Illustration by Freddierick Mesias

Denise Francis is a senior UX product designer at Salesforce with a background in visual design and architecture. She has been visually driven since the age of five and believes user experience is the overall encounter that a person has with a product: It’s a lot like finding a new love after a break up. You want it to work better next time, so you take what doesn’t work, eliminate that, take what does work, and apply that to make the experience much better.

Denise is also the global communications chairperson for BOLDforce, Salesforce’s Black Organization for Leadership and Development. Its goal is to expand and empower the black community across the company.

For this article, I talked to Denise about the design challenges her team faced over the last few months, adapting to new workflows, standing up for junior designers, taking an UX approach to systemic racism, and more.

What have you and your team struggled with the most during COVID-19? How are you overcoming those challenges?

To be very honest, we are very, very tired. This has been our main challenge. Salesforce has done a great job of responding to the needs of the world. Our design scope shifted when COVID-19 hit. We were able to focus on our wellbeing; we changed our daily routine and reduced our hours. Now, the amount of work we are doing has risen because we added initiatives in response to COVID-19 such as We built a suite of software and tools to help you get back to work. We’ve done a really good job of finding ways to be candid and vulnerable with each other. We made it okay for someone in our team to say “I need to take today off! I am done”.

What are some interesting new ways of working that you’ve seen have a positive impact on team success?

Salesforce was already a remote company. I worked two days a week from home before COVID-19, and many of our employees are 100 percent remote. The last few months have opened my eyes to being fully remote and definitely increased empathy for my teammates who do that. I’ve been digging for and mastering the tools that allow for good at home collaboration. We’ve done a good job of communicating via Slack and Gchat and also being strict on the hours we work. For chatting we use the internal chatter from Salesforce.

We also have a beautiful ritual called People Moments. A different person runs it every week – they get submissions from everyone on the design team about a moment they had over the weekend (for example; good food, a fun outing, or a good movie). This gives us all a break from talking about work and creates a moment to get to know each other as humans. These little positive moments really help breed connection.

What part of how we designed and led before COVID-19 do you hope will NOT return? What will we take from this experience and use in the future?

We’ve been forced to document our process more thoroughly, which makes me feel great as I’m super organised! This means when we have new people join, it will be much easier for them. Of course, having no water cooler chat has forced us to be more diligent in how we make decisions and communicate.

COVID-19 and systemic racism has made people open up more. We’ve always been able to ask our leadership team questions but now the answers feel more transparent. There’s a lot on the line in the world right now. We have the opportunity to be more candid in the questions we are asking and the answers we are demanding. Voices are being heard in a way they weren’t before. Salesforce recognises that the world is in a leadership crisis, and they’ve made grace for this process. I hope we start to see more unconventional ways of getting the answers. There are people not in conventional leadership positions who have ideas, and it’s time to hear and learn from them.

What are you hoping could emerge for design work/workflows from these extraordinary times?

I would love to see organisations equipping people better to work from home. A lot of the tools and software out there aren’t always affordable for individuals. I also want hardware to become more affordable, so more people can build out an environment that really makes sense for them. We need to give designers a way to equip themselves with what they need! Why can’t we have state of the art equipment at home too?

There’s an entire industry of professionals who are experts in race, diversity, and inclusion. I hope organisations engage with these experts. Today. I’m tired of the talking. Experts exist. Use them and make actionable change happen.

The UX community is jam packed with individuals who are super motivated to serve people and cater for their needs. Why can’t we take this UX approach to systemic racism? Let’s stop asking questions like ‘what do you need?’ and ‘how can I help?’ and actually hire therapists, counsellors, and other professionals to help your design teams tackle their own racism and understand how to design anti-racist software and features.

We are the makers! What are we going to design? What tools can we build to help us hire more diversely? What are we going to create to help designers be anti-racist? Let’s use our design skills to tackle the biggest problem we’ve ever faced before.

How did you get to where you are?

