I recently listened to a live interview event with a Design guru whose work I’ve followed for years, and whose books I’ve also purchased. While the interviewer was insufferable (there’s a skill to being a good interviewer), I was surprised by some of the nuggets and observations the Design Guru dropped throughout the conversation. I should point out beforehand that this is my interpretation of what that person said, and that professional may have had further intentions that weren’t completely transparent to me (or simply got lost in the context of the conversation). One comment that immediately made me take note, was when the person mentioned that during their career, there had been a shift/transition from a Design centric focus, to positions that have been either more Tech driven (this person worked as a CTO), or positions more closely centered around engineering (while remaining heavily focused on business as well). This professional mentioned, in so many words, that engineering is far easier to be quantified in terms of value measurement, particularly when compared with Design. Of course this sparked some reflections within me, particularly since 2006 I’ve been witnessing countless discussions in various environments about the value of Design, and why should Organizations care. And by the way, my mind also immediately went: “why is Design always consistently pitted against Engineering?”. Hopefully this article makes for a good reflection and conversation starter for Designers and their peers. As always I leverage my professional experiences to sustain what I’m about to focus on.
The Layers of Design (and demystifying what Design means). I’ve written in the past about what I consider controversial statements in Design, which you can go about reading here. Before going down the rabbit hole of rehashing some of those statements, let’s start with the one statement that invariably comes up when discussing Design, one which I imagine every single Designer has heard one way or another: “Design is about making things pretty” or “Design is about the look and feel of something” (they’re essentially the same statement). Now before I crack that code into tiny pieces, there is of course the Law of UX, named the Aesthetic-Usability Effect, which states that users perceive aesthetically pleasing products as more usable ones. And Dieter Rams’ design principles, list Aesthetics as one of them (out of 10). Ultimately while aesthetics is part of the overall equation, it’s not the sole influencing factor, far from it.
I’ve stated this in so many different ways in a variety of my prior articles, but here it goes: Design, if it is being accurately understood, practiced and accounted for, is about problem solving, solutioning, focused on delivering effective solutions for users/people who area trying to overcome all sorts of problems. The act of Designing something, of conceiving a solution, is all about understanding both the problem, and the user who has reported it. The solutioning process of course isn’t done in a vacuum, and that’s where the Design process and all its participants come into play. In the case of Product Design, that process typically should entail representatives of Product, Development, Design, Marketing, Customer Experience, Got to Market, since the story that is being told is influenced by all these different points of view, and the knowledge these professionals have of the lifecycle of a product experience and the clients that interact with that solution.
The statement that started this paragraph is one that I’ve heard in quite a few professional experiences I’ve had. In one of the startups I worked at, we were tackling the redesign of a e-commerce platform with a fairly robust number of users. One of the Engineering Leaders, shortly after I had started my tenure with that company, stated that the exercise was basically making it “pretty”. And at this point in time, professionals working in technology should know better, or at least attempt at knowing better. However I also think for Design professionals, it’s an opportunity to build bridges and create a better collaboration with other indispensable partners to the process. I made sure all the partners were present during the process, from the research through testing, including understanding feedback sessions and what was shaping the direction in which we were going. This promoted more transparency to the process, but also reinforced the fact that Design is far more than “beautification” of a product or feature. It also popped the second most used expression when it comes to Design: “Design is subjective, because it’s driven by someone’s taste” (this expression is just as in poor taste as the first one).
Now, going back to the beginning of this section and the article I mentioned on Controversial Statements in Design. I’ve read a few times some Design Professionals advocating (or is it celebrating?), that they make decisions based on “Instinct” or “Second Sense”. I’m not going to repeat what I stated in my article, but I will reiterate that those articles always perplex me, since it contributes to this notion that Designers are a quasi super-hero who magically solves problems simply by relying on “hunches”. If a Designer is indeed working as an effective professional, whatever decisions he or she makes are driven by a variety of factors and inputs. And that includes the influences of peers, of data collected about the users and the problem being solved, of testing, of contextual research, business requirements, essentially everything that allows for a decision to actually be made with a sense for its implications (particularly because everything has an impact in terms of business, which includes cost, client retention, brand perception, longevity of the engagement, and the list goes on). Can you possibly imagine answering a question from leaders or stakeholders on KPIs or why a decision was made with a statement such as: “my instinct told me it was a good idea”. Designers are not shamans, or wizards. They may well be closer to alchemists, but creating a mystique that Designers are somehow magically enlightened to make unquestionable decisions only perpetuates the stigma that Design is akin to Art, which is never the case. Designers may well be influenced by their experiences, by what they’ve learned from prior experiences, but once again, never situation is exactly the same, never context is exactly the same, and not all users are exactly the same.
