ADHD—A DesignOps Superpower

August 26, 2022

The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, The Rosenfeld Review.  In this episode, Lou speaks with Jessica Norris, Design Enablement Coordinator.  The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


[Lou] My guest today is Jess Norris, Atlassian’s design enablement coordinator. Is that the same as design ops?

[Jessica] It’s part of design ops.  At Atlassian, it’s one of our pillars regarding design ops. So enablement is really about programs focused on growth development and community. Something that we’re planning to look at first is onboarding. So how do we set up our new starters that are designers for success by aligning them with our best practices, the tool sets, and to what the expectation for what design quality really is?

[Lou] At the Design Ops Conference, you’re talking about ADHD and how it’s a design ops superpower. I’m really glad to hear this because I’m the dad of two kids who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. There are a lot of different perceptions about what ADHD is in terms of, is it about hyperactivity? Is it about executive function? Is it about something else? Can you explain what ADHD is and then jump into how it impacts design and design ops?

[Jessica] Yes, definitely. So, going back to basics, ADHD is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are actually three different types of ADHD. The first type is primarily hyperactive and impulsive. That tends to be the stigma around ADHD, it causes hyperactivity. The second type is predominantly inattentive. So this is where I sit. And this kind of ADHD revolves around the trouble of regulating attention. So distractibility, or the difficulty of processing information quickly. And the third kind of ADHD is a hybrid of the two. 

[Lou] Is there any correlation with gender? I certainly heard that boys tend to have ADHD of the hyperactive type, and girls are more likely to have the inattentive type.

[Jessica] I don’t know if there is a real correlation from a biological point of view, but ADHD goes severely underdiagnosed in women, and it’s because every single person with ADHD can present completely differently. Women also are very good at masking that they have ADHD. What I found is that in males, it can be more obvious, especially in children, if someone’s hyperactive. But for women, it can be seen as girls just being chatty, which is not as obvious. And apparently, the majority of studies on ADHD have been done on cisgender men. So that’s why a lot of what we know about ADHD is really skewed towards men as well.

[Lou] So, now that we have a general understanding of ADHD, let’s talk about your own experience. When you are hyper-focused, what do you tend to hyper-focus on? 

[Jessica] I tend to focus on very detailed tasks. My background is in service design as well as product design. So working on journey maps, tasks that are really about problem solving and more detailed where it’s clear what you have to do. I just want to sit down and get it done already. That’s when I tend to be really focused. 

[Lou] So let’s take service design. It sounds like you’re able to dig deeply into journeys, but do you have to step back to have the big picture of the journey, or a real broad understanding of the systems involved? Is that something you’re able to do despite the fact that it may not be at that level of detail? Or do you pair with someone who is able to sort of see that bigger picture, but may not be as strong at a detailed level?

[Jessica] I think everyone has their own strengths and so it’s very good to work in a type team because you really get to balance out those strengths and weaknesses. I do think that I can work at that high level picture. It’s just that I get more interested in the details. But I have a strong understanding of my ADHD. I’ve been lucky enough to go to therapy for it. So, I know how to pull myself out of hyper focus and how to have a really good baseline and regulate my attention more so I can be attentive to the stuff that is more high level that might not interest me as much. But it’s always good to be working within a team where you do have different needs and different strengths to balance each other out.

[Lou] On your journey to being diagnosed with ADHD, how did you find out you had ADHD and did it change the way you worked?

[Jessica] My journey to finding out that I had ADHD was quite long. I actually only found out that I had ADHD a year and a half ago. I had previous diagnoses of depression and anxiety and it’s so common in women to not get a diagnosis until adulthood. It definitely changed the way that I think about myself and helped me to really understand what my real strengths and weaknesses are. I know that there’s a lot of skepticism around ADHD. I had someone that I know say to me, “I don’t know why you’re talking about ADHD. It’s just putting a label on your problem.” And I think that’s partially true. But that label can really help you. If that helps you understand more about yourself and can help you really take control of your brain, why not? Why not add a label if it helps?

[Lou] Let’s talk about the design team setting and how you’ve been able to work with teammates in a way that plays well to your ADHD.

[Jessica] Yes, for my talk as well I was talking to lots of different people on my team and in my organization and the more that I opened up and spoke about my own experience with ADHD, the more I found that a lot of designers and a lot of people in design have ADHD or are neurodivergent in some way. So that could mean autistic or dyslexic as well. Some people can be a combination of all those things. For me, it was really clear to see design is an industry where people with ADHD can thrive. And that whole idea of neurodivergence actually means that we’re offering a unique perspective into design and into the world.

Every single person is different and has different needs. And I think that, whether you are neurodivergent or not, everyone brings a different perspective. I think one of the biggest things about the perspectives of people who are neurodivergent is there’s always going to be that empathy there, because anyone who’s ever been considered different from the norm, tends to really understand what it’s like to think and act differently. So they are able to really empathize with people who have diverse needs and diverse skills.

[Lou] So if empathy is one of the critical superpowers that ADHD people have, what else is a superpower when it comes to design ops? What perspective do you bring?

[Jessica] For me, I hyper focus under pressure. So, there’s a lot of times working in design ops where you need to quickly solve a problem and when you’re under that immense amount of pressure, people with ADHD tend to be able to go into hyper focus mode. I find that if someone sends me a message that says that something is urgent, I will drop everything, and put all my brain power into doing that urgent task. 

[Lou] Let’s talk a bit about that one, because I can imagine that hyper focus is really valuable. But you could get 10 emails a day where the first word in the subject line is urgent. Does ADHD for you help you with prioritization so you can figure out which of those urgent tasks truly are the most urgent?

[Jessica] I think going to therapy as a result of ADHD has helped with prioritization. There, you are learning skills and strategies to really be better at work and in life. 

[Lou] Anything else that you think ADHD people bring to design ops or could bring to it?

[Jessica] One of the biggest things that I’ve found with ADHD is it’s very commonly associated with a lack of dopamine, which is all about the pleasure and reward center of your brain. So, one really great way to get a hit of dopamine is to complete a task. So, if someone gives me a task, especially if it’s small and it’s something that I can do very quickly, chances are I’m going to do it straight away. I’m not going to wait around, because I really want that dopamine to hit. I want to feel a sense of accomplishment. I think that we’re very driven to actually complete something.

[Lou] So if someone is managing a designer or specifically a design ops person with ADHD, what should they know? What would you like them to keep in mind, with the caveat, that everyone is different with ADHD. And if they are a teammate of a designer with ADHD, would your advice be any different than for a manager?

[Jessica] Something that I’ve learned is that the things that help people with ADHD can actually help everyone in the team. I think that we always talk about the needs of the one and the needs of the many, but a lot of the time, if you address the needs of the one, it can address the needs of the many. One of the biggest things that has helped me is really giving timeframes to things to remove that ambiguity. If someone labels something as urgent, my brain goes into fight mode and wants to do it straight away. But if someone says to me, “this is due by the end of the day,” that’s a lot clearer for me and allows me to prioritize it within the scheme of everything else. We know that there’s always ambiguity in design ops, so you’re not going to have a specific detailed timeframe at all times but giving a rough guide can really help as opposed to just labeling something as ASAP.

[Lou] Thank you Jessica and good luck in that new job at Atlassian. We’ll see you in September. Thanks for listening to the Rosenfeld review, brought to you by Rosenfeld media. 


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