This week on Product Love, I sat down with Evan English, the VP of Product Design at American Express to talk about building tightly embedded teams. Evan currently leads a multidisciplinary design team, made up of product designers, researchers, UX writers, and design ops. The team is highly embedded in the product organization.

Easing the friction between design and engineering 

While product managers aren’t expected to be coding experts—or even design pros—Evan does suggest that they learn technical lingo. It can help tremendously in communicating across teams. 

PMs also need to develop empathy for their peers’ roles and pain points. Try to understand the roles of the designers and engineers on their teams to understand the depth of effort and detail that goes into their projects.

Understanding the vocabulary engineers and designers use and their day-to-day work allows product managers to work better with their partners and have a shared vision.

Reimagining digital channels

Everyone is familiar with the breadth of services that American Express provides, but the company is reaching a critical point that’s requiring them to pivot and think about customer experiences in different ways. Evan said a big focus is rethinking the ways AmEx’s digital channels are structured to accommodate the evolution of the business. This means evolving their site to integrate their varied services in a more elegant way. 

What does that look like from a design standpoint? Evan said approaching that problem means understanding the customer’s relationships with the product. Because of American Express’s numerous services—they offer credit cards, travel booking, dinner reservations, etc.—the team has had to start thinking about how to serve customers across multiple accounts. Evan suggests thinking about developing a true customer hierarchy when they design channels.

Embedding Design Teams in Product 

Evan said there are three design team models commonly in use.

On one end of the spectrum, there are design operations that are set up like in-house agencies. Their work is more project-based, and teams make requests of design as though they’re a service. On the other end of the spectrum, the design team could be highly embedded with the product organization by being co-located and having continuous development. Their projects are ongoing, rather than short-term.

Evan’s team sits in the middle, where they’re a bit more service-oriented but they’re able to still embed researchers and writers fully across the teams. Her team still attends all the product meetings, team events, and they have a shared vision.

 So how do you get your design team to this middle ground? Check out the episode to find out.