In a recent group session, DesignMap partner Audrey Crane outlined what founders can do to incorporate design into their company, from understanding the role of design in building great products, to hiring the right designer or design agency for your team and product, to incorporating design into every step of the building process.
My name is Audrey Crane, I’m one of four partners at a company called DesignMap. We do user experience strategy and design, mostly focused on the B2B enterprise space. We’ve been around for 14 years now, and I have been working in Silicon Valley for companies like Netscape back in the olden days, Kelley Blue Book, and several design consultancies, as well as internally running my own design teams.
A few years ago, the CEO of a small company called me and said, “Look, I’m running this company now. It’s about 200 people, and I’m an engineer myself so I understand the technology part. I’ve learned about HR and finance and operations. I think design is important to the success of our company, but I don’t know what I should know or how I should know about it.”
What CEOs Need to Know About Design
Obviously he doesn’t want to learn Photoshop or Sketch or Figma. I could give him a copy of the Design of Everyday Things, but that’s not exactly it really either. I called around to several business leaders who are great advocates for design to ask them how they became advocates for design, how they learned about design and learned to leverage it in their companies to make their companies more successful.
What I saw was that 80% to 90%, had a common understanding of design that matched mine, but there were these 10% gaps that didn’t match. So from those conversations was born this book, What CEOs Need to Know About Design. It was kind of silly to try to write a short book about such a broad topic. but what we’ve heard from people who read it that it does provide a useful baseline for understanding.
I’m not going to cover everything that anyone needs to know about design in less than an hour but I’m going to cover some very common gaps and mistakes that we see in business leaders, product managers, CEOs, and entrepreneurs. I would expect that you will also hear some stuff you know, otherwise this would be way off, but I hope there’s that 10% for you as well that’s really helpful. I’m @audcrane on Twitter and LinkedIn or email@example.com if you want to email me with any feedback or questions.
Investing in Design
Forrester worked with IBM to try to assess the total economic impact of their investment. It was a three-year major investment in design and the punchline was this: 301% ROI. There’s a report from McKinsey called the Business Value of Design, Envision has some great reports that come out frequently, and there’s an older one called the Design Value Index from the Design Management Institute.
You can use these indices to rank how design-centric your company is. They identified publicly traded companies that scored high on their index and then looked at how they performed on the S&P 500. This is a couple of years old, but it’s pretty compelling and can be useful when you’re making a case to a board or your boss, depending on where you are in the organization to make an investment in design.
The Value of Design
The way that design adds value is multifaceted. We can point to reports that get into the specifics of each of these things but basically, design makes employees more efficient and productive, which puts products in the market quicker, that are more innovative and drive higher customer lifetime value, improving the company’s market share and position, and ultimately leading to growth.
You probably wouldn’t be watching this if you didn’t think design is valuable, but it can be helpful to have these specific reports to point others to when you’re trying to build a case within your organization. You should view and expect designers to be capable of making a specific, meaningful, and significant contribution to your company’s success.
We see companies bring in design just because they think they should without really having a specific idea or even a vague expectation that they’ll make a difference in terms of the success of the business. That’s hard then for a designer to actually have that kind of an impact. I just recently interviewed someone who really had a great case to make for the work that she had done and the impact on the business, and still had to fight to be included in the next project.
Assuming we all agree that design is a value and you can get some funds set aside to invest in design, then there’s the question of hiring designers. “How many designers should I hire?” My answer, of course is, it depends. A ballpark ratio is one designer for every eight engineers. In companies that we work with, because they tend to be more technical and the user experience design is more complex, this is closer to one to five, but somewhere in this range is a ballpark for you.
“Should we bring designers internal into our organization? Or should we bring in design partners, whether that’s an individual consultant, an agency or a consultancy like DesignMap.” Actually, both are good. There’s several advantages to doing both at once. I’m going to talk through first hiring a designer into your organization, and just a few tips about doing that, and then why it’s helpful to have a design partner even while you’re doing that.
One thing to keep in mind is that a lot of times startups or people who are inexperienced at hiring designers expect to find a unicorn. Of course they exist, but the idea that this person can do all of the design things and is equally great at all of them suggests to a candidate, either that you don’t really understand, or that they’re going to be an army of one for a long time.
What we find is that, designers are generally either really great at design or they’re really great at coding, but not both. It’s not to say that designers can’t have engineering skills. It’s not to say that engineers can’t have design skills. But usually we wouldn’t ask for one person to be primarily responsible for both of those things. Also pretty common is confusing a designer that would support a marketing team versus a designer that works on the product side.
Then the other one is interaction design versus visual design. Interaction design meaning workflows, how things act from screen to screen, and maybe some information within the screen, but then visual design, really getting into information hierarchy on the screen and colors and fonts and that kind of thing. It’s certainly not impossible but it’s just not very common. So we would look for one of those rather than both in a person.
