How to increase design’s impact on your organization

——This post comes from my rethinking after a whispered complaint on my job

Back in the days when I was a college student, my majors were Materials Engineering and Computer Science; I accepted four years training of science and engineering thinking. When I graduated, although I hadn’t accepted any art and design related education, with a huge passion, I found a graphic designer job at a magazine. At that time, I naturally thought designers did not have a significant impact on business; I had to obey what my boss asked me to do, customer’s word was the most important. I thought the good design just came from inspiration, in my mind, a good designer should be the person who can create a beautiful design.

After a couple of years, I was eager to get some systematic knowledge of design, so I enrolled in a design college to pursue a master's degree. Professors said, “Designers are not artists. Designers’ job does not mean to create beautiful things but mainly to solve problems.” The design is a kind of science; designers solve real problems based on lots of research and design methodology, design work does not rely on the burst of inspiration. What I learned in the design college was an excellent designer could analyze problems and use visual communication to solve the problem.

At the second day when I graduated, I held my cat and dragged my luggage, directly flew to the silicon valley. Here is a substantial amount of design-driven companies, in my mind I imagined designers had a tremendous impact on organizations here. But after all, I find the designer’s impact is not awarded by others; we should fight for our rights.

I’m working at a start-up company in the bay area, just as same as other high-tech companies here, most of our employees have science and engineering background. In our daily work, if a project finally will include a user interface (which maybe a website or a mobile app etc.), people will naturally consider they need designer’s help. As a designer, I work hard, I analyze problem facing on me, I seriously take user experience research, and finally, I’ll provide a user-friendly and beautiful design. But recently, I feel the designer doesn’t have much impact as other engineers or marketing people in a high-tech company. Designer’s role is passive; we will appear just when other people need us.

In a couple of weeks ago, I occasionally heard a conversation between an energy data expert and a software engineer, they tried to cooperate to develop an intelligent data analysis system based on our API, but they didn’t figure out what is the final format. The energy expert said they didn’t sure customer’s needs right now; they wanted to perform a customer research, when they got the feedback, whey will see whether needs design support.

Hey! I want to say that is a totally wrong workflow! ❌

80–10–10

In a typical process of a design project, the designer spends 80% of energy and time to perform research, 10% time to“real” assets implementation, and the rest of 10% time to feedback and refinement. Designers should pay lots of attention to research. I still remember when I was in the design college, whenever the professor assigned us a design project, if any student directly said he or she wanted to create a poster or a website, that must be 100% be declined. At the very beginning, we should not know what the final format is, we had to perform a lot of research to define these details. One of my favorite professors said, “When you dig more, the truth will be appeared by itself.” So, uncertain the final format is not the reason for saying the designer is unnecessary. Decide the kind of research, how to perform research, and how to analyze customer feedback, these are also parts of designer’s job.

From this thing, I start to rethink the meaning of “Design Sprint.” I think lots of people in the internet industry have heard about this method.

The Sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping and testing ideas with customers. It is developed by Google Ventures. In the beginning, this method was hot on Google and then spread to the whole internet industry.

Image from Sprint, by Jake Knapp , John Zeratsky , Braden Kowitz

To be honest, I was super skeptical on “Sprint” in the beginning. I didn’t believe in a short 5-day session; people can analyze the problem and get resolved, at the same time produce the prototype and also gather feedback. I thought it was too hasty; I wondered how much real value it could contribute.

But, I changed my mind right now, I think the most important point of “Sprint” is conveying and educating design thinking to other teams. UX, design-driven are all buzz-words, they are all related to people-oriented. Design-driven is based on research, when we spent as much as 80% time and energy to perform research, we will get a meaningful product, when lack of research, I would say the product is pointless. Why is design-driven so hot? I don’t believe it because the designer can create beautiful images and user interface thereby change the world, I think the actual reason should be people indeed get benefits from design thinking.

What is the most important skill a designer needs to learn? Programming? Illustration? Photography? New software? Of course, if you can master multi-skills that will be great, but you should prioritize different skills set at various stages. At the beginning, skilled in popular software, design fast and beautifully are important. Then, be able to analyze problems, have good time management, and prioritize insights, these are all responsibilities of a middle-level designer. Finally, master data analysis and strategy (analyze what is an important data set and have an impact upon and create alignment between design with marketing goals), good communication, great influence, these are goals for higher lever designers.

How to increase design’s impact on your organization, in another word, the designer how to influence marketing goals and production? Build design’s trust is the key. Convince other teams about your design decision will increase the design’s impact. By the communication with other teams, convey design thinking to marketing people and engineers. I think the best way to convince science background people is using data. Base on data analysis to make design decisions.

In general people’s eye, the design is a work based on inspiration; they don’t think it’s a science. So many metaphysical and abstract things, it’s hard to convince science people. Actually, design decision is also can be made by data analysis.

In the book of “Designing with Data,” the author mentioned there are three ways to think about data: data-driven, data-informed, and data-aware. Data-driven means you can directly get a result from data. For example, in the energy market, there are Demand Response, Property Management, Energy Efficiency, and Operational Efficiency these four directions. According to marketing research, customers mostly concern about Demand Response, so our company uses this as a core and builds features to match, this is “data-driven.” Data-informed means the data doesn’t directly lead to the result; it is just a reference. Data-aware means people is aware of data can lead decision, design the method to collect data and build the strategy to analyze data.

Image from Designing with Data, by Elizabeth F Churchill; Caitlin Tan; Rochelle King

Designers focus on research, marketing team and engineers are focusing on results. Most marketing researchers have an economics background, they study market trends and try to find the fastest and direct way to maximize benefits. A lot of design researchers have psychology, sociology, and anthropology background, they base on big data to perform research, people-oriented, and ask a lot of “why.” Designers are the people who have mostly concerned customer’s habits and activities; we design for what they need rather than what they want. (Typically said, the customer always don’t know what they need.) In the design thinking, we ask “why” for everything (in the traditional graphic design, we critique design why choose this typeface, why use this color, etc.) In my opinion, the marketing research is following “data-driven” method, in the design thinking, our research is putting “data-informed” and “data-aware” as the core. We are not only performing data analysis, but we also create the method for data analysis.

There is good or bad data analysis since the data sometimes is biased. We still remember at the time Apple launched iOS 7 flat design, we heard negative feedback from design reviews to people around. Times change, right now when we consider the former skeuomorphic design, we would agree that is too much, the current flat design is much simpler and clearer. So, what the customer want maybe is not always right.

The real research, from a psychological perspective to understand customers’ real needs that are the foundation of a good design. Base on UX-driven to perform design and production, also create a culture, then generate values. From Apple and Google’s design values, I think nobody will say the designer can not create the real value.

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