I believe one of the hardest issues as a “designer” is proving that what you do has tangible value to a business. That the time and extra expense of designing a product or user-experience returns financially.
Smart companies & consumers recognize this. Simple quality over cost result: as a business you want long-term results, as a consumer you want an experience or product that works beautifully. However in a cost-conscious, business driven mindset, it’s difficult to ascertain the short-term goals of design sometimes. Especially in the era of software start-ups & tight timelines. This recent article in HBR has got me thinking time and time again about the value of design inside of business:
From Target to Uber, business managers everywhere are starting to understand that the strategic use of design is making a difference in achieving outsized business results.
Consumers recognize and respect companies that put design and design thinking into what they produce. Marketing is skin deep – the actual user experience needs to be supported from the beginning in fundamentally “designed” way.
And that starts with having the design competency represented at the highest level of your company – along side engineering and other operations. The article points out that of the 100 companies indexed, only Apple has Design reporting directly to the CEO. I’m fortunate at SPARC that they see & promote the value of design within our company.
So why I’ve re-read this article 3+ times now:
- As a designer, I appreciate that it validates my profession, and the passion with which we approach problem-solving to insure a better user experience.
- As an investor, I already own stock in several of the design-centric companies they focus on. In the age of “socially responsible” mutual funds, why isn’t there a “designers” mutual fund focusing on companies that put design first?
Companies that get it, that make design part of their business philosophy not only gain consumer confidence, but also higher returns. 228% higher returns according to this HBR article:
How can this type of commitment to design contribute to results? In Interbrand’s 2013 list of the World’s most valuable brands, Nike ranks 24th, two slots up from the prior year and a 13% increase in value to $17.085 billion. Next to Apple, Nike had the highest shareholder returns in our index — from 2003- 2013 Nike’s market cap increased from under $6 billion to $70 billion, or 1,095% over the last ten years. Further, Nike was ranked the #7 most innovative company by Fast Company in 2014, and the 13th most admired company by Forbes magazine.
The bottom line is that companies that use design strategically grow faster and have higher margins than their competitors. High growth rates and margins make these companies very attractive to shareholders, increasing competition for ownership. This ultimately pushes their stock prices higher than their industry peers. The returns in our Design Value Index were 2.28 times the size of the S&P’s returns over the last 10 years. Neither hedge fund managers, nor venture capitalists, nor mutual fund managers came anywhere close to these results.
Sorry for the repost, but this is a subject that is fascinating to me. And the HBR article is the first I’ve seen that provides tangible numbers around the financial results of good design. Someday soon I hope to be posting more about what “Design Index” fund looks like, and how I can bring it from idea into a reality I can invest in.
This isn’t the first time I’ve thought a lot about what an Agile Design process looks like. We practice it every day at SPARC without any formal definition. As our design team has grown in the past 3 years, we’ve let go of some traditional design practices in favor of ones that more closely match the work we’re doing. Our projects range from UX for software to marketing websites. Each project is slightly different, based on the team and the overall goal. When we call it a process, we’re really just looking at the common practices that make any type of project successful inside our environment.
Using keynote as an organizer for your thoughts during the design process:
- Create an outline or screen inventory towards the story I’d like to tell.
- As I’m working through the wireframes, I’ll record my thoughts as bullets into the keynote
- Formatting your thoughts – keep it simple, go high level then break out specific UI elements.
- Most importantly – always be ready to present your ideas, at any stage in the process.
Formalizing designs in a presentation has it’s advantages:
- Keeps you focused
- Keeps the audience focused
- Is portable – can be emailed later w/out lengthy explanation
- Is progressive – once begun, you can simply layer increasing information on top of the first presentation.
- Is repeatable – once done, you can leverage the same presentation style for other projects.
Pro-tip: I work almost exclusively in Adobe Illustrator when wire-framing. It works great for layering increasing detail/resolution on the design from functional wireframes to final designs. Since the most recent Keynote software update, Keynote has issues copying vector designs from Illustrator directly to the page. Before you copy an element from Adobe Illustrator, outline the text (Command + Shift + “O”) in Adobe Illustrator, then copy to Keynote. It adds a step in the process, but is quicker than going between Illustrator > Photoshop, and the Keynote/PDF you result with is high quality with a smaller file size. Small file size is key if you’re uploading multiple version to Basecamp or sharing in email.
Sitting in a kick-off meeting, little tedious, sometimes steals your energy. Simultaneously reading email, IMing, listening to the client, giving feedback. Occasionally thinking how lucky I am to be in this room, in this conversation, & what/who we’re designing the software we’re creating.
Don Draper now builds software for a living.