Some things that I tell people that we’re working with to help bring on design teams is, it’s okay to go ahead and take into account your personal opinion about how their work looks. Also you really want to understand, not just look at the end product, but for at least one thing in their portfolio, ask them to walk you through the whole process. That’s going to help you understand how they think, how they approach this thing, and see anything in a designer’s portfolio as the result of a collaboration.
I always look for a designer who is interested in more than just design. Sometimes that’s engineering and they want to know, “what technology is this built in, why did you choose that one?” Sometimes it’s the business and they want to really understand the business model. Look for someone to be interested in how design plugs into the bigger picture at your organization and someone who’s not just like, “Design is all that matters.”
This is a rule that I broke once in my hiring career, to my great dismay, but I would always when looking at a designer’s portfolio, critique something in it. You don’t have to be super harsh but challenge them to see how they receive your comments. What I would look for is openness and curiosity. These are the kinds of conversations that you’re going to be having constantly with this person so you want to make sure that you enjoy having them and that they’re open and that they’re not defensive or disinterested in your opinion.
Working with an Agency of Consultancy
Assuming that you agree that you want to hire somebody to be on your team, there’s this question of working with someone from an agency or a consultancy, while you’re hiring. There’s a couple of benefits to that. One is that you can get going now. If you have a project that you’ve got rolling, you want to have a designer working on that project. Usually you can get a design partner on board more quickly than you can hire internally.
Secondly, they can actually help with hiring. They can point you to recruiters who might be good sources for designers for you, review portfolios, even interview alongside you. Having a design partner on board, honestly, it’s great bait, for lack of a better word, because a designer wants to know that they’re not going to be the only designer that you ever hire, but that you truly believe in the value of design and that you’re invested in it.
My last point is, this is honestly my favorite way to work. When there’s an internal designer working alongside the partner, even within their team, they become a great steward for the work going forward because they understand what decisions were made and why, they were in the room when all of these things happened. They may serve to level up that individual designer, depending on how senior they are.
Choosing Design Partners
You want to see work in progress. This can be really helpful, not just their model or diagram of how they work, but let’s actually get into it and see something and how it’s actually going. I would always ask a design partner how we together will measure the success of this project. Hopefully they’re asking you this as well, but you want to talk about, historically how they’ve measured success and how successful they’ve been against some of those things.
Where are they going to stop? When would that end? What will they hand off? It’s kind of obvious, but it’s surprising how often those questions don’t get asked. Ask, “What don’t you do?” There’s often a conflation of marketing firms and product design firms. If they see an opportunity there, they might carve out a little team to do these kinds of things, but they rarely have great chops that product design consultancies have, and vice versa.
At DesignMap, we’re looking to provide a cohort for your designers so that they have peers and mentors and they can learn. And I cannot tell you, we must have hired 20-30 designers over the years at DesignMap, who specifically left the organization they were in, even if they liked the company, because they were the only designer, and they don’t want to be the only designer. They want people to work with and to learn from.
Discovery and Research
There’s a great research study that was run and in the study, the researcher was standing outside of a store and had a drink in their hands. When someone agreed to participate in the study, the researcher would ask them to hold their drink while they pulled out paperwork. Then the researcher would take the drink back and show the participant a neutral photo of a person and ask them how they felt about the person in the photo.
What they found was that, if the liquid was hot they were more likely to state positive attributes about the person in that photo. If the liquid was cold, they were more likely to state negative attributes. This tiny, seemingly insignificant, little thing of holding a cup of liquid for a few seconds had a big impact on the research participants responses. I would caution you that while research is definitely not rocket science, good research is subtle.
Especially business leaders, product managers, founders, entrepreneur, a lot of your job is to be charismatic and influential and to be a great evangelist for your ideas to get investors on board and employees excited. If you take that personality that’s made you successful at what you’re doing today out into the field, and you use it to talk to people, then what you’re going to learn is how charismatic and persuasive you are and not what you really needed to learn about your idea or the product.
We would expect designers to have some training in research, or for you to even have a researcher, but sometimes you’re going to need to do your own research. Hopefully your designer or researcher can help you do it effectively, but even if they’re not there, we hope that you will learn to wear a different hat when you conduct research. Sometimes it’s worse to go out into the field and think you got good information and actually have bad information, than if you just didn’t go out into the field at all.
The Five Elements of User Experience Design
There’s this book by Jesse James Garrett, who was one of the founders of Adaptive Path, which was a really influential company in the olden days of digital product design. He talks about the five elements of user experience design and I used the book here because it’s foundational and many designers are familiar with it, but it also is a good illustration of this particular challenge.
