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Driving design in a business-driven organisation

How might we bridge this ‘gulf’, if there is one?

How might we bridge this ‘gulf’, if there is one?

In the book Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda, the author notes that if there was one definitive statement which could be made about what design is, it will be - in Steve Jobs’ words - “design is how it works”. I think the simplicity of this statement is deceiving, for it is just as thought-provoking. Design is how it works. It is the product, users come to it, form follows function. Every aspect of how the product works, is essentially, design. Design is not a means to an end, but it is the end all.

As a product designer who has spent about 4 years exploring the craft, this quote never really resonated so saliently with me until I started dipping my toes across different organisational contexts & cultures. And it was also when I paid more notice to conversations revolving about the concept of judging how ‘design-driven’ a company is, or how practitioners contemplate the shift to becoming more design-driven. But what are we trying to drive away from, or what we comparing being ‘design-driven’ to? In my context, I consider what I term as ‘business-driven’ organisations. Allow me to attempt to break down the implications of ‘business-driven’ through various lenses:

Focus: Driving the business function of an organisation is the top area of focus. The financial aspect- maximising revenues and minimising costs- is therefore key. Getting more customers through the door and/or refining operational capabilities in order to fulfill these financial objectives are priorities.

Decision-making: Decision matrices are often drawn up according to the needs and priorities of the business function. If an activity has no tangible impact on fulfilling a business goal, then it should be deprioritised.

Culture: Business is the end all. Every other component serves it, and supports its goals.

How is design relevant to this conversation then? I think that when design operates in a ‘business-driven’ organisation, there may exist some form of tension between the design and business functions. More often than not, there are gulfs (of comprehension, communication etc.) that permeate the design-business partnership. Some of the following scenarios may occur:

▪ Design is not viewed as an equal partner of the product development process, but only as a function that is involved in production.

▪ Design encounters pushback on specific initiatives which may not have evidently quantifiable return on investment.

▪ Design has little context on product strategy.

To bridge such gaps from the perspective of a product designer, I believe that there is reasonable pressure on design to do the following:

1. Practice empathy with business partners.

2. Translate the perceived value of design activities into actual, quantifiable value

3. Actively promote and practice the notion that ‘design is how it works’.

4. Inspire a design-driven culture from the ground up.

When these are fulfilled, I think that we can inch closer towards:

▪ A complementary synergy between design and business.

▪ Design becomes part and parcel of business strategy. Design drives the product.

▪ ‘How it works’ becomes perceived to be a critical factor in determining whether business goals are successfully achieved.

Of course, this requires time, effort and commitment; particularly within a context where design may not be fully understood, and where we have much to do to elevate design-led inspiration and taste in our products. However, I do believe that it will pay off - with great design, comes great business. Let me try to explain each point more and contextualise it within my personal experiences as a product designer thus far.

1. Practice empathy with business partners

Great design is all about empathy, and I think it is not only directed at the proverbial ‘end user’, but also towards our internal stakeholders. As a designer, I need to understand the following from my business partners:

▪ What business goals are we trying to achieve? Why are we doing what we are doing?

▪ What are the relevant metrics that we are focusing on?

▪ What is the product roadmap?

▪ What business constraints are we working with?

▪ How you do work? What do you need to get done? What are some of your existing pain points specific to your work?

▪ What are the expectations of us working together?

Simply put, I need to know the who, what, why, when and how. I need to understand them, the overarching objectives, where I fit into this bigger picture, and what problems I can invest effort in solving in without wasting my time.

I sometimes see the ‘inspired new joiner’ syndrome at play — particularly with designers. Imagine this: you are a fresh-faced new joiner to a product organisation, and you brim with ideas on how to improve a certain flow or feature. You then spend time working on a polished proposal and confidently present it to your product manager, who impassively listens to you present your ideas animatedly. Then, the person cuts you short- “You know, great job, but the team has already discussed this before. And we are not doing this because….”. Your smile freezes, and you don’t really know what to say to fill up that awkward silence that fills after.

I think the lesson here is that, a designer cannot simply optimise based on assumptions in a business-driven organisation. There needs to be an extended degree of collaboration and communication which should happen first, to then properly guide the designer on what and where to contribute valuable perspectives & hours. I was previously guilty of this because I jumped right into it without taking concrete steps to learn more about my business partners.

2. Translate the perceived value of design activities into actual, quantifiable value

Credits: Design Better (InVision)

Credits: Design Better (InVision)

In Ryan Rumsey’s book Business Thinking for Designers, he talks about the dichotomy between perceived value and actual value. Perceived value is often associated with subjective taste and heuristics, whilst actual value resides on the opposing end of this spectrum which points to quantifiability and hard data. There is a gap, where design tends to sit on the side of perceived value. Ryan suggests that designers need to take a keener initiative to bridge this gap and allow stakeholders to see the actual value that can be feasibly generated by design activities. That is where a business-driven organisation can understand the usefulness of leading with design, and not see it as a mutually conflicting or exclusive entity.

Take the example of establishing a design system in an organisation. As a designer, I might intuitively gravitate to the following arguments to justify doing so:

▪ A design system ensures consistency of our product UI, and creates a more unified front-end user experience

▪ A design system ensures alignment amongst all stakeholders on the look and feel of our product

▪ A design system ensures a more efficient workflow for designers and engineers.

