to, customer said this, everybody jumps. So anyway, Mark Baldino: Yeah. Tom Scotto: yeah. Mark Baldino: No, no, that's helpful. I like the integration of the language, kind of building a shared lexicon, as you said, looking at past examples that people don't feel are disruptive, but were disruptive, whether it's decisions that were made along the way to a roadmap or what engineering delivered and the outcomes of that and sort of saying like, we're all being disruptive here. We're allowing for disruption and that's… here's what the benefits are and looking back and kind of forward is a really sort of smart approach because you're, and I don't think you're doing it, it's not underhanded, but you're subtly introducing the concept to people that might be resistant to it by describing that we actually are being disruptive right now. And I think presented in that light probably feels more palatable. Like if you, to management, if you come in and say, you know, design's here to shake things up, right? Or we're here to drive change and disruption. Like, oh, I think a lot of management is kind of, we get worried about that, right? But if you are talking to management and you're describing them as, hey, you drive change in this organization, you've shook things up. Like when they can see it in themselves in their role, or they probably respond to it better as, yeah, you're right, we are trying to be innovative, even though we're bounded by what we can build in this timeframe and how we're making money and timeline considerations. But we still are being innovative and we still are driving disruption. I feel like by applying it directly to people's jobs, it maybe feels a little bit more palatable for folks. Tom Scotto: Sure. Yeah, I think there's two issues that I personally feel are do a disjustice when you come in with design's gonna shake things up. Is one, it somehow can be perceived that design is above other things. Like, you know, we're more elite, you know, we're coming in, we're the, you know, whatever, pick your elite, favorite elite type of analogy, which is not correct. And the second is it's a group effort. Like, where's product? Where's marketing? Where's engineering? Where's business? We're going to work together on this. I think any design team that comes in and tries to sort of save the day that way, which in not a very collaborative way is, is not going to be as productive as they think they are. They might be able to do something quick in the short term, but I think the long-term value of that is going to diminish due to the lack of sort of connection of the, of the company and all the various pieces. Mark Baldino: Yeah, fantastic. Well, I appreciate you kind of deep diving on disruption here and Tom Scotto: Thank you. Mark Baldino: Reflecting on some mistakes you've made and some, I think, really smart, kind of subtle ways to be disruptive within organizations and kind of empower your design team to be disruptive while working really collaborative with other folks. Can you give folks a sense of what you're up to now, where they can find you, things you're working on? Tom Scotto: Sure, absolutely. Right now I'm doing a series of consulting gigs, which I find very interesting. I love to teach. I've taught some college courses more recently at La Salle University for digital analytics and e-commerce. In teaching and mentoring, one of the things I enjoy is being able to use real world examples. When you don't do a bunch of new things, When I get in front of a classroom where I'm mentoring someone, I kind of start feeling like I'm grandpa telling the same old stories over and over again. So I'm like, I need some stimulus. I need to throw myself into some situations that are really going to kind of break my own way of thinking and give me something additional to think about, kind of process and then see if there's value for me to pass that along. So yeah, right now I'm working with a few different companies. One with a... really great design system platform. My background in design systems was great for that. And, you know, we're untangling some interesting issues with communication around, you know, how engineers feel about design systems, how designers feel about design systems and design platforms and how they infiltrate their space or maybe are welcomed into their space. So that's a fun place. And I'm doing some work with some financial groups. because that was an area I haven't spent a lot of time in. And I think even due to my own, like my wife is the financial wizard of my family. So I'm like, you know, I need to wrap my mind around some gnarly financial challenges. So that's where I've spent a lot of my more recent time and I'm just having a blast, kind of trying to create space for my own personal learning. Mark Baldino: Right on. Well, good on you. I think it's easy to take all of our learnings, box them up and not continuing to push ourselves. So happy that you're enjoying the journey you're on. I'll include links to your website and your LinkedIn if people want to reach out. I think you consulting with some folks and sharing your knowledge and past would be really beneficial for them. And just want to say thank you. Appreciate your time and energy and personality you brought to the call today. It's been super interesting for me and I know the audience will enjoy it as well. So... Thank you very much, Tom. Tom Scotto: Thanks, Mark. And maybe a stuffy will be sent in your direction. I don't know. Mark Baldino: I like it. Tom Scotto: Who knows? Mark Baldino: I like it. You'll see it. Maybe you'll see it in the background on the next podcast. Tom Scotto: There you go. Awesome. Mark Baldino: All right. Thanks, Tom. Tom Scotto: Thanks, Mark.