Organizations from early-stage startups to mature enterprises have been prioritizing design and its methods as a competitive differentiator for years. As consumers have raised their expectations of what they want out of digital and physical products and services, companies have had to act on those increased demands or risk losing their business with little chance such business ever returns.
Several recent studies indicate that investing in design is a worthwhile initiative. In 2018, McKinsey published their Business Value of Design report summarizing how organizations with higher Design Index scores saw a correlation with higher revenue growth and, for the top quartile, higher returns to shareholders. Companies with top-quartile McKinsey Design Index scores outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two to one. And InVision’s The New Design Frontier report on design maturity found that organizations with high-performing, mature design teams “are more likely to see cost savings, revenue gains, productivity gains, speed to market, and brand and market position improvements through their design efforts.”
But that doesn’t mean that just adding a design capability to the organization improves the product, increases demand, or justifies a higher price. And hiring a few designers doesn’t suggest the organization immediately understands design.
In many cases, adding design talent to an organization where there previously was none can risk cultural organ rejection. Designers may be seen as saviors (or as expensive outsiders who don’t know which end is up) while fundamental problems fester. Quickly growing an existing design team’s size and responsibilities can also be risky as well. Such new-found emphasis on design without effective change management can appear to be a land-grab by those who stand to benefit most, while alienating other leaders in the organization.
The February 2020 McKinsey Quarterly article Are You Asking Enough From Your Design Leaders? indicates the struggle is real. About 90% of companies in their 2018 research aren’t fully realizing the full potential of their design teams. What’s more, the research indicates organizations with established design practices struggle to know how senior design leaders can contribute, and suffer from uncertainty about how much to expect of them in their role.
But with preparation and a plan, executives can create an environment where designers can thrive. Under supportive leadership, designers can be enabled to ask the right questions, explore divergent paths, and validate assumptions through controlled experimentation.
You don’t have to have been a designer earlier in your career to create and sustain an environment that supports effective, high-performing design teams. But as an executive leader in your organization, whether you’re a Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, or the primary sponsor of a product development team, there are several things you can–no, should–do to greatly increase the chances that design can make a difference to your organization’s bottom line.
1. Forget What You Think You Know About Designers
Stereotypes of designers abound in media, culture, and even in our organizations. The usual caricature of a designer is someone who just wants to create–who wants to make something pretty and who doesn’t care about the business or who uses the product, and who sees anyone else on the payroll as a stooge who doesn’t get it and never will.
Far more designers are the total opposite of such a portrayal. These designers want to know how their work contributes to the business’s success. They want to empathize with their users and customers, and they want to build relationships throughout the organization to better understand the broader context in which they’re practicing design. Assuming your design team doesn’t care about anyone or anything other than the pixels they render will likely create a self-fulfilling prophecy where the designers don’t feel like a part of the broader team, and will quickly find an environment that makes them feel like a valuable contributor.
2. Suspend the Urge to Look for Metrics-Based Causal Ties to Short-Term Change
Play the long game with your design team. Much like how executives who are heavily compensated in stock may risk juicing returns in the short term at the expense of the long term financial health of the company, looking for quantifiable change can lead to questionable decision-making in what your design team chooses to prioritize and how they execute the work. Look into holistic positive changes–try to uncover if the design team has contributed to an increase in sales, competitiveness, or brand loyalty in qualitative stories as well.
3. Get Involved with Research
This is an easy one–participate in the research your design team is conducting through a number of ways. First, you can use your influence to actively ask for more research. Secondly, shape the script of what you want your research and design team to learn about. What should they uncover? What possible responses could reveal an unexpected opportunity?
Attend or listen in on a discovery interview and a usability test to hear, first-hand, what customers are saying about your space and products. And don’t hesitate to open up research to your own network, even if it’s just an off-the-record conversation to give your designers and researchers more context into what they’re researching.
4. Monitor the Ratios
Depending on your organization, you may have more than 100 times as many engineers as designers. If that’s the case, you have to reign in your expectations from a delivery and cultural perspective of improving the company’s design capability. Work with your design leadership to ask what steps it would take to right-size the design team’s staffing to meet your goals.
5. Embrace Iteration
Supporting iteration is much easier said than done. Whereas optimists suggest iteration means improving work based on lessons learned to lead to a better product, skeptics often find themselves in the build trap, where teams must continue building more or new features if for no other reason than to keep their expensive engineering teams busy.