I went to college to study bachelors and masters in architecture, and then I moved from Florida to Atlanta, Georgia to find a job. I realised I didn’t actually love practicing architecture because it was so different from what we did in school. Being a person who doesn’t quit, I stuck with it until I got laid off twice during the recession, so I took this as an opportunity to retrain. I went back to school at The Savannah College of Art and Design to get a Masters in Graphic Design. I started teaching at technical colleges and universities and was lucky enough to work with the award-winning singer-songwriter India Arie.

I decided to get a UX certificate from General Assembly, and that was when my UX career took off. I started working for The Weather Channel, run by IBM, as their very first UX designer. Now I’m a senior product designer at Salesforce.

The Weather Channel Facebook Messenger chatbot design concept by Denise Francis.
Denise conceptualized a weather chatbot from start to finish, including the user experience flow and the visual direction.

What are the key tenets of your design leadership philosophy?

I’ve always had the same design philosophy; the most important thing to me is relationships. I strive to maintain vulnerability and remember where I came from. I invest time in mentoring and take part in portfolio reviews to give back to the generation coming after me. I also invest in peer-to-peer relationships to learn and grow. Sponsorship is vital, and I think it’s often forgotten. It’s about finding someone who can speak highly of me when I’m not in the room. We need more sponsoring and championing across our industry.

What does design mean to you?

Design is everything. I love this quote by Massimo Vingnelli, who I had the chance to take a course with while at SCAD before he passed away:

“The life of a designer is a life of fight. Fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is cure it somehow with design.”

I do this for work and my livelihood but I design my entire life; the food I eat, what my hours look like, what I say yes and no to. I design who I allow to get away with what. I design what you accept and what I don’t accept.

What does leadership mean to you?

For me, leadership is about remembering where you came from and holding space for vulnerability. When leading others, it’s easy to fall into a space where you need to feel like you need to change yourself to rise. I don’t think leadership is always ‘hard’. We need more softness in leadership. When you are relatable, you are respected and you make connections with your team that feel amazing. Being a leader is about being trusted and people feeling like they can lean on you and count on you.

Cover artwork for India Arie’s single Breathe, designed by Denise Francis.
Denise designed the cover artwork for India Arie’s single Breathe.

How’s your design team set up?

Our team is a senior team, so we have little to no hierarchy. Our main responsibility is to be advocates for our customers. We’re always working towards being the best of the best in our organisation and wider world. We go out of our way to build each other up. We check in on each other. We make sure everyone is on the same page. We spent time educating ourselves; making sure we are in the know about new trends, design systems and tools. We have regular weekly rhythms where we share files and updates. Our job is to instill trust in our customers and the voice of our customer. We prioritise accessibility, transparency, and trust.

Tell us about the design principles you honour at Salesforce.

We use something called V2MOM: Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures. Twice a year we update these as a design team. This is a very collaborative, creative process, so our entire UX department is on board with our vision. The biggest thing we added this year is relationships by design. We want to build trust with our customers and the experiences we create every day. We call ourselves OHANA. In Hawaiian culture, “Ohana” means family; it’s the tie that binds people together. Our Ohana is built on four core values that inspire us to work together every day toward improving the world; trust, growth, innovation and equality.

How do these principles relate to how you lead?

The principle of relationships also applies to the relationship with yourself; the importance of wellbeing and taking care of yourself. I learned the hard way that burnout is the hardest thing to recover from. Over the years, I’ve become more mature in how I take care of myself. How well I take care of myself has a direct impact on what my relationships and what my work output looks like. This is a work in progress for everyone. You have to try and be realistic with yourself about what you can achieve. Prioritise rest, and of course ask for help when you need it.

What is your advice to other design leaders who are working to advance the practice of UX design?

Trust your design team. We are doing a disservice to junior designers everywhere. There is a big gap between junior, mid, and senior UX positions in the general world of user experience. We end up with a bunch of juniors who are struggling to progress. It’s up to us to provide the learning opportunities.

We have programs for internships and school programs but what about the folks who just finished a bootcamp? Or are in the process of switching careers? Or in their first job? Often our industry’s expectation for them to be polished is wild. We do need mentorship but we also need more sponsorship.

Who’s standing up for the junior designers?

To learn more about Denise and her work, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram and check out her portfolio site.