Clicking through the email subscriptions and discovering a conversation about why they’re doing software vs. advertising. nice. These are the small points of validation when you think your life/career works more like a series of winding rivers, and less like a decision.
There are some great gems in this article about WHY software needs design. & how people with creative backgrounds can influence in a positive (designed) way that people interact with software. Smaller software tailored to the user, not enterprise. Making it technically “work” is no longer the need, making it usable is now the hard part.
“…Charles Phillips, puts it: “using enterprise software sucks.” It’s ugly. Cumbersome. Difficult to use. And impossible to love. “When engineers started to build these incredibly complex systems in the early ’90s, their biggest concern was: how are we going to make it work?” …. Now that business technology can deliver those basic user needs, it’s time to ask: How can we make business software work beautifully?”
Great food for thought for those of us who get up in the morning sometimes not knowing what the day brings, but feel purpose & drive towards a longer goal. Making things work beautify is the same in User Experience as it was in Advertising. When it works, you know it.
This past Thursday I was fortunate to hear Bill Taylor of Fast Company speak at the Charleston Chamber of Commerce annual event. There were a lot of components to his talk that sounded like the culture we’ve created Sparc. The phrase that caught my attention was the “Architecture of Participation“. There have been many times that I’ve thought of gathering the right people in a room as being an “architect” of people. My friend Taylor seems to be an expert at that. Or when my developer buddy Josh “architects” a solution by knowing what technologies play well together & essentially get shit done. This type of “architect” means as a leader, you facilitate problem solving by leveraging your team for the solution. That’s why we have a team, right? I think we were already doing this well, but sometimes having a word for it helps bring these quiet practices to light; formalizes them.
What interests me in the Architecture of Participation is how it calls out a leadership style I’m very comfortable. Traditional leadership has relied on the leader to identify & solve a problem on his own, then project the solution onto the people below them. The concept of leadership through participation means that rather than working in a vacuum, I can leverage the smart people around me. In the end, they’re typically the ones implementing the solution – this helps them “own it” as well. The Architecture of Participation simply means I facilitate the conversation & then let people be good at what they are already good at. Coming from a creative background, we (my team) is already skilled at working as a team – nothing new here. Learning & creative process intentionally leverages diverse skillsets, so why not problem solving on a leadership level?
I moved forward w/ a plan this past week to create “advocates” within our design team. Motivated individuals who can help lead the team in one aspect of design. This scales me, and offers the opportunity for these smart people to own a focused element that we need as a team. The advocates focus on aspects such as design quality, user experience or front-end development. Things our team need, but I can’t always facilitate the conversation 100% of the time on.
It’s a great thing to work with talented people. By creating an Architecture of Participation, we enable more creative solution & allow the smart people we work with to scale the team as a whole.
One recurring theme as I watch the way our team works: the fine balance of design philosophy (why) vs. Get-Shit-Done attitude (how):
Are we just copying what we see? As designers, are we more often emulating what we see around us rather than “designing” or creating something new. Is it the job of the Artist to be “original” and the designer to emulate? or does the designer constantly look for opportunity and create smaller shifts as they observe. If an artist is large jumps, is “design” a series of smaller responses and shifts over time? Would a client understand something they’d never seen before… something without visual roots or a comparison… “Microsoft is using flat design, so can we”? or to truly change the landscape, it it a series of small moves, tied to a known history that allows designers to be original… And do we really understand what we’re doing?
In some ways this conversation is half in my head, and fragmented between many good conversations on our team. A little bigger than the response to skeuomorphism in the current design trend in flat design. The internet makes it too easy to borrow when convenient and trendy. Guess it’s a good thing I like most things (except the color-blind colors :/ ) about the current design trends. No one trend or concept stands alone without perspective.
One thought that brought me back to this subject this morning while reading an article by John Maeda:
Ultimately, good design will be born from consideration of multiple perspectives. It should be something we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
How do you create “successful” software ?
The first ingredient is having a vision. Something you’re passionate about. And how that vision is vetted, digested and eventually executed on. Digesting that idea into its essence and creating a minimum-viable-project plan that can be developed.
The second ingredient having the right team: a great client, project management & requirements, a group of dedicated developers and designers aligned to the seeing this vision succeed. Executing on this plan through Agile software development & launching the beta software.
Sparc has done dozens of projects internally & with commercial partners. We know how to design & develop software. But does that make it successful?
The Success Phase.
We understand the “Idea” phase & we understand the “Build” phase very well. What we’re quickly learning more about is the “Success” phase.
