Insight into how the domain and responsibility of has changed — a thing both and designers have to catch up with missing out an opportunity on impact

For years, design has been making its way into being a new hot organizational capability. Business have responded to this need by consulting agencies snapping up design agencies (Accenture acquiring Fjord in 2013, Capital One buying Adaptive Path in 2014, McKinsey buying Lunar in 2015) or establishing design thinking departments within. Smaller businesses have hired knowledge, established partnerships with agencies with talent or educated somebody on the inside. The educational market responded by launching non-academic courses (eg: Stanford’s D School’s Design Thinking Bootcamp), new private courses have been offering quick intros to the its and bits of design (Hyper Island, Design Thinking Academy, New York Code & Design Academy).

In daily practice, companies still seem to be in trouble identifying what design is, how it can be useful for them and where can it have the most impact in their business. This phenomena has its counterpart within the design circles: having been advocates of user empathy, designers have been struggling to empathize with business. Now, that design is aspiring to directly influence strategy closing this gap is more important to than ever — presenting an opportunity for both sides to rethink this relationship. So, why does it seem so and what can we do to fix it?

State of the Art of Digital

There is no question about that the future is digital and our life now seriously relies on the product-services we use. Going digital, or being a paperless business has been a directive for companies for years and slowly, but surely the official administrative channels are also catching up to it.

What is there not to like? It is for most cases quicker, faster and cleaner, easier to store and keep a searchable database, analyze data (for the good and for the bad of it), customize experience, quicken the interaction between customer and provider and for most cases: speed up the process of any transaction, hence boost the business.

As a result, digital interfaces have gone through quite a transformation: while initially the digital space (initially websites) was a place for marketing and brand communication, as services migrate towards the digital, they are turned into the place for where the services are provided. Interfaces originally serving as billboards now serve as a combination of a customer service, a cashier, a casino desk, a bank counter, a shop shelf, a doctor’s office, a travel agency desk — all turned into one.

These new digital spaces must provide the customer with the same value they originally provided at their analog functions, in fact they must be better. Although it may take time for some people to catch up with the digital age, customers quickly learn to review these digital legs of services as an equivalent interface to get their business done and if it does not satisfy their expectations, they are quick to move on. It is much easier to find and engage with competitors here than it used to be in the physical realm: to open a new tab in your browser and search for other similar business takes significantly less time and effort than having to walk out of a shop, trying to get information on alternatives, then riding the public transportation / in your car to the next one. Staying out of the game is not an alternative either, most businesses without digital representation will not fly.

The transformation of these interfaces and interactions, in other words the user experience of the digital space is becoming the core part of the service and not just used as marketing or communication tools — an idea not yet fully caught up in business circles.

The (customer experience) quality of these services therefore single handedly determine the success of a business. A 2016 SAP and CMO Council study shows that 90% of retail customers will leave after a single bad experience, 47% of customers will switch to a competitor within a day of a suffering poor service and 24% of users will ultimately abandon a mobile app after just one use.

If it’s business — what are we designing?

The transformation in functionality means a change in what kind of skillset, and consequently what kind of team is needed to create and to run these services.

Original website design — as a marketing tool — was focused on allowing the brand to shine through. As a communication task, designers were required to have a good of what the company wanted to tell about themselves and create a good visual representation of that message. Someone from communication or marketing was enough to consult with the design team — the agency-client collaboration model worked well here. The agency translated the marketing strategy into an interface or helped figure it out together. If the output was digital, it needed a clear structure (IA), good navigability (UX) and a well understood and consistent visual language (UI).

Now, as an actual end-service, digital touchpoint design (as digital is not just websites, but mobile screens and beyond) the complexity of today’s digital services is on another level. It is shoulder-to-shoulder with product design, customer service management, logistics and process design, customer psychology, business model and management.

When services are to be provided in the digital space, designing their final interface is only the last step. The foundation of the work is to gain understanding of the business model of the product-service, the user groups targeted, the context in which they will most likely be using it, the hierarchy of the planned service, the ecosystem it will be placed in. Only when these aspects are clear to the design team can the they do their job (research, analyse, synthesise, design, prototype, test and refine) and eventually create a structure and a visual language.

This type of work cannot rely on the agency model any more: Designers must work together with business decision makers to create long-lasting, quality product-services, therefor involving business into the process is crucial.

Designers alone will not create the product — they are there to help guide the process, to regulate creativity driven thinking, to maximize its potential, to limit the ways it can be abused or misused, to help shape the final form of interactions, interfaces, experiences — but ultimately it has to be a co-creation with business owners.

This creates a change in both the methodology and the timeline of the collaboration. In order to allow designers to study and tweak a business’ existing internal processes and propose change a framework of mutual trust and respect has to be established. That is the key to successful innovation but to get there both sides must re-examine some of their approach and how they are willing to proceed.

Design is the way forward — proceed with caution

A confusion in understanding what design can do and who can be a designer effects on design’s impact in business and business’ potential for success. To overcome this both the design profession and business circles must pass this moment of self-reflection.

While originally designers and design teams entered the product life process relatively late in the game, the new type of product-service creation brings the design activity much closer to the early, “fuzzy” beginning of a product design where business strategy is defined.

Design thinking has been buzz across the industry to apply on these stages. A practice of applying design methodology in approaching business problems, it is encouraging and guiding business thinkers to include both divergent and convergent thinking in their process combined with the power of research and prototyping. It is a pioneer motion for design to find its way in the door to work with business, but without actual experience in design doing (making things), design thinking will more likely result in fancy post-it walls and an empty shell of an idea than the improvement companies are looking for. For creating real change and long term success businesses have to pay attention to work with design professionals of the right experience and skillset.


Design is the way forward. It is making its way to strategy which is great for both for business and for design. Businesses will increase their success, reach and lifespan while designers will have better access to more diversity of interesting problems. A few takeaways for both parties keep an eye out for and move the world a bit closer to slowly understand what the real potential of design is.

Design needs to focus and form a stand on

  • Re-examine the set of skills for each part of the design process
  • Finding a consensus on how much of the design knowledge is safe to liquidate (looking at you #DesignThinking) without making the professions real contribution to business a bagatelle;
  • What approach to take to educate next generations in skills, and required experience;
  • Making sure the next big keyword is business-empathy following the advocacy of customer(user)-empathy. It was the desginers’ mission to represent users (customers) often against business owners’, but it is time for designers to let their empathy skills shine towards their clients and understand their perspective and be the glue to help them combine business needs with customer interests.

Business to successfully work with / incorporate design methodology into their processes needs focus on:

  • Design thinking is nothing without experience in making / doing design. Designers do not grow out of nowhere in a short time — to think otherwise will lead to false-positive results of trying to work with this knowledge-set.
  • When selecting a team look for skillsets, not titles. Digital product design can use all kind of design skills and deals with complexity, but make sure to get the right selection of skillsets with a good level experience on each.
  • Learn to identify where in the product-design & development process a project is
  • What is the design maturity of your organisation? (How much design processes are embedded into the organisations routines)

For the collaboration between business(client) and design:

  • New channels, methods and interfaces must be established for continuous / periodic co-creation.

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