As an executive leader, you may have the influence to ask what your design and broader product teams have learned that would suggest they should prioritize iterating on existing work versus net-new building. Mature product development teams should be monitoring quantitatively (through metrics) and qualitatively (through interviews and observation) what is working as planned, and what could be better. At least quarterly, ask your product development leadership how they would rank what they could go back and improve on based on known behavior.
6. Invite Them to More … Everything
One of the most effective tactics executives can apply to improving the impact of the design team is simply inviting designers to more meetings, events, and activities that will lead to a more holistic awareness of the ecosystem in which they design.
Similar to #1 above, it’s easy to mistakenly assume designers don’t want to be bothered with anything that’s not directly related to pushing pixels. Instead, reflect on the last quarter or year of big events that could be treasure troves of latent or primary information your designers could use. Perhaps your organization conducted any of the following:
- annual sales kick off conferences
- user group events
- annual investor days
- product roll-out announcements
- internal sales all-hands
- early-stage planning meetings to prioritize and allocate funding
While not directly related to designing features and functionality, any of the above events will help designers better understand the company and its leadership, its public messaging, and provides more access to customers. Of course, articulate your expectations ahead of time so the designers know what they’re getting into to avoid unnecessary or uncomfortable surprises.
7. Support Unplanned Ideas
While certainly a generalization, many designers find fulfillment in their careers because of the opportunity to solve problems, often in ways that were different than their first attempt or their original plan. However, many organizations prioritize or reward building the planned thing, versus delivering the right thing. To combat such an environment, make a habit of talking to your research team, either as a casual question or in a skip one on one, if the research they’re conducting is leading to new or unforeseen opportunities that the business or commercial team can prioritize against planned work.
As the executive, you can also create an environment where the commercial team can request more research to investigate their own ideas. Similarly, the commercial team should also be expected to listen to and analyze the ideas that originate from the design or research team as well.
This isn’t to suggest a product development process that’s basically a free-for-all, where there are no deadlines, roadmaps, or plans of what will be built. Rather, create or allow for timeboxed periods of exploration, such as one to two weeks concurrent with discovery research where teams can experiment. Some organizations have formalized processes where new ideas or opportunities can be pitched to the executive team for funding, similar to an episode of Shark Tank.
Other organizations set aside funding and create flexible milestones based on experiments in their roadmaps to determine how best to accomplish their objectives. While that may be a far more complex initiative to fully implement in your company, a useful first step to supporting unplanned ideas can be as easy as making sure teams keep acceptance criteria out of their user stories. By just describing the problem that needs to be solved rather than prescriptively describing how it should be solved, you’re supporting the expectation that designers can think through different approaches to addressing the problem space.
8. Ask More Questions
Lastly, try to monitor the ratio of questions you’re asking the product development and design team relative to the statements you’re telling the team. Asking questions is even more useful in design reviews or kickoffs because you’re opening up the floor for diverse responses from a variety of perspectives. While it can be a challenge to reframe what you think about a design implementation into a question, you’ll likely learn much more about the thinking behind the decision than if you said “I don’t think this will work”, which puts the designer in a defensive position and shuts down exploratory discussion.
Instead, if the team designed something that doesn’t seem like it could work as well as your experience suggests is ideal, try these questions first:
- Did any research or observed behavior lead you to this approach?
- How could we learn if this is the best model versus other ideas?
- What other attempts did you experiment with and how did you decide on this one?
While these examples clearly indicate you’re not totally sold on the idea, you’re still open to hearing what steps led the team to think the decisions they’re presenting is the best way to success. The team’s responses will also provide more insight into how you could enable better design. For instance, if there was no research that led to the decision, you may expose yourself to unneeded risk by not showing early design concepts to customers to validate your assumptions.
Additionally, asking questions creates a more positive learning environment across the team. More people will follow your lead and try asking more questions than statements in every meeting—not just design reviews.
Creating an environment where design can thrive can be a cultural challenge that can take months to intentionally craft. Sustaining such an environment isn’t any easier, particularly when more teams want to work with your high-performing design practice and are not fully aware of how to get their best work. But it’s not impossible. Try implementing one or two of these tactics above and monitor what change occurs over the next month or quarter. Soon you’ll be on your way to building a culture that yields high-value results in an environment that supports a customer-centric approach to product development.
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