The Business Value of Design

Design has been shown time and time again to improve business outcomes — revenue, customer acquisition and brand equity. But it’s long been a sore topic for us. We want to create great work and we don’t feel we need a reason to do it. Humans naturally gravitate towards well designed products — so isn’t that all the evidence organizations need? But sadly not everyone has such a clear-eyed view of design, so we need to get better at speaking the language of business and influencing stakeholders to bring the ROI of design into plain sight.

Understanding the design maturity of your org

Organizational design-maturity will define how hard you’ll have to work as an advocate for the value of design. If you’re lucky enough to work in an organization with high design-maturity (generally categorized as teams with a dedicated budget for design and a user centred-design process), the wheels have already been greased for you. If not, you’ll need to work harder to explain why your work matters and what the real value of it is to the business.

In particular, in organizations with low UX maturity, UX professionals have to constantly evangelize to stakeholders about their work, why it matters, and why they should be allowed to continue doing it!

Building relationships to create influence

In order to effectively advocate for design we need to have influence. This isn’t about your job title, instead it’s about building relationships. Relationships are all about trust and that means they only work if it’s reciprocal. Both parties need to trust for the relationship to work. As someone that struggles with social anxiety and OCD, building authentic relationships at work is a particular challenge for me. Designers tend to be more on the introverted side, so I feel you — making yourself vulnerable might not come easy.

We can start to override this natural introversion by bringing our true selves to work. This involves being brave enough to show our colleagues more of ourselves beyond our professional persona. This is how trust can start to develop on a human level and everything starts to become much easier after that.

We can also start to build relationships by reframing the way we think about empathy — it’s not just a term that applies to our users. Rather than seeing those in marketing, sales or finance as blockers to getting our ideas realized, use empathy to see them as partners focused on the success of the product. It’s our job to interpret their needs rather than positioning ourselves as the sole voice for design in the room. We can’t operate in a silo and expect to be considered true business partners.

Stakeholders can be frustrating if you believe it’s their job to give you the input that’s suited to your needs. A better approach: Assume it’s your job to extract their goals & wisdom in an efficient and respectful way, then translate as you need to.

Hard truth — the reality is that as designers, we’re only one of many voices for the user. We can position ourselves as gatekeepers, but those working in sales or customer service are likely have much more contact with actual customers than we do. So the more conversations you have with these people, the more data you’ll be armed with. And guess what? Arming yourself with data increases your ability to influence stakeholders.

Many product people don’t talk to their sales team. This is a critical mistake Your sales team knows your product’s failings better than you do.

Focusing on outcomes over outputs

In order to map design to business value we need to have a say in the product roadmap. Unfortunately, roadmaps are often stakeholder driven meaning they’re full to the brim with features, because of the misguided belief that feature ideas + code = profit. We need to reframe roadmap conversations to ensure the business and customer value of the feature is understood before proceeding with design. Ask the team — what’s the business metric or customer behaviour that we are looking to move? That way, once the feature is launched, you can assess if it truly provided the intended value. If not, then reassess and iterate.

The agile methodology is all about reducing waste, but how much is wasted producing features that are poorly conceived, unvalidated or just plain unneeded?

Connecting design to business value

We unlock our phones every 5.6 minutes, according to John Maeda’s tech in design report — meaning a single bad design decision can pop up again and again for a user throughout the day. But a frustrating experience often isn’t enough to convince stakeholders to invest in improving a product. We need to leverage research to illustrate how the problem is harming the business.

The most compelling research we can utilize is primary research, (research our own team has conducted). We can tell the story of exactly how a problem is effecting our customers and business. That’s so much more powerful than any white-paper or case-study you’ve found online (secondary research). However, in the scenario that you’re short on time or budget, secondary research is better than no research.

When we’re able to demonstrate the value of our work, design becomes a critical contributor to the business. We can advocate for bigger design teams, higher salaries, and more integrated design systems.

Types of primary research you can use to make your case include (but aren’t limited to), CX support logs, survey results, usability tests, interviews and analytics. Ideally you pair quantitative research (the what), with qualitative research (the why), so you can paint a full picture of the problem. A sample approach could be pairing the results of surveys (think system usability scale or customer effort score) with qualitative data from usability tests.

Calculating ROI to advocate for design

To calculate ROI for the business we need to do some simple arithmetic: Research finding x business impact = cost saving.

Let’s say you’ve established that 10% of calls to customer support are around being unable to add an item to their cart:

  • Average calls to customer support/day: 700
  • Cost for 30 min support call: $8 (Agent hourly rate ÷ 2)
  • 70 calls per day x $8 = $560/day (10% of 700 calls)
  • $560/day x 365 = $204,400/year

$204,400/year adds quite a sizeable argument to your case for redesigning the add to cart flow.

Calculating the ROI for redesigning the cart — reducing customer service tickets. Source:

Just over 50 percent (of companies) admitted that they have no objective way to assess or set targets for the output of their design teams. With no clear way to link design to business health, senior leaders are often reluctant to divert scarce resources to design functions.

Beyond this example there are other ways to demonstrate ROI; for example by reducing churn, improving productivity or increasing adoption. But this is just the beginning of what you can do — measuring success is an art, not a science. Using Google’s H.E.A.R.T framework is a great way to get creative. The framework is anchored in 5 categories measuring user-experience; happiness, engagement, adoption, retention and task-success. Use these 5 categories to align user goals to signals (user-behaviours) and metrics.

Using the Google H.E.A.R.T framework to establish design metrics. Author/Copyright holder: Google Inc. Copyright terms and licence: All rights reserved.

Making a habit of calculating the ROI of product design work embeds the value design brings into organizations. It also helps centre the conversation around outcomes over outputs and how the team can move the needle on business metrics and customer value. In the past I