This is the phase that happens after a software launch and has begun to receiving feedback from the marketplace. We came to realize quickly that if we don’t support our clients in being successful, no matter how good the idea or software is, the effort fails. When a client talks about his experience with SPARC, we want him to recollect a team looking to make him successful, not just robots who build software then blindly move on to the next project.
Part of the phase relies on our ability to help the client market their product. Our clients vary greatly in organizational size from established companies to start-ups. Some organizations have a degree of experience or people in marketing roles, but they all have the same post release challenges. We’ve invested heavily into understanding this process ourselves with our own products, so it makes sense to do the same with our clients. The design & marketing efforts we need internally is the same needs of our clients.
No one on our design team is a single role player. Every designer has strengths in building websites, collateral & advertising. Following the release of software, that same cross functional team of requirements, marketing & designers can continue to support the client’s marketing efforts. And it’s that alignment between our team and the client that help make the software successful.
I think part of being a good designer is to constantly look back and analyze your habits: where or from whom they came from. Think back to the art director who taught me to do one more iteration. Or when I learned to create one more design that makes you uncomfortable. Most often I trace many things I do well back to my first year of architecture studio and the design habits that I carried forward from there.
Always be ready to present.
One of the habit instilled early on was to always be ready to present. period. A teacher will walk by your desk after you’ve been up all night, and in a casual manner, ask you what you’re working on. easy right? Not always. Sometimes it hardest to explain what’s seems to work in your head, much less have the “work” in a state where you can show it to others. There is always a very messy series of iterations before the final design starts to emerge. Failures are great to learn from, even if you suddenly need to present your failures to others.
These days, our design team works in an Agile software development environment. It’s loud and chaotic. And priorities shift daily, sometimes hourly. Staying focused is hard. Being able to switch gears and talk about a design to co-workers or a client is essential. Sometimes it’s a keynote presentation, or PDF post to basecamp. More often then not it’s walking a client or developers through a raw illustrator artboard. The process & the failures & where the final work is starting to emerge. I’ve been able to observe in our junior designers: it’s these agile, micro presentations that get you comfortable talking about your ideas in any audience.
Encourage feedback through presenting.
Showing your work should always have a goal – some question you’re looking to have answered a little more complex than “do you like it”. A goal to present “something” by close of business with the client/team helps keep you accountable. We use basecamp a lot for this. It keeps the process of presenting work informal & conversational. It also gets the designer out of their heads-down mode and forces communication. Most often designers would be happier without feedback. The simple act of posting a design is huge for both parties: For the client, it adds transparency and let’s them participate in the design process. For the designer, if gives them pause to collect their thoughts; A chance to articulate thoughts & “finish” something, if only for the day.
In the end, it doesn’t matter the state of the project, the size of the audience or how you deliver your thoughts. As you design, you should always be ready to present.
Quick thought that should be incorporated into a bigger post someday. I came to “design” through an education in Architecture. Little unconventional, but there were several messages that were imprinted early on, and I still come back today.
3 rules for solving problems.
Something that stuck in my mind like glue from my first year of study was our professor Jay Stoeckel’s mantra: when you get stuck on a problem, change one of the variables. By changing either media, scale, or concern, you can often solve the problem that’s stopped you.
Change Media – getting away from the computer for the sketchbook? or charcoal instead of pen. Shaking it up a little will often open the problem up.
Change Scale – Get perspective on the problem, zoom out. or zoom in: is there a small detail in the design that starts to solve other parts of the whole?
Change Concern – this is probably the one I use most often: what is the concern of the problem resented to you? what does it seek to solve? And when you change that intent, or question it, or find a new goal, how does that shift your thinking. In software, we often have multiple user personas; look at it to a different persona’s concern.
This last year at SPARC has been a pretty trans-formative experience for me. As someone who is use to designing everything, to a role now where I lead others and offer guidance towards how the design should work. It hasn’t been an easy transition – learning to delegate and learning how to improve communication to other designers. Not a new experience, but much more of it that I’d previously had. The other challenge is “what am I creating”. The emphasis on “I”; good designers have to be a little selfish and a little passionate. It’s in our nature and to ignore it is to just be submissive. So now I have 4 other designers who look for me on guidance from priorities to major UI decisions. It’s rewarding in ways that designing isn’t and the learning process is really rewarding. The struggle becomes, what am I creating? What did I do yesterday? Well, many things, but very little I can point at and say “I” did this.
So, yesterday’s article on techcrunch.com was awesome publicity for SPARC and our product(s). It was fun to send out to Mom and tell my friends about. But it also left me introspective about the selflessness of good design and truly what my role in the collaboration means. http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/11/va-goes-green-with-sparc520/