In the late 1990s, companies spent exorbitant amounts of money developing web sites. A happy ancillary effect was the maturation of “user experience design” as a practice—an opportunity to gain experience and rapidly develop effective methods. Since the dot.bust and collapse of NASDAQ, companies have adopted a thriftier approach, requiring measured accountability for every expenditure, including design.
Designers aren’t used to making fiscal arguments for their value. Isn’t it clear that a more useful/usable/desirable/pleasing product is of course a better product, which will sell more or be used more, thus earning more revenue? Unfortunately, this gut-level understanding isn’t necessarily shared by the world at large. Increasingly, designers are asking, “How do we communicate our value to the business world?”
That concern was the theme of the 5th Advance for Design Summit, a weekend retreat sponsored by the AIGA’s Experience Design community. Past summits focused on defining the discipline of experience design, and as such were exercises in necessary navel-gazing. It was heartening this year to see designers confident in shifting their gaze outward.
Participating in a breakout session on the value of design proved enlightening. The priority that emerged was to help designers speak in the language of business. Designers often speak in attributes: usable, desirable, memorable, understandable. Business folk tend to speak in terms of objectives: reduced costs, increased revenue, brand awareness, higher productivity.
Practicing designers often get caught in the trap of thinking that design is the solution. What they need to realize is that, to a businessperson, design is a solution. Looking at the objectives sought, such as “increased revenue,” it’s clear that there are many approaches to achieve that goal, and design is just one of them.
In our breakout session we began to develop a framework for considering how designers can translate attributes into objectives. Up until now, the primary recognized value of design is satisfying users — creating products that meet their needs, and suit their approaches. We get very focused on helping people accomplish their tasks quickly and accurately. The business logic here is that satisfied customers are repeat customers. Also, they prove to be less of a burden on the enterprise by reducing the need for things like customer service and training.
As we continued listing the value of our user experience design work, a more intriguing realization emerged — the bulk of our value comes from the efficiency that we can create in a company’s operations. User experience methods can lead to smarter product development processes, lowered maintenance costs, less internal documentation, maximized IT investments, and scalability. What’s particularly important is that the value of these operational efficiencies is far easier to quantify than the value of the external results design work can produce.
The next step in our work is to put this all in some cohesive framework. At a conceptual level, the framework could resemble a Mad Lib:
, we can
, by providing designs that are
reduced operational costs
, we can
reduce calls to customer service
by providing designs that are
usable and approachable
Admittedly, this is a simplification, but I hope a useful one. As a community of professionals, we would be well served to develop taxonomies of design attributes and the business value they can provide. We also need to develop tools for quantifying the various design attributes. How do you measure “usability,” “usefulness,” “desirability” in ways that relate to financial outcome?