He starts with surface, like how things look, colors, and fonts. On the other hand, at the starting point, there is strategy. What are we trying to accomplish here? What do we want to get out of a product? What do users want? Then there are three layers that Jesse describes in-between. Scope, which is just, where does it start? Where does it stop? What outcomes are we trying to support? What are we not worried about right now? Structure, how are we going to put things together to support that idea? And Skeleton, the outline of the product, or you could think of this as the user flows and wire frames.
What Design Is and Isn’t
One common mistake that we see people make is just thinking that, how things look is design and that’s it. Today I was in an online developer’s conference, and a designer asked a group of 80 people who attended what they think of when they think of design. I would say 50% of them said, “Colors, appearance, something pretty.” From this illustration, you can see that design can help in more places than just how it looks. Marty Cagan says, “If you only use them for fonts and colors, you’re only getting about 10% of the value out of your designers.”
The big opportunity with design is to manage risk. Technical risk, feasibility risk, liability, and usability risk, but they can’t help manage that risk if they’re not involved, if they’re just kind of like slapping colors on at the end. The value is helping them manage risk. On the other hand, we have started to come across organizations that have heard about design thinking and this kind of very broad, inclusive, iterative way of approaching the world, and think that that’s all that design is. Think of design as adding value across the spectrum from the very beginning to the very end.
Once they’ve designed something, there’s feedback to give. It’s interesting to me, we often offer workshops alongside projects for our clients, and one of the workshops that they often choose is one around giving feedback. I don’t know if that’s because it’s in a group setting and they don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough giving feedback. We wouldn’t necessarily expect every product manager to be able to sit through a code review and contribute in a meaningful way, but we do in design.
Have you ever been in this situation: there’s a designer and a business leader. You can tell who the designer is because of the hipster glasses. The designer shows something and the business leader is like, “Oh gosh, I love that color blue.” And the designers like, “Oh, no, no, no, this is just a wire frame. The colors were just to show action buttons or the happy path or something.” If you start a meeting like that, then the business leader feels dumb, like “I came to add value. I tried to add value. The value I tried to add was rejected.” And the designer seems defensive.
We always caution designers to tee meetings up and to say, “Here’s what I’d like to get out of this meeting. Here’s what we did last time.” It doesn’t have to be long, you can do it in five seconds. “Hey, last time we were talking about the call to action not being clear. I tried three different versions of this and I’d just love your feedback on whether you think the call to action is more clear.” If they aren’t clear, then you can say, “Okay, what do or don’t you need from me in this meeting?”
“Are we tackling the right audience? Who is this for? How is it helping them? How is this going to be different than the other things?” Those questions will be relevant no matter what kind of artifact you’re looking at. “Does this support my brand? Is attention focused appropriately? Is it clear?” This is another one of these opportunities that we suggest people know or ask what kind of input would be most useful based on where you are in the process.
In feedback sessions, focus on intents. The user has an intent in their mind, there’s something that they’re trying to accomplish. The designer has in their mind a sense of the user’s intent. And similarly, the business has some kind of intent and you as the the business leader, product manager, or CEO, have the unique perspective to see all of that and to make sure that it’s all understood, on the table, taken into account, and headed in the right direction to align all of those intents.
“How does the user do it today? How would this make it better?” You can ask about the designer’s intent because they will have some thought process, that is a value, and it may be helpful to you to understand what that is. “Which version do you like if you’re looking at more than one version? Why did you do it this way? How did you get to this point?” Then you can also talk about the intent of the business. “I need to make sure that we’re aligning to the business intents. Can we do anything to make it align more close? Here’s the intent.”
Designers Design All the Things
One of the people I interviewed for the book, was talking about how great designers were and how important they were to his two successful exits. He attributed both exits to some degree to the quality of the user experience design and the design leadership in those organizations. He was talking about his current organization and he said, “Well, and of course the product managers do wire frames too.” I asked him why and he said, “Well, the designers are on the next project. We didn’t know that screen was going to take a while to load and we were planning to do something with the animation for the screen loading, but the designer was elsewhere.”
That suggests some problems with resource allocation and process. Design is happening in your organization. In that case, the product manager was doing design. A lot of times engineers are doing design. So it’s not like the alternative to good design is no design. It’s just bad design.
As long as you’re paying product managers, pay them to do what product managers are great at. As long as you’re paying designers, you might as well have designers design all the things.
3 Ideas to Take Away
I have three ideas for you to try within your organization tomorrow. One is you can use one of the indices that I mentioned at the very beginning and sit down with your design team or designer or UX engineer if that’s what you have, to score your maturity and set a goal for where you want your organization to be. I would refer you to the Envision index as a great place to start thinking about what you want your organization, where it is today, and what you want it to be.
Another thing that you can do is ask your design team where they believe they have the most impact, and where they wish they had more, and then try to help them do that. A final idea is to attend a review meeting, but instead of stating feedback, try kind of the Socratic method of feedback of only asking questions, and see what comes of that conversation. I would love if you could email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you try this and let me now how that goes.