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Influencing Business Strategy Through Design

by UX Magazine Staff, Luke Wroblewski
12 min read
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The problem-solving approach designers use can be very helpful in strategic discussions.

Due in part to Luke Wroblewski’s work, the great divide between the business side and the design side of organizations is shrinking. What started out as an internal training course for a group of Yahoo! designers has since touched hundreds of designers seeking to break free of design pigeonholes, striving to make a greater impact on business strategies within organizations and in agencies.

Wroblewski, head of a team of interaction designers, visual designers and engineers who collaborate on new products and make experiences consistent across Yahoo! properties, believes designers have valuable—but largely untapped—abilities that can be put to good use in the boardroom as well as in the studio. He believes that designers just need to learn how to apply their unique problem-solving and visual communication skills to better participate at a strategic level.

In this interview, Luke talks about how designers can leverage their unique talents to influence product strategies, how they can use data to communicate abstract concepts, and why they should take a more proactive stance to help organizations and clients reach strategic goals. Luke also shares a case in point about how an eBay design team initiative made a huge organizational impact.

UXMag: For the past several years, you’ve been passionate in teaching and writing about the influence design can have on business strategy. Can you tell us what your latest thinking is about that topic?
Wroblewski: When my partner Tom Chi, the senior director of search at Yahoo!, and I started teaching about this topic, a lot of other training focused on helping designers learn the language of business to essentially “sell” what they do. We took a different approach.
Rather than try to teach designers the explicit language of business, we give them a core level overview of what happens on the business side so they can understand the context people are coming from. We then focus on organizational dynamics and talk about how designers can play an important role in affecting where a company is heading.
The problem-solving approach that designers use can be a very valuable addition to strategic discussions. Those skill sets are often absent from the boardroom. Instead of trying to compete at a business level, we know that designers bring a different perspective to the table. They have the ability to extend and complement conversations, and communicate visually in ways that business stakeholders often cannot.
We talk about access to data and how designers can really do data-driven design. They can visually represent metrics, illuminate relationships, considerations, decisions and implications at a strategic level—and tell stories at a glance at an executive level. Telling the right story means using the tenets of design and the conciseness we strive for, and the clarity we seek in interfaces—to wrapping data into presentations about where products should go, why and how products are interrelated, and what the situation is in the business.
UXMag: That makes great sense from a design perspective, but what can we say to the business side of the table? How can non-designers be shown the ROI for leveraging good design?
Wroblewski: That conversation is a losing battle from my perspective. I’ve seen many design teams pull together a road show and run out to champion design. Hey, aren’t we great? Look! We make wireframes and we do process diagrams. Include us because our deliverables are important!
As Tom likes to say, it’s the equivalent of the finance department spouting about how they do balance sheets and depreciation worksheets. Therefore, they should be included in strategic conversations.
First, people aren’t really interested in what we do; they’re interested in the results that we deliver. Second, running around and selling things is not as effective as actually applying your design skills to problems that matter. In many ways, business people look at things and size up the problems. They may avoid complex variables—the who, what, where—simply because they are complicated factors.
UXMag: Can you give us some examples of how designers might apply their skill to business-side problems?
Wroblewski: Interactive designers spend a lot time documenting design patterns, looking for commonalities and recognizing commonalities when they create solutions. They have naturally built-up pattern recognition skills. It follows that someone working in the design space can apply that pattern recognition skill to the types of data sources that businesses are looking at—analytics, business metrics, consumer insights, consumer feedback channels, technical opportunities and so forth. You can start to detect and rationalize patterns, and all of a sudden you’re painting a much clearer picture of business information. Designers can transfer their specialized skills from interaction design to the business domain.
Another example would be for visual designers to apply their knowledge of hierarchy and prioritization of information to creating artifacts that clearly communicate business concepts like market landscapes, competitive marketplaces, growth timelines, alignment issues, and product interdependencies. Visualization skills are immensely valuable in the boardroom and to product teams because they help people see the big picture, gain consensus, and make decisions. It’s basically the same process that designers follow when they do consumer Web products, printed products or industrial design. You’re just applying existing skills to a different medium that has strategic impact—like market factors, technology opportunities, how the distribution channel aligns to sales strategy, and how all these factors might be related.
Tom Chi says that the human brain has a huge capacity to parse visual information. Nearly 100 percent of people understand information visually, but very, very few can actually communicate visually. So people with skills to communicate visually suddenly become very valuable to all those people that can understand information visually but can’t necessarily form their output in that way.
UXMag: You’ve had students in your classes from major companies—Google, Hewlett Packard, and Intuit, to name a few. What do your students see as their biggest challenges?
Wroblewski: We always ask people what the factors are that limit them from moving forward. Their answers boil down to four top-level areas:

