Regardless of level, company, years of experience, background, or open role, there is one question that consistently comes up in every interview and in every performance review for designers and researchers alike here at DoorDash:
What was their impact?
We all want you to matter. We want you to feel like your partners value your opinion, that you’re seen as an equal contributor to decision making, and that you have the ability to change opinions and shape the direction of the business.
We all want you to have an impact.
But, what is impact?
I love to ask job candidates this question, and the answers I’ve received can vary wildly. A few examples include:
- successfully forming strong cross functional relationships
- being invited to present to the CEO
- building empathy for the end user
- overhauling a partner’s roadmap
- hiring 10 people
- being the driving force behind the launch of a prominent AB test
These are amazing and highly-valued achievements that are strong performance signals, and I love hearing about them. However, and this may be a controversial opinion, I would make the case that none of these examples actually equate to impact.
Empathy, visibility, partnerships, and influence are mostly inputs to impact — they improve your ability to have more impact over time. There are quite a few other examples of these impact precursors like getting brought into more meetings, handling more projects, growing your technical skills, expanding your sphere of influence, effective storytelling/communication, and gathering a strong business foundation.
These types of things are all important! But, in order for you to achieve your goal — to actually be an equal partner, to have your opinions actually be valued, or to be seen as a contributor that shapes the business — you need to start to change the business yourself.
This was an important distinction that we worked to establish here at DoorDash, and it led us to formalize the following definition of impact:
Impact is a significant improvement to the business or product experience that is the direct result of a unique contribution you have made.
Let’s unpack this definition.
What is a contribution?
Contributions can come in big and small packages. When a contribution is more comprehensive, you might calculate an opportunity size using behavioral data, develop user stories with qualitative data, and pair them with early design iterations wrapped up in a beautiful Keynote bow.
When a contribution is scrappier, you might use a product, have a problem, and have a quick chat with someone to float a possible solution: “Hey…I have an idea. What about this…?”
Regardless of the size, whether your job is to interview end users, analyze survey data, scale and operationalize process and workflows, visual design, interaction design, systems design, content design, or anything else — if you are extrapolating ideas from your work towards larger goals, you are making a contribution.
What is a unique contribution?
It is, by definition, additive. A unique contribution is something net new or orthogonal to contributions from other teams or people. The innovation would not have been possible without your contribution.
Making people feel good about their vision, just being on the team that created change, or replicating results that are already known from other teams (e.g., analytics-led insights or previous AB testing results) have the potential to be useful depending on the context, but they are not impact.
Unique contributions can often stem from moments where you are proactive — where you see a need for innovation and go after it without being asked. Ask yourself this: do you deserve credit? Without your work, would this have been possible? If yes, then it is unique.
What is a significant improvement to the business or product experience?
Your contribution can either spark something new that brings positive, often measurable, improvements to the bottom line or it can stop the business from going down a path that would be fruitless and wasteful.
While not always feasible, the easiest way to measure impact is through experimentation, particularly in tech roles like in Design at DoorDash. There will often be a significant movement in critical business metrics — conversion, revenue, engagement, retention, efficiency etc. Your innovation is often productized — you can see it.
In the absence of hard metrics, there might be an improvement in sentiment or satisfaction that could lead to long-term improvements in metrics.
When do I know I have made an impact?
When you can point to a clear win, or when the decision has been made to roll out a change you uniquely influenced, then you will know you have made an impact. There are three things to consider here:
First, sometimes impact can take time. I’ve seen countless strategic research projects or design visions that are years ahead of their time. It’s not uncommon for something to be 5+ years early.
Second, you often need to keep the spark alive. If you believe in your idea, and it’s not the right time, try again later. Try shopping it around to new people. Pay attention to new business strategies that arise over time and look for alignment. Find the right champion at the right time, and you can speed up the process.
And third, I would highly recommend that you find a way to balance your contribution portfolio. Unless your company has the luxury of employing large teams full of specialists, you should strongly consider balancing some work that has longer term potential with other work that has shorter term potential. Balance some tactical work with some strategic work. No matter what level you are, how many years of experience or degrees you have, you should not limit yourself to only one end of these spectra. There can be moments where the simplest contributions lead to the biggest change.
And finally — does everything I do have to be impactful?
No, it won’t be and can’t be. If you are taking risks, you are bound to fail. And, if you are not taking risks, it is highly unlikely that you are adding unique value. There will definitely be moments where you do great work but nothing changes — your contribution is only “interesting” or “educational”, or your timelines are too late to change opinions. And, while we often go into the research and design process with good intentions, these contributions were not impactful. Your goal, over time, should be to learn about what does and what does not have a high probability of leading to impact. You should learn from your hits and misses to become smarter and more effective at prioritizing with a ruthless focus on improving the business.
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