Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Good design is good business

In keeping up with reading design-related articles, I skimmed this article today (and some of its following case studies): http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670679/good-design-is-good-business-an-introduction

I particularly liked these passages, as they address a struggle between design and business (even though there should be no separation there!) in the corporate world:
The phenomenon of designer-led startups, which also includes companies such as Pinterest and Path, is a telling variation on something legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams once told me. "My work was only possible because I was reporting directly to the chairman of the board," he admitted. "Design has to be insulated at a high level. Otherwise, you can forget it."
Business is shifting now, toward recognition of the value of design. It used to be technology that was growing leaps and bounds, where all the innovation was happening. But that's slowing now: what one company can do, another can mimic within a few short years. So design has started to become the differentiator for business. However, it's hard to break people out of their entrenched ways of thinking, on focusing on whether we can technically do it or not.

Changing How We're Used to Working

In a large company, it's rare to see design reporting into its own chain of command that reaches up to the top. Instead, UX typically rolls into either product development or product management. What kind of message does that send young designers? That there's no future or career path for design, except going up a technical or people management chain?

And let's not forget the attitudes of the people with whom a young designer directly interacts. In a DACI model (driver, approver, contributor, informed), it's usually the PM who is the Approver, leaving designers as pixel-pushers or deliverable-creators. At best, a designer is driving the project or product. I've seen so many clashes between designers and their "business counterparts" -- if they're about to figure it out between them, the end product is usually a sad imitation of what it could've been. If they're unable to settle their differences and escalate the issue, usually the response is, "The PM is the final approver," which is to say, the design voice isn't worth anything if you can't back it up with business logic.
When designers lack influence, superb products become almost impossible. Good designs seldom stay good for very long if they must navigate a gauntlet of corporate approval. That’s because the design process is as much reductive as anything else--figuring what can be simplified and taken out. Corporate approvals are usually about adding things on to appease internal overseers. When something has been approved by everyone, it may be loved by none. 
Note that I specify that we designers must back up our decisions with a solid business case. It isn't helping our cause for us designers to say that something is better because of our gut feelings -- something that I think happens often and discredits our craft . We're here do do business, so let's make sure we drive toward business outcomes, couch our goals in terms of business outcomes, and essentially prove that we're thinking business via design.

Bring it, prove it, turn perceptions around. That's how we'll change attitudes.

Getting Us All to Think Like Designers

And then we can't rest our our laurels, either:
A reliance on design-driven innovation poses a challenge for the companies that live by it: You can’t easily patent how something looks, or the feel of a user interface. Features, subtleties, and finishes spawn imitators with unprecedented speed. That means that design-led companies must innovate constantly to maintain their edge. 
This means we not only have to get good at leading innovation by design, but also at identifying the areas where it's ripe for innovation, where we'll make the biggest impact our our users and thus our business. And who knows the users best? Shouldn't those people be much more valued, if not calling the shots?

Okay, so there's only so many designers to go around. But then, shouldn't we all learn how to think like designers, so that we all can push the envelope? We don't have to learn the craft. We just have to learn how to approach and solve problems the way designers do, and thus open up the space to allow creativity to flow and innovation to happen.

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