Some design teams have a vague understanding of how they contribute to their organization beyond the daily tasks of producing UIs. However, the value the team contributes needs to be crystal clear both to the designers and to all the stakeholders if the team hopes to expand its impact and mature its practice.
☕ Articulating the design team’s value
Design teams, especially if they are more established, often take their place for granted in their wider org. They don’t think too much about what value the design team delivers, and what’s the reason for the team’s existence. We all know what we are supposed to, do and expect others to also “get” design.
Unfortunately, the wider organization often also doesn’t have a clear idea other than herd mentality (other tech companies also have design teams) and a vague desire to have great UX. After hiring a bunch of designers, the org expects them to articulate what they bring to the table since they are the experts in design.
This leads to constant struggles as the team tries to mature and expand their influence. If there is no clear articulation of what value the team is delivering, getting the right type and depth of user research done, spending enough time exploring solutions, and fixing those pesky usability issues will be a struggle. Designers will be relegated to be executors, maybe custodians of the design system. And when layoffs arrive, the team will be surprised how deep the cuts go.
A pushback challenge is that while design is important, a lot of software gets by with very few or even no designers. While these apps are very likely not great, they can be acceptable. One reason why Material Design is still so popular among devs. To put it bluntly, activities that are needed for the creation of a product and which designers often do will happen either way, but maybe with uncertain outcomes, unrealized potential, or fragile business success. The design’s value needs to be stated to show the difference.
Obviously, the exact value the design team delivers will be very much dependent on the context: the types of products and users, the stage of the company, and the maturity of the organization. But there are a few general ideas on what product design should represent.
On a high level, value in a business context means increasing revenue, protecting revenue, reducing costs, and avoiding costs.
Designers must actively contribute to increased revenue and avoiding costs by participating in product development. We work with product teams to find what’s our shared intent, render that intent, and help the team deliver on the intent.
- Finding the shared intent is all about figuring out what is the right product to build. This includes understanding user goals and needs, combining those with business goals and technical constraints, and establishing and bringing clarity to the shared mind-space.
- Rendering the intent, so build the product right, designers create usable and desirable experiences.
- Delivering intent focuses on creating experiences that broadly fit into the journey of users without friction and align with the overall brand.
Sometimes I see design teams feeling a dilemma between working for the users or fulfilling business goals, as if those two were at odds with each other. While businesses from their nature prioritize themselves first and users second, it’s our job to make sure these priorities are matched well, and that we fulfill business goals while working for the users. We must believe, and stand on the platform of good design and good UX contributing to a good business.
While this contribution to the increased revenue is fairly straightforward, design teams might find it hard just to get out of being the “prettifying team”. But direct product work is not the only way design can contribute. As organizations grow and scale, the design team’s impact on how the wider business works internally can deliver additional value.
We have unique skills that help deliver the right products faster: prototyping experiences (to quicker evaluate future impact), visualizing decisions (to highlight connections and gaps), and continuous learning (through discovery and iterations). While the design teams’ activities might be seen by some as extra steps, they help in spending less time building the wrong things and this value should be very clearly stated.
I like to think about all of these as designers being force multiplicators, not only able to contribute to all value creation in a business but also enhance other teams’ efforts.
Regardless of how a design team is doing right now, it’s a useful exercise to try to articulate the value the team brings to the table. I prefer doing this as part of a team charter exercise, defining the value as part of the team’s mission. Here the whole design team can come together, but the team’s leader needs to prepare and shape the process to get an outcome that has the intended impact on the org.
Approach describing the design team’s value as a research or design project.
First, understand (if you haven’t done so already) and summarize the context: the nature of the business, how the business is doing right now, who are the users, what products, and in what model the company creates. Then talk to stakeholders, preferably from a wider circle to learn about how they view design’s contribution and what their expectations are, so you have a clear view on what assumptions to work with or against.
Next is describing the value (I prefer a set of principles or a manifesto format). This is where the rest of the design team should contribute with the help of the data and insights the team’s leader collected. The results will likely need some fine-tuning, but otherwise should be ready soon for socializing with the team’s stakeholders and would be ready to be used. Rather than a big bang presentation talk, talking about the values should help in prioritizing projects, supporting goals and project cases, and turning some unseen wins into real wins.
For most teams, these values are not something that will be used daily, but they should have an impact on how broader discussions are framed like around priorities, strategy, or hiring. The core of the values should be fairly stable over the longer term. The details will change and evolve as the team learns and improves, just as the rest of the company changes and matures around the core value proposition.
🚲 Questions to consider
- Why are designers and researchers hired at this company?
- What does the company expect from the design team to do?
- What does the design team expect to do at the company?
- What does the design team do at the company right now?
- How do the design team’s activities impact the various teams at the company?
- What design needs to do to be a clear partner to other teams?
- What are things the design team does that have little or no value?
- What are things the design team does that have a lot of value?
- What is the business and the user value the design team impacts?
🥤 To recap
- Design teams need to clearly articulate their value to their organizations. Many take their place and contribution for granted, but this can lead to challenges in getting the resources and support they need.
- The main contribution of design teams is around increased revenue and reduced costs by finding out the shared intent, rendering that intent, and helping the team to deliver on the intent.
- Design teams often struggle to get out of the “prettifying team” stereotype. They need to show that they can add value to the entire organization, beyond product development.
- With the wider contribution, design can be a force multiplier, helping other teams to be more productive and efficient.
- A way to articulate value for the design team is to make it part of their mission statement. This can help to ensure that everyone in the organization understands how design contributes to the company’s success.
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🍪 Things to snack on
To understand what value means for companies developing products, Understanding Value by Joshua Arnold is a good introduction. There are four ways to think about value for business: increase revenue, protect revenue, reduce costs, and avoid costs. The article also highlights the paradox of focusing on customer delight vs economics that many design teams struggle with, and is also a more general dilemma around innovation.
Matthew Godfrey describes a complete framework on how to think about design’s contribution in What’s the ROI of Design?. Design has both internal and external propositions for delivering values. Externally these are fit (how products fit customer jobs), function (product capabilities are desirable, usable and deliver value), and friction (product adoption, usage, and satisfaction). Internally these are discovery (de-risking assumptions to maximize the impact of engineering), decisions (rapidly evaluating the impact of ideas), and delivery (reducing waste with better design-development workflows). The framework also shows how these propositions can be mapped to outcomes and measures via the Design Value Wheel.
A sign of value clarity is when hiring decisions are easy to make, as everyone understands how having more designers on board will impact the company. For early-stage companies this might be difficult to figure out as there is so much building to be done, but John Cutler’s Hire More Designers, OK? describes a good story to think about this. It’s a simple story of what happens if the number of engineers on the team grows, while the one designer in the team tries to keep up.
I liked Zhaochang He’s tale on value, as it describes simply how individual designers can connect to the broader business goals in As a designer, what business value do you bring to the table?. Besides understanding the broader business goals, having clarity on product goals and metrics (and if they are missing, helping the team figure those) is key. A good perspective is also to think about how we work towards the business goals on behalf of the users.
Designers As Leaders: Now that we have a seat at the table, how do we prove we belong? is a nice case study by Doug Powell, from his time at IBM. It’s focused on how leaders provide value to the organizations they work in by understanding the business and using their design skills (such as prototyping, system thinking, visualizing, facilitating, storytelling, or critiquing).