To quote Thomas J. Watson Jr., “good design is good business.” The legendary CEO of IBM sums up the sea change that came about within the veteran technology company under his management. The design revolution that he brought about, which moved through all of the company’s assets — from its offices to its logo and products — has become the model for all technology giants that have come of age since then.
The company has come a long way since then, as has design culture, which has permeated deep into digital products and services. Bridget van Kralingen, Senior Vice President of IBM Global Markets, echoes Watson’s motto and describes the present-day state of affairs well, saying: “There’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience.”
Design is money
The field of user experience, or UX, deals with the relationship between the product and its potential users. It determines how to construct a product to best suit users. The “product” can be almost anything that includes a digital interface — from an app to order food, to a news website, to a metro card charging station. UX design promises that users will experience the product smoothly and enjoyably. The UX architect examines the needs of the clients (the businesses running the product) in the product’s early stages and works to address them while creating the best possible user experience.
The significance of creating the right design gets right to the heart of the matter — confronting questions such as visions, goals, target audience, etc. So even before the design is finalized, the process itself is of value to the company and can provide priceless insight.
On a fundamental level, design thinking is a shift from a model which puts the product at the center, to one that focuses on the user. Instead of creating a product from a series of informed assumptions and hoping that it succeeds, the company prioritizes in-depth cultural exploration of the users (their way of thinking, their desires, their behavior) and builds the product to best suit them.
This is also significant for business. Development that begins with studying the client can save a business from undertaking projects that are not necessary or are likely to fail down the road and also to save a great portion of the repairs and adjustments which will be discovered later on. According to estimates, for every dollar invested to solve a problem in the design thinking stage, ten dollars are spent in the development stage and about a hundred after the launch of the product.
An in-depth report by McKinsey research analysts from 2018 examined the design work of 300 public companies and gave each a grade on their “design strength”. These figures were compared to financial results and the conclusions were unequivocal.
The authors of the report found a strong connection between high design capabilities and improved business performance. The rate of revenue growth of the design-focused companies was 32% higher than that of the rest. Moreover, these results were consistent across different industries — from companies that provide services, to companies that create physical and digital products.
What does investment in design look like?
“Design thinking” is when companies put design at the center of their operations and adopt a unique form of working and thinking — one that takes design into account as a crucial part of product construction and its subsequent success. McKinsey’s analysts identified four major approaches to design that correlate with improved financial performance:
Analytics — more than a feeling
Measurement and evaluation of design and the decisions derived from them should be done with the same level of precision as other important company indexes such as revenue and costs.
Everyone’s interest — more than the design department
Design that puts the user experience at the center is a commitment that should be woven into everyone’s work and mindset — not just the designers.
Overall perception — more than a product
The user experience must be considered from multiple angles. As such it makes less sense to treat different departments — physical, digital, and service — as separate.
Ongoing process — more than ‘bam and we’re done’
Work on the product is never finished. There must be ongoing listening to examine and make changes in response to user feedback.
Real customers can be accessed quickly through multiple channels, primarily social media, and smart devices. All of these developments require placing the user at the heart of business decisions in a way that design leaders have wanted to do for years.
While many companies take up some of these principles, it is relatively rare to find companies that adopt them all — and these, by the way, are the companies that really stand out and see the greatest financial benefit. The authors of the report found that the return on investment within five years in these companies is 5% greater than in the other companies.
So how should one make a change? One of the recommendations from the report’s authors is to choose one product that is going to be launched and turn it into a pilot. Work on it with the four principles in mind and learn from the process. This way the new style of work can be practiced without requiring major “revolutions” and the results can be followed in a controlled manner to examine the extent to which the new product on the market is successful compared to previous products. If the results are good, the new work culture can be applied to the whole of the company’s activities.
An ever-growing number of companies today understand that design thinking produces value, and there are numbers to prove it. Whether you are in the planning stages of a company or are holding a finished product in your hands, introducing the design thinking approach to the equation as early as possible may prove to be a very rewarding step forward.
Amir Kfir is a UX design manager at Zoominfo, located in the Boston area, an engineer with extensive experience from a range of startup companies in the tech industry.
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