A Focus on the Business Value of Design

By Jon Fukuda


While our primary goal at Limina is to use design as a tool to create an exceptional end-user experience, we also challenge our designers to think through the technical implications and business impact of their designs. Today, more than ever, companies are drawing the connection between design and tangible business outcomes.

The expectation of design is that things are both visually appealing, and also communicate purpose and utility. If a system is more convenient, efficient, and useful, it typically delivers reduced learning curves, training costs, and system/user errors. This translates to higher business value.


What makes quantifying the impact of design so challenging?

Most people talk about design in terms of the “look and feel” or aesthetics; if they’re savvier they may refer to design as “experience design.” Metrics and business impact are typically left out of initial design conversations. The truth is designers are problem solvers–and in a sense–design scientists. Design Thinking is an application of the scientific method of problem-solving. You generate a hypothesis, engineer the desired outcome, and test that hypothesis.

At Limina, our work is focused on building systems for knowledge workers: web portals and business applications that support critical work such as business intelligence dashboards, document libraries, collaboration workspaces, intranets, service portals, etc. In these environments, there is always something that can be measured…you just have to pick meaningful metrics.

Because the return on the design investment can seem hidden, the trick is to discover system and user patterns that are negatively impacting organizations–either in productivity cost, errors, attrition, knowledge loss, failed conversion, etc. Then, you need to hook your systems up to track and display key metrics to monitor and measure business impact.

How do successful design leaders demonstrate value?

A design leader needs to be steeped in business metrics (cost of sales, revenues, P&Ls, variable expenses, hourly rates/costs), as well as experience metrics (conversion rates, time to completion, transaction rates, attrition and retention rates, etc.). By understanding these indicators and how design can positively or negatively impact these metrics, design leaders can demonstrate how to add value to an organization and its customers.

 We always start our engagements by defining the critical success factors and key performance indicators (KPIs) of the system design. Initially, we’re talking about design and development costs, scalability and extensibility, but when it comes to the values embedded in the system behavior, we start to look at system adoption, user acquisition, transaction completion times and success rates, cost, and user satisfaction. These are metrics that translate to actual revenues and costs in a given system.

How is the impact of design demonstrated within an organization?

There is a tendency to talk about design in terms of look and feel, and patterns. But we look at the “big D” design–this means anything from process re-engineering, service, and service model design, as well as system workflow design. Of course, this includes design systems, which consist of pattern libraries, reusable assets, API documentation, and whole systems mapping.

If you can get to the point where all the roles within the company are part of the “design” matrix (understand, map, design, test, deploy, repeat)–intentionally organizing behaviors, systems, and patterns–you can collectively undertake the responsibility to design everything to maximize efficiency and value.

What does that yield in terms of benefits to the design team?

If an organization realizes the value of design, they will invest in more strategic thinkers and practitioners on the design team and invest in process re-engineering to better integrate design as a practice in business and operational design as well as product and project design work. Benefits to the design team include:

  • Increased budget
  • Increased visibility within the organization
  • Less time defending design, more time designing
  • A seat at the table for strategic decision making
  • Organizational process changes to include design in more areas of the business
  • R&D funding for the design team to focus on innovating

What is the role of individual designers in demonstrating the impact of their work?

Individual designers need to realize the business and technical impact of their design recommendations. Gone are the days where designers whimsically alter the design direction of a project; they should base their design direction on empirical data gathered by system and business metrics, as well as user research.

The design direction should not offset the balance held by the three pillars of business, technology and user needs. If you shift one in a positive direction, but negatively offset the others, you’re at a net value loss, not gain. So, it’s about awareness and context. It’s up to the design managers, and cross-functional teams to highlight the KPIs, critical success factors, and key design patterns that should not be negatively impacted by design direction.

Summary

We recently discussed our perspective on the business value of design with Gina Bhawalkar, a Forrester principal analyst serving customer experience (CX) professionals; she is conducting research on this topic and we look forward to reading her analysis. At Limina, we’ve also been exploring this topic to help shape our own our upcoming research study, and we’ll keep you posted when that is completed.