Why does Design Value have to compete with Engineering Value. The Design Guru I alluded to at the beginning of the article, mentioned during the exchange with the interviewer, that Engineering is easier to quantify when it comes to the value delivered to an Organization. Again, this is not news for me when it comes to explaining the value of Design to any audience. These days when Designers try to explain the value of the Discipline or the value it brings to Organizations (and companies such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, amongst others, have various reports illustrating it), they typically bring up case studies such as Apple (hello iPhone), AirBNB (hello travel booking), and digging a bit deeper, for instance Duolingo (hello learning new language experience). These are typically examples which showcase how well designed solutions have a way of creating stickiness and engagement with clients, increasing footprint and of course, revenue.
With Engineering in particular, and going back to what the Guru alluded to, this group clearly manages to build and solve problems therefore rapidly establishing their value for an Organization (well, depending on their quality, but that’s a common thread to any group). Here’s an example to think about when it comes to the power of Engineering. When Henry Ford created the Ford Model T, he essentially was solving a problem of transportation, of making sure people could go from point A to point B without issues. Engineering solved that problem expertly, and the brand flourished as a result (of course many other factors were part of this outcome, and you can read about that here). However, the Model T wasn’t just a few wooden boxes with a steering wheel, four tires and an engine. It actually had seats, it had covers, it had a series of elements that contributed to the experience of getting people from point A to point B, doing so in a sustainable, pleasurable and heaven forbid, desirable way. Which means, the solutioning process did have to take Design into consideration, and tackle a series of other factors (such as, what do people want and how will they relate with this device). Oh and by the way, if it were not for Design playing a role that is as valuable and quantifiable, I’d imagine we’d still be driving a version of the Model T to this day, save for materials and engine updates, since it essentially all vehicles just take us from point A to point B. What I’m trying to say is that firstly, Design is just as pertinent and relevant as any discipline involved in the solutioning process. And secondly, the disciplines involved in the Design Process aren’t competing with each other. They all compliment each other, and they all collaborate to make sure the solution being delivered, the story being told to the user, is sensical and actually solves the problem that they actually have.
How do you quantify the value of Design? By establishing KPIs that indicate adoption, volume of sales, volume of downloads, number of install, and the list goes on. Design is just as embedded in the output of what clients consume as much as engineering, or marketing, or go to market campaigns. Some professionals will immediately say: there’s product experiences that don’t require an interface therefore Design shouldn’t be accounted for. Again and for the people in the back: Design is not synonymous with an Interface, nor does it depend on an Interface. Design is about solutioning, solving problems for users. And that can take the shape of reshaping flows, reshaping products, features, finding ways to address what people actually want, as opposed to forcing them into processes they have to somehow “figure it out” on their own. Another example: for those who typically say “Smartphones aren’t needed, people only want to do phone calls, the need for smartphones was artificially created”, there’s research done on the topic from Pew Research Center. This is an example where the evolution of a solution (the telephone) was the result of understanding users’ behaviors, needs and trends, and acting upon those to bring innovation but ultimately solving their problems.
Understanding Value. Value has always been about the equation between what the client is willing to pay for and what it actually costs to get it to him/her. And now more than ever, at a time where everything is commodified, it should become that much more visible and understandable that solutions that actually resonate with users/consumers are the ones where the marriage of the value brought on by Design, Engineering, Customer Experience, and all the aforementioned disciplines, is positioned in a way that perpetuates a constant engagement and desirability from the same user/consumer. Situations and solutions where one aspect is particularly emphasized in detriment of another, it eventually distorts the experience for the user, and this typically results in experiences that have to be revisited. The solutioning journey, the value journey is a shared one, not one where it’s one group/discipline versus another.
In all my professional experiences, I’ve come to realize that the effective marriage of all partners on the Product Design journey is not as simple as it may seem. There’s at times issues pertaining to timing, resources, funding, even knowledge of what is needed to be done, but I’ve also realized that the ones that typically have been the most successful endeavors, are the ones where everyone comes together as peers and partners, looking to impact change, as opposed to having a mentality based on cornering others into roles of subservience or even undermining others for their value. Hopefully these partnerships will become more prevailing as everyone’s value becomes more transparent, and as maturity in Solutioning processes also becomes more prevailing.
I’ll finish this article with a quote from Henry Ford on the topic of partnership:
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success”.