Pixel pushers — this is how decision makers often perceive designers, people who make things pretty and don’t understand the business needs. However, a recent study by McKinsey counters this stereotype and found that companies with strong design outperform their competitors. How can designers demonstrate the business value of design and influence decision makers to allocate resources at all steps of the product cycle? I interviewed the experts, and in this post I will share five strategies from design leaders who have successfully elevated the perception of design at their companies.
1. Treat your colleagues as your customers.
Proactively demonstrate how design can help your colleagues, regardless of seniority or function. Regularly ask your leaders and cross-functional partners about the problems they are facing and brainstorm ideas and solutions together. Jared Erondu, Head of Design at Lattice, encourages designers to seek out these ideas and to “be agnostic about who an idea comes from, whether it is from sales or customer success, everyone has an idea about how business could be better. […] Treat coworkers as customers, really ask follow-up questions to find the abstract, core idea.” Then you can use your design skills to bring the idea to life and visualize a solution.
2. Co-own ideas and collaborate to bring them to fruition.
The iterative process of brainstorming ideas and collaboration converts your colleagues into idea co-owners and stakeholders. According to Jared, They will become “your number one cheerleaders” when you present ideas, you want to show up with an army. Remember that you don’t have to come up with all the ideas yourself — including others leads to better ideas. Eric Eriksson, Design Director at Hodinkee, used to think he was expected to have all of the good ideas as the designer, but “so many times the best ideas have come from the engineers [he] worked with — you are missing out on that if you are a lone-wolf designer.” When your colleagues are co-owners, they will have a stake in the process and will advocate for design resources because it benefits them.
3. Speak the language of your stakeholder.
To truly understand your stakeholder’s vision and goals, you need to speak their language. Ask them how their performance is being measured and what success looks like to them. Product Leader at Twitch, Sharmeen Browarek Chapp, shares her perspective as a stakeholder: “Ultimately it comes down to this: understand the stakeholder and what they are trying to deliver . Every stakeholder has a job. As a product team, you get too focused on the “right now” what product, what feature. And we need designs — we can never get them fast enough. The more you understand the business and how your team fits into the big picture of the company strategy, the easier it is to win battles because you can present design updates at the right time.” Communication is of utmost importance, and Aaron Brown, Product Designer at Yelp, reminds us that designers should not think siloed. We need to realize how much of our job is “communicating with stakeholders and helping stakeholders do their own job better.” Once you have identified stakeholder goals, break down your asks and ideas into manageable pieces to align with their goals and values.
4. Sell your design through storytelling.
Good designers know how to sell their design. Szu Yu Huang, UX Designer at Google, advises designers that, “Even if you have a great idea, like the best design flow or interaction, you need to be able to explain and show the value of design based on research or the stakeholder’s point of view.” To do this, you can frame your ideas with solutions and their hypothesized impact. Zack Hendlin, Head of Product at OneSignal, reminds us that “the value of design is not someone liking the design. It’s the tangible outcome that everyone can see — whether through usability studies, A/B tests, or how easy it is for a user to take an action.” A great example he shared is: “We are shipping this feature because it’s going to increase the number of paid subscribers” or “Users will love this feature, and the way we will know that is based on the number of clicks or time spent using it.” Framing the impact of design sells the benefits to your stakeholders and forms a basis to later evaluate the performance of your design.
5. Quantify, quantify, quantify!
Quantify the value of your design with analytics. Measure the impact of your design with metrics to build credibility and share the results! Communicate weekly or monthly via email to highlight the metrics, customer feedback, and nuggets from user research. Arun Venkatesen, Co-Founder of Carrot Fertility, believes that designers can to do more to communicate their value: “Engineers can connect the work they do to business value through measuring changes to metrics such as revenue, engagement and operational costs. Similarly, designers should write about and talk about how their work has an effect on the business.” Another communication avenue is having designers speak at all-hands meetings to promote impactful findings. Quantifying and promoting the impact of design reinforces its importance.
As designers, our many voices become a formidable force to elevate the value of design. You can do so by treating your colleagues as your customers, co-owning ideas, speaking the language of your stakeholder, storytelling, and quantifying the value of your design. Design is not an afterthought, and neither is elevating its perception.