Giving Design a Seat at the Table

Alicia Bergin, Managing Director, San Francisco

Three ways to think about design in the context of product development

For years, a major goal in the design community has been to actually get design to the table, and if you believe the media, we’ve arrived! Companies of all sizes are rapidly mobilizing to integrate design into their practices. Design is becoming a must-have for companies outside the traditional creative sector, from engineering/IT firms to management consulting.

But what is design? How should, and can, design be applied in the context of your organization?

There are three ways to think about design in the context of product development.

1) A functional necessity to surface a set of capabilities to end users 2) An enabler of velocity and efficiency through consistency and reuse of assets 3) A value delivery system: a mechanism to connect your brand with your customers, and your business with revenue

Let’s look at this case by case:

1) A functional necessity to surface a set of capabilities to end users This is very common, and not necessarily bad. Company leadership identifies business priorities, and then empowers the product engineering organization to build products and solutions that meet those priorities. Design is leveraged as part of the engineering effort with varying degrees of agency, ranging from the superficial (make it look good) to the strategic (guiding functional requirements, shaping product feature sets and interaction paradigms, and validating and refining solutions with the target audience). For organizations without integrated design capabilities, this is an excellent place to start— design, paired with engineering, is an enabler of appropriate solutions to identified problems.

2) An enabler of velocity and efficiency through consistency and reuse of assets Creating, or using, a digital library (e.g. Material Design) is the trend du jour. Design (and coded design components) makes intuitive sense for any organization operating at scale. Why redesign baseline standards every time? It’s not efficient for your team, your products, nor a great way to manage brand consistency. It’s important to reflect on the scale issue, however—do you have it? It’s rarely worth the effort of investing in a reusable component library if you have a single, narrow product. (a marketing site, for example). If you have a stand-alone product with plans to scale, consider a standard style guide designed (not coded) as an online repository, and organically populate it over time as you scale with new products and services.

3) A value delivery system: a mechanism to connect your brand with your customers, and your business with revenue According to a recent report from MITSloan and Deloitte University Press: Digital strategy drives digital maturity. Only 15% of respondents from companies at the early stages of what we call digital maturity—an organization where digital has transformed processes, talent engagement and business models—say that their organizations have a clear and coherent digital strategy. Among the digitally maturing, more than 80% do.*

In other words, can you clearly fuel your product development engine with clear requirements and objectives that consider the long-term health of your business, considering your users, growth targets, competitive pressure, and organizational capacity? If you can’t—and you’re not alone—‚design is a major force to shape priorities. At Method, and many other strategically-oriented design firms, design is a process honed to identify opportunity and solutions through analysis of market realities, business objectives, organizational capacity, and user need. Just as design can be used to create the right solution within the frame of clear objectives, it can also determine what the objectives are.

So what should you do?

The big question your organization should ask is: how stable and robust is your suite of product offerings today? Do you have a three-to-five year roadmap that clearly identifies the specific requirements of your portfolio over time?

#1 is OK if your organization has longer term goals with clearly identified interim steps. The upside of design in the context of product development: better products aligned with market and objectives, less rework, and consistent application of your brand values and appearance.

#2 should be adopted if the (literal) business cost of not doing it is too high. The question is timing, now or later on. If you have many products, do it now. If you don’t, build the capability over time. At the risk of sounding obvious, it's also critical that packaging and proliferating current assets from an organically grown portfolio of products—which aren’t standard in any way—doesn't happen.

#3 is a business necessity. If you have a robust strategic function, consider how it does, or doesn’t, take advantage of design capabilities. If you don’t have it, there’s no time like the present.

  • “Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation.” MITSloan Management Review Research Report, in Collaboration with Deloitte University Press.

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