  1. Organizational imbalance, which basically means that business units make decisions, not design teams. Short-term gains are always prioritized over long-term gains or design teams are not involved in the right kind of projects.
  2. Another common comment is that there is a lack of shared understanding. People don’t understand the value of design. People think design doesn’t have broad enough responsibilities—that designers don’t have enough insight into the reasons why decisions are made.
  3. The third bucket that comes up is resources. Not enough time, too few people, shortage of senior contributors, insufficient data.
  4. And the fourth one is market dynamics. This one’s actually interesting because sometimes we hear people say, “Oh well, we’re number one in our market,” so people don’t listen to designers because we’re just doing great and we don’t have any problems and all decisions are right. We also hear about companies that are last in a particular category, so people just want to copy the leader. Designers don’t really get any input about anything that’s going on, which is funny because the complaint is the same whether you’re number one or you’re number zero.
UXMag: How do designers go about implementing your teachings?
Wroblewski: People expect Steve Jobs—a knight in shining armor—will bless you and say, “Yes, design is important. You will sit at this round table and people will listen to you.” I don’t think that happens. I think instead what you need to do become—and this is a phrase we took from Fred Kofman’s teachings on conscious business—you need to become response-able to factors in the organization so that you can begin to build up credibility and the wherewithal to actually make yourself part of strategic conversations.
To be response-able means at any point in time you can say okay, this is what happened. Now, how am I going to respond? You may choose not to respond at all, but you may choose to take action. It’s easy to make excuses why design doesn’t have influence. For instance, you can rationalize that in a typical product development cycle, design is only responsible for maybe one fourth of the equation, along with the engineering team, the marketing team, and the product team. So, it’s very simple to say that three-quarters of this isn’t my problem. Maybe the engineering team didn’t build things to spec, or the product team decided to put a giant ad on the page.
My first question about that is: When the engineering team didn’t build it to spec, what did you do? Did you start filing bugs and jump into Bugzilla and start triaging them? Did you go over and sit with the engineering team for a day to help them understand what was in the specs? When the product team decided to put a big ad on the page, did you have a conversation with them about what they were trying to achieve and possibly discover that revenue might be off in a particular area, which might be addressed by a different solution?
Or did you passively sit there and say that you were told to put a big ad on the page, or blame failure on missing specs. Being response-able doesn’t mean you make yourself responsible for everything, but you acknowledge the fact that you’re able to respond when things happen—and thereby begin to build credibility, start to build influence, and contribute to forward movement.
UXMag: Why don’t designers understand they can be proactive in organizational dynamics? Is there a gap in design school curriculum?
Wroblewski: Well, I think there’s a natural reluctance on the part of designers to get involved from an organizational perspective…
UXMag: Why is that?
Wroblewski: I’ve encountered many people in the design space who feel that response-ability puts a tether on creativity. They believe that creatives should hold onto their freedom. They feel that responsibility ties them down and crimps creative expression. That might be a really broad generalization, but I do see it happening.
I see a lot of people in the design space having a very hard time transitioning into product leaders even though they might have very good product sense. They might understand consumers very well, but they don’t want to get involved in all the other work that it actually takes to get that product out the door. There are some unglamorous and uncreative things that have to happen, alright. Your might have to sit inside of Bugzilla for a whole day. But guess what? Through that effort, you can manage all the bugs in the product.
Designers might not want to get involved in knowing how a project actually makes money. Well, if you understand how your products make money, you might be able to make that experience better for people and better align those business goals with user needs.
All these considerations are very real. You can begin to wield influence when you adopt an attitude of responsiveness, versus consigning yourself to factors that prevent you from being successful. Avoid the “poor me” attitude.
UXMag: What design disciplines do the participants in your courses come from?
Wroblewski: Mostly product interaction and visual designers. We’ve had some usability researchers and a few product managers, some developers, but for the most part it’s people who are interaction designers, information architects, creative designers, and visual designers.
UXMag: You mentioned developers. If designers pigeonhole themselves into not making a greater impact on organizational strategy, would you say developers tend to do the same thing?
Wroblewski: Sure. I think anybody who participates in craftsmanship or the technical side of the world, including engineers, designers, researchers, have a choice to make. Either they spend all their time working on their craft—which is a totally viable option—or they choose to have a bigger impact on things.
There’s a great book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, about being an entrepreneur. The key point in the book is that just because you’re a really great pie maker, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be really great at running a business that sells pies. That’s a big shift. If you really love making pies and baking, maybe you shouldn’t run a pie business. You should be a baker.
UXMag: Is there an organization line that designers shouldn’t cross? Could there be a case where unsolicited input to business strategies might not be well received?
Wroblewski: There are always issues. But I have a unique perspective on this. I view my role as very much a champion of the customer and their user experience. So if I see something that I think is damaging, or wrong, or a lost opportunity, I’ll speak up. I’ve been part of many of those types of discussions over the years when it’s actually been a positive thing. I have a lot fewer examples of negative outcomes.
Here’s a simple example that illustrates my point. Back in 2004, the eBay design team was looking at a lot of data about the eBay registration flow and how it discouraged new customers. The team had visibility data, they had analytics—the things that showed how people actually made it through registration. They also had a best-practices audit, all this information about what was going wrong with registration.
But they couldn’t, in isolation, convince anybody to do anything about it. Instead, they applied their design skills to the data and made a big visualization showing the poor registration flow, highlighted all the issues and contacts, and began talking to different people about it using well-designed visual communication deliverables. They put their unique language and skill sets to work on the business problem.
They managed to push through a redesign of the registration process, despite lots of initial stakeholder objections. That quarter, eBay had to restate its earnings, I’ve heard, because the redesign made such a big financial impact on the business. Even though eBay was running a growth pattern at that time, the design team illuminated a different story and the outcome was tremendous.
That design team didn’t ask for budget to build a new product. Rather, they impacted the business by actually finding an opportunity, visualizing the business impact of it and driving to make it happen. The results spoke loudly. The company then realized the value of design. That’s the kind of approach that matters, and that works.
UXMag: Your books have been well received by the technical community, especially your most recent book about designing Web forms. Do you have another book planned?
Wroblewski: I have lots of ideas in my head. It’s a question of making time. Without revealing too much, I’ve already focused on optimizing the input side of Web interactions. Now I’m interested in the output side of Web interactions. I’m exploring some ideas, gathering data and research and finding case studies. So we’ll see what actually happens with my next book. It took me six years to write my last one.
Writing technical books is a labor of love. And by writing a book about form design, you better hope you’re making the Web a better place because you’re definitely not going to end up on the Letterman show or on Oprah.
UXMag: Do you have any evidence of design influencing strategy at Yahoo!?
Wroblewski: There are a number of small- and large-scale initiatives that grew from the kind of principles we’ve been discussing. On a small scale, we have examples of designers laying out and making the case for product features or changes using business context and metrics. Several of these efforts were launched to our users and more are in the planning stages. On the large scale, we recently formed the Integrated Consumer Experiences group whose charter is to look at people’s experiences across all our products. That’s a new priority and it was fostered by early work Tom Chi and I did together. In fact, that process—which spanned almost two years—gave us a lot of insight into how we could influence strategy using design. We used many of the experiences we had to help develop our design strategy training classes.
UXMag: You’ve talked mostly about designers working internally. How can your ideas drive sales and help grow business in an agency setting?
Wroblewski: It depends on the relationships the agency has with their clients, of course. If relationships are short term in-and-out, you don’t really have a chance to get immersed in context. That is challenging. If deeper relationships exist, it’s a lot easier to start applying these ideas.
Personally, I feel that there’s potential for a new model where agencies really begin to become recognized for bringing clarity to problems, as well as create solutions to problems. Often, it’s not that people need an answer, it’s that they need to understand the problem better.
In our digital age, where we’re awash with data, and we’re awash with opportunity, and we’re awash with products and things. Getting clarity into situations and into the problems that organizations face is sometimes more valuable than coming up with solutions. There are many more designers trying to provide solutions than there are trying to clarify problems. So that’s the opportunity for designers working internally or externally.