The issue is that these arguments barely scratch the surface, and do not carry much weight in a business-driven organisation (or in fact, anywhere). While valid, they lack actual value. So what if the product UI is more consistent? So what if the workflow is more efficient? It is important to then establish coherent links between a course of action, and an improvement measure - i.e. a metric - which impacts the organisation’s business goals. Maybe, we could consider an alternative as such:

▪ A design system ensures consistency of our product UI. This is important as design inconsistency results in low usability. For example, users cannot effectively complete key tasks because they feel confused when multiple elements may look the same but perform different functions. Low usability has a negative impact on user satisfaction, which causes churn rate to increase as users drop off, and acquisition rate to decrease given poor word-of-mouth effects (leverage on past data & examples). That will mean that overall, fewer people will buy from us.

▪ A design system ensures a more efficient workflow for designers and engineers. This means that designers and engineers do not have to spend time to recreate the same component from scratch every single time it needs to be used for a specific feature or project. Also, they do not have to worry about inaccurate/inconsistent implementation thereafter and spend time to rectify UI bugs that may happen. The components are visible, reusable, and belong to a single source of truth. We estimate this will save x hours and correspondingly, $y for the organisation.

In a business-driven organisation, design needs to think business. Design needs to consider metrics, costs, and ROI. It may be difficult to put a number to something seemingly abstract and seems to ‘intuitively work’, but it is still necessary to draw the link. That is how we can unequivocally justify the impact of design.

3. Actively promote and practice the notion that ‘design is how it works’.

Making the effort to understand business and communicating in business language constitute the key first steps in integrating design in a business-driven organisation. Subsequently, I think that design should and can also proactively establish its influence in a way that educates others on the notion that ‘design is how it works’. It takes collaboration, diligence, and persistence to inspire this change in an organic manner.

I think this change entails a mindset shift. Business stakeholders may be less conscious of how design can co-lead the charge towards the attainment of business goals. As mentioned, the product is an intrinsic function of design — but stakeholders may frame it in the sense of design being the means to get to that end of a great product. I think the distinction is important. Design is not only a tool. Design is the product. Whatever we put out to the market, is design.

But…what for? And for who?

But…what for? And for who?

When design becomes a means to an end, I realise that we start to fall back on the concepts of ‘beauty’ and ‘aesthetics’ which are only but a subset of what design is. During parts of my career, I find myself face to face with an all but too common request: “Let’s make this look nicer”. When I hear this, it gives me an insight into the prevailing mindset and conception of what design is to the person saying it. I do believe that this happens because we do not understand design enough. We think that design is only something that should come into play when it is needed; which is when something needs to look ‘nicer’ and ‘more polished’. But, the beauty is not rooted in how it looks, but how it works. Every single product decision we make about how it works is a design decision, and there are a myriad of things that designers can do to make this decision measurably better — through balancing both big and thick data, blending heuristics and algorithms, and so on.

Mere words risk overtly abstracting this. I think that designers need to start from their craft, and the way they strive to work with their business partners. Build up one’s personal influence and impact by living out this ideal in your work. Learn and demonstrate an ability to partake effectively from ideation to execution; with the business partners. Be curious about how it works, and step out of what may have been a pre-defined role to fully realise the potential of design.

We need to actively find ways to integrate design into business and vice versa. Product strategy and design strategy should go hand in hand, and not one should be subservient to the other. I think it will also be an interesting experiment — and a worthwhile one in fact — to involve business in the design process, allow them to empathise with design, and experience the value that it brings. Design becomes about solving actual problems, together.

4. Inspire a design-driven culture from the ground up.

Senior management needs to be able to inspire change from the top-down. But, I do not think that this affords other individual contributors or managers the luxury to sit around and wait for things to happen from above. What will help the top-down cause is a bottom-up initiative that happens in tandem. When there is inherent buy-in from the ground up, when every designer seeks to practice what she preaches, and when there is a concerted effort to increase the level of design maturity by whatever means — there is hope for change.

Managers play an important role in communicating with their team, and should seek to inspire them to fearlessly yet patiently explore. Rome was not built in a single day, and neither is a design-mature culture in a business-driven organisation. It may be a slow and arduous process, but we have to start somewhere. It may be a tad frustrating, but that is why we will need to continue pushing through diligently.

Ultimately, I think change is best inspired organically. And it is also important that it is led by a group of like-minded individuals who are driven by a passion for design — however idealistic — and be willing to push the envelope. We may then eventually hope to meet in the middle where interests and perspectives finally coincide.

I have spent much time considering the dynamics governing design and business, and how contemporary product design has evolved to be a somewhat misunderstood discipline in some cases. And I attempt to look for answers along the way. If there is one thing for sure, driving design in a business-driven organisation is easier said than done. To successfully evoke a change in mindset and a resolution of this functional tension is not only dependent on words; but probably more effectively induced via action. Design operates within starkly realistic organisational constraints, and not everyone may understand what it means by “design is how it works”. It may seem somewhat too intangible, but yet again, it is design’s responsibility to concretise the value that it is able to bring and open everyone else’s eyes to the role that design shall and can play in shaping a great product. We should always seek to collaboratively operate at that sweet spot- where business, technology, and design meld into one synergistic whole.

The cliched sweet spot

It was Apple’s mission to make great products at the intersection of art and technology. I do not see why this tremendous dedication to craft and taste cannot inspire future generations of designers like ourselves to also think beyond pixels and consider how design was so critical in paving a historical way forward for technology. It was all because the creators knew that design is how it works. As Steve Jobs said,

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it [a product] looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

My sincere hope is that design will make greater leaps to transform and drive products across organisations, and that we are able to collectively elevate the culture of design in business.


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Nevan Lalich
Head of Creative

Jul 07, 2021