Why organizations don’t value design (and four ways to overcome this)

I’ve been a design and user experience (UX) professional for over twenty years.

During my first job at a consulting firm, I led the creation of a new software tool and promptly wanted to know, “Who’s using this?” Consultants engaged with the client; not the users. That’s how my professional engagement in human-centered design began: identifying and connecting with the person who will be using the product and learning what their problems are.

Recently, I spoke on a Sydney-based podcast about how organizations generally don’t value the importance of design. It’s hard to measure design and user experience because it’s not tangible. So how can designers and product professionals influence organizations to see the value in design?

But wait – what do I mean when I say “design”?

Fast Company recently published an article claiming companies focus too much on direct commercial return in lieu of valuing how customers engage with their products. One would hope there’s always a win-win between companies and their customers, but that’s not always the case. To recognize the benefits of design, companies must modify how they measure success beyond solely targeting behavioral outcomes based off financial results.

Part of the problem with educating businesses about the value of design is in the word itself – it’s broad and open to interpretation. Often design gets narrowed down to graphic design – or UI design. “Making things pretty” can be perceived a low-value activity– something that’s just required at the end of the development process. But design is much more than that.

We think behavior is predictable: a product goes to market, we know how much consumers will pay, and we “think” we know how people will use the product. As designers, we anticipate workflows and try to offer users the best experience. People assume their product will behave like others on the market, but you don’t truly know how people will interact with your product until they’re using it.

Unfortunately, organizations are rarely set up to observe, orientate, decide and act around how people interact with their products. This is the role designers play.

Educating leadership to value design

Apple has done a great job educating us about the importance of user experience. Many people have heard about the “out-of-the-box” first-time experience opening a beautifully packaged Apple iPhone.

However, most leaders don’t understand how strategic decisions can completely derail these user-based experiences. That’s because a high percentage of executives don’t view these end-to-end experiences as important. Many leaders are incentivized by a product’s direct return instead of focusing on how much customers value the product.

For example, I once worked on a software product that integrated with retail hardware. We’d designed the end-to-end experience with the understanding that many retail owners aren’t tech wizards. We included everything in a single box to successfully run a store. Unfortunately, the executive tasked with retail store purchases chose the cheapest hardware they could find. The hardware sadly had endless faults and broke easily. Our dream of providing an intuitive software/hardware experience for the retail owner crumbled. One cost-cutting decision destroyed the end-to-end experience and completely undermined the value of the offering.

Stay tuned for next week’s Part II to this series.

Four ways to encourage leadership to value design

1. Move design further up the decision chain

Over the past decade, user experience has matured into its own discipline. The language, tools, and methodologies have evolved. Design used to be an afterthought. It was only when things went wrong that people started to think, “Oh! Hold on. How do we fix this?”

Unfortunately, many leaders waited until it was too late. They involved the user after the product had been built. That’s when the first foray into “people usability testing” occurred and the user experience movement gained momentum. Design professionals began influencing product development by affecting decisions further up the decision chain. User experience professionals started to visualize workflows and reflect people’s experiences interacting with a system before a line of code was even written.

These days, people recognize the importance of creating products that support great experiences. However, user experience professionals need to be present starting from the early stages of these discussions (and throughout the process) to help inform executives during their decision-making processes – not just consulted afterwards.

2. Create internal change and implement a Design Value Index

In my role at a prior company, I spent six years developing a highly competent user experience team with impressive organizational UX maturity. Our product development teams had embedded UXers, a documented, standardized process on how we designed applications, and a clear understanding about the rules of engagement. Sadly, within 18 months after my departure, the entire user experience team had disappeared. There was no longer a strong senior leadership voice during strategy discussions advocating the importance of user experiences. People disengaged. To this day, the company struggles to retain UX staff.

We need empowered design and UX leaders to continue reinforcing the importance of considering the customer and user every time a product or commercial decision is made. C-suites rarely include professionals with design or user experience skills. By not including this experience, we’re ignoring core skills required for creating great products and experiences – the cornerstone of most digital strategies.

Executives love data and dashboards. Tools like “The Design Value Index” (DVI) may quickly gain approval from C-suites. Jeneanne Rae, founder of the Virginia-based consultancy Motiv Strategies, attempted to highlight the value of user experience with DVI. According to this investment tool, companies who integrate design thinking into their corporate strategy can outpace industry peers by as much as 228%.

“The DVI shows that companies who embrace design understand their customers better than those that don’t. As a result, these companies grow more quickly, have higher margins and recover faster during economic downturns.”

3. The importance of tracking customer behavior

Product development teams must shift from solely delivering features that tick a series of checkboxes and meet milestones. Product teams should identify customer behaviors that drive desired outcomes and map these outcomes back to impact metrics, such as increasing revenue or shifting NPS scores. Once this framework is established, teams can track customer behavior to quickly ascertain if they’re on track to achieving key impact metrics – and if not, adjust accordingly. This framework approach appeals to dashboard-driven execs because we’re incorporating data into our work and removing uncertainty.

4. Creating design champions

At Aconex, we’re not just a product and user experience team. We engage with all different areas of the business, promoting the skills we bring to the company. Aconex encourages user experience and product people to support other teams by offering their skills to help solve problems. Extending our user experience tools and skills to help others is very powerful. This grassroots approach showcases the value of design and creates change from within. If we want people to accept a new way of thinking, we must drive the change.

Product and UX leaders can help their teams become design champions by empowering them to identify and solve problems. Establish a foundation of trust with your team. Let them know you’re in the trenches with them and that you have their back. As leaders, we don’t need to be the problem solver and savior all the time. Instead, nurture your team to become independent problem solvers who help others within the company . . . and cheer loudly when they do so!

Click here to listen to the complete interview.

Kirsten Mann

Kirsten Mann

VP Product & Experience at Aconex
Kirsten Mann is the VP Product & Experience for Aconex,the world's leading collaborative construction and engineering management software.
Kirsten Mann

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