Great design is big business, but many big businesses don’t fully understand designers. Here are three key insights which might help.

Great design is big business—massive, in fact. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook—four of the most valuable companies on the planet all share the same ethos of delivering superb user experiences. Apple’s iPhone, for example, captured the smartphone market through its unrelentingly great design and usability, and Google’s beautifully streamlined search engine UI played a major role in their success. The message has reverberated across the rest of the business world—if you want to stay competitive, you have to come to market with extremely well-designed products and services.

Businesses are now in a mad scramble to bolster their design offering, either by growing their existing design teams or by setting up new design studios in-house. IBM, for instance, now claims to be heading towards a 1000 strong design team. Management consultancies are getting in on the act too, with high-profile acquisitions such as Accenture’s acquisition of Fjord, or McKinsey’s acquisition of Lunar coming to mind as notable examples.

Designers have been rolling their eyes through much of this activity, though, because the message is old news to those who’ve been practicing design for long enough. Great designers have always played a pivotal role in developing the very best products and services, and the most successful companies know exactly how to get the most from these designers to achieve great design.

But for those companies uncertain how to grow their design offering in a meaningful way, I’ve compiled three key insights which will help businesses understand designers a little better: who they are, how they do things, and where they should be deployed for maximum effect.

1. Designers are User-Centered

First of all, to be entirely clear what I mean by designer, I’m referring to creative design professionals engaged in developing mass-market products and services. These include (but aren’t limited to): industrial designers, user experience designers, interaction designers, and brand/graphic designers.

Many disciplines are required to develop great products and services, including managers, technologists , engineers, researchers, analysts and designers, but what separates designers from these other disciplines is their area of focus on a project. For designers, it’s all about who they are designing for rather than what they are designing. Designers see the world in terms of people – everything a designer creates is consumed directly by someone else. While an engineer will concentrate on the functional mechanism or code “under the hood,” the designer will concentrate on the visible and tactile interaction elements of a product or service.

For instance, in my role as an industrial designer, I focus on the touch points of a product. I design every aspect of a product a person physically interacts with during its lifecycle, such as its surfaces, handle, buttons, doors, user interface, instructions and packaging. I am aware of the subtle emotional and cultural aspects at play within products. They reflect how people perceive themselves and how they would like to be perceived. Products also communicate the all-important brand in every millimeter on display, and are usually the only direct interface between businesses and their customers.

Although this is an industrial design example, there are many commonalities across all design professions. Designers share the singular intent to create things which generate true value for the end-user by being simple, elegant and a joy to use.

2. Designers have a process, but it’s driven by qualitative insight, not quantitative input

All designers work in a process, whether formally or informally, which starts with an empathy phase. In this phase, designers try to understand as much as possible about the end user—who they are and what motivates them—in order to create designs that actually benefit them, rather than be gimmicky or overly feature-driven. This understanding is elicited through research methods including video observation, interview, roleplay and simulation. It may also involve a whole bunch of quantitative data such as survey results or consumer feedback of competitive products, but what’s crucial to understand about designers is their preference for the more qualitative, casual insights gleaned directly from users.

Designers often make what seem at the time risky intuitive leaps in the minds of more scientifically-minded colleagues. In order to imagine something ground-breaking, this is precisely what’s needed. If a hundred focus group participants are able to articulate an unmet need in a product or service, that’s great, but it’s more important to unearth the latent needs users can’t articulate. This harks back to the quote commonly attributed to Henry Ford at the beginning of the 20th century – “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Designers believe it’s incumbent on them to observe or intuit the behaviors that lead to unearthing these needs, simply because they’re driven by an overriding principle to make things better. Creating derivative design is abhorrent to great designers, and fortunately for the growing number of businesses committed to coming to market with great design, this is an entirely virtuous mindset.

3. Designers need to be in control to create great design

The best way to ensure consistency of design vision and user-centered ambitions within a business is to employ designers at the board-level. This way, they can enforce that design vision when decisions get made that might negatively impact the user experience. The resurgence of the Chief Design Officer role in businesses such as Apple, Philips and PepsiCo has allowed designers to stand shoulder to shoulder with business leaders and assert their values from a position of strength.

As well as installing designers high up, it’s also essential to place them deep within development teams, fully engaged in projects from the front-end concept all the way through to the product being placed in the user’s hand. It’s surprising how often this doesn’t happen in product development and technology circles, though. The misconception still remains that designers need only get drafted in to projects at one or two key points of entry, to leave just as quickly to let the technical folk carry on the good work.

The first such point of entry is where designers are engaged early in projects, to create front end concepts of products and services before major constraints such as technical feasibility or market viability have been established. This is an essential part of what designers do to imagine the future, but if they disengage from the process at that point, the vision will eventually be watered down until it becomes dysfunctional. Designers have wrongly been labelled “stylists” because of this, especially when project teams are left to try to develop unrealistic marketing visions which have been sold high up within the business.

The second point of entry is where designers have been brought in in the later stages of a development to create a skin” around a fixed mechanism or software architecture. All of the functional constraints are already in place, and the designer is powerless to influence the pathway towards meeting end user needs. In this situation, designers are labelled stylists again, responsible only for creating a superficial veneer over a potentially unusable and undesirable product or service.

Both scenarios have major shortcomings if they are in isolation to the full development. The more designers have control of the process at all stages of development, the more likelihood of a user-centered, great design being the eventual output.

Conclusion

World-class products and services are the result of a balance between often conflicting criteria—technical feasibility, commercial viability, usability and desirability. Designers are very well placed to understand where the all-important trade-offs need to be made between these conflicting criteria to ensure great design. That is why it’s so important they’re installed deep within project teams and at a high enough strategic level to champion design-centered ambitions.

I’ve mentioned what businesses need to do to accommodate designers, but conversely, designers need to understand what they have to do to interact better with their business counterparts. For those who brave the boardroom, it’s important to appreciate the commercial pressures that exist in business. In terms of interacting with multi-disciplinary teams, it will become more and more important for designers to better communicate their intentions and formalize their processes. In the last decade, there has been much movement on this front, with Design Thinking and User-Centered Design processes setting the standard for laying out how designers think and how they practice.

Ultimately though, in spite of the need to formalize processes or to be fluent in business-speak, designers must continue to do what they do best. They must find ways to compartmentalize many of the pressures in business in order to concentrate on delivering beauty and simplicity to people’s lives.

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