This article was originally published on the User Interface Resource Center (UIRC). For more info, please see https://uxmag.com/uirc

post authorUX Magazine Staff

UX Magazine Staff, UX Magazine was created to be a central, one-stop resource for everything related to user experience. Our primary goal is to provide a steady stream of current, informative, and credible information about UX and related fields to enhance the professional and creative lives of UX practitioners and those exploring the field. Our content is driven and created by an impressive roster of experienced professionals who work in all areas of UX and cover the field from diverse angles and perspectives.

post authorLuke Wroblewski

Luke Wroblewski, LukeW is an internationally recognized product design leader who has designed or contributed to software used by more than 700 million people worldwide. He is currently Chief Design Architect at Yahoo! Inc. where he works on forward-looking integrated customer experiences on the Web, mobile, TV, and beyond. Luke is the author of two popular Web design books: Web Form Design (2008) and Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability (2002). He also publishes Functioning Form, a leading online publication for interaction designers. Luke is consistently a top-rated speaker at conferences and companies around the world, and is a co-founder and former Board member of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Previously, Luke was the Lead User Interface Designer of eBay Inc.'s platform team, where he led the strategic design of new consumer products (such as eBay Express and Kijiji) and internal tools and processes. He also founded LukeW Interface Designs, a product strategy and design consultancy, taught interface design courses at the University of Illinois and worked as a Senior Interface Designer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the birthplace of the first popular graphical Web browser, NCSA Mosaic. Visit Luke's website: https://.lukew.com/ Or his writings at Functioning Form: https://.lukew.com/ff/ And follow Luke on Twitter: https://.twitter.com/lukewdesign


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