Doing more and better design means change, and not just for those within the design team.

Andy Thornton
Andy Thornton
one week ago

A more mature design capability will be disruptive by default, even if you don’t intend it to, or actively work to prevent it. Being aware and suitably prepared for the changes to your existing processes, operations, environment and culture will make you better able to respond and adapt to the inevitable turbulence ahead.

This article is part of a series. In this part, we’ll cover how design culture affects your product strategy, production and development processes. Read about how design culture affects your working environment and hiring process in part two.

Design is not just a bolt-on

You can’t simply slot design into an existing process, before development and after strategy, and expect everything to work out. For design to be an effective capability it needs to flow through the whole process from beginning to end and may even demand you reappraise what you currently consider to be the ‘start’ and ‘end’ of your process.

If the design you’re currently doing is very tactical in nature (such as solving how things look and behave), rather than strategic (using design to both identify and solve user needs and problems based on evidence), then the pain of transformation will be particularly acute. You’re likely to need to rebuild the whole design process from the ground up, alongside any adaptations to your other existing functions and processes that touch it. Accelerating design is never a designers-only affair, and allies will need to be brought along to collaborate with, nurture, educate and also learn from.

Design starts earlier than you think

Given the obvious point that strategy shapes how and what you design, it’s important to ensure the customers of your products and services are well considered during the shaping of any opportunity.

Ideally, if your organisation is fully committed to human-centered design, customers would be at the heart of the solution. Too often the people who make up the consumer, or end-user, of your products and services are forgotten or misrepresented in key strategic business decisions. This can be due to a combination of factors. Very often a lack of understanding and empathy for the customer is due to lightweight or non-existent research, which in turn breeds aversion, fear or even in some cases borderline hostility to their needs or goals.

Ensuring business success means producing something that your customers desire, and for business and consumer alike to be able to profit or gain value from this exchange. In legendary management consultant Peter Drucker’s own words “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer”.

So it’s best to start with a shared understanding of the problem from the perspectives of both business viability and customer desirability. This means identifying a latent customer need and working back from there.

You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.

Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple (1997)

Starting anew

So, let’s start at the beginning. What are the key things to consider when planning new projects and initiatives with a desire and capability for greater design impact?

Have you set success criteria for the customer?
How are you going to measure that you are achieving the aims of the customer as well as business targets? New products and services can initially produce positive indicators before burnout or saturation hits as the frustrations or unmet needs of a broader market audience become more telling beyond those who adopted it early.

Does your business case procedure allow for adaptation and iteration?
Very often, work can be tied into a funding model that signs off huge tranches of money up front, leading to a mentality of “delivery at any (or perhaps more accurately exact) cost”. This can be the case even if what is being delivered proves to demonstrate little to no value throughout the course of the design process. Speaking to customers to understand their needs, and gathering feedback on potential solutions can result in a change of direction or a pivot towards an entirely different strategy, or even an alternate problem to be solved.

Is this ability to flex and adapt built into your processes or is your organisation unyielding to change?

The ever increasing risk is that inevitable digital disruption will make you obsolete as a force in your market unless you are capable of staying nimble and efficient in how you execute your business strategy and adapt your business model to the era of constant change. Design, and the skills designers are proficient in, can help you achieve this.

What design [thinking] allows you to do is have a new level of consciousness… and to say ‘I’m actually going to learn how to do this in a way that de-risks our go-to-market’. That’s just, for me, smart business. It happens to be called design, but even the most backwards looking CEO can get behind that as an idea.

Andréa Mallard, CMO, Omada Health

Working beyond your next iteration

Obviously the hard work doesn’t end when the first release is out the door. Design is never done. Evolving a product or service with a more mature design capability might typically prompt the following considerations:

Does the customer influence what to work on next?
When customer research or prototyping feedback generates new ideas for future releases, how is this reflected back and prioritised in the product roadmap? Are opportunities being prioritised around known pain points and challenges faced by customers when using your product or service?

Using a story map as a visual articulation of how mature your product is now, and where the opportunities for enhancement are can be a powerful and transparent way of communicating both the current status and your future intentions.

Does design overlap development rather than precede it?
Many organisations Clearleft work with tend to have a more mature development function compared to design. This often means some practices around Agile development have been formed and in some cases hardened to the extent of having lost the initial flexibility and efficiency they were intended to provide as a competitive advantage. Consider these key questions about your processes:

  • Do you need UI mockups to be 100% signed off and agreed before you start development?
  • Do your developers or designers sit together in exclusive ‘clans’, communicating infrequently or non-verbally with other disciplines?
  • Are your teams truly cross-disciplinary, with designers and other non-development roles fully integrated into regular routines and rituals?
  • Are developers excluded from the initiation of the project or initial design activities, given it won’t reach development for months?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s likely your process is not sensitive to the changing nature of fluid delivery and the need to learn and communicate continuously throughout the delivery cycle. Yes, this will inevitably create some frustration and friction in the process, but the benefits of cross-disciplinary knowledge sharing and empathy building will be disproportionately magnified in the final product.

This article is part of a series. Read about how design culture affects your working environment and hiring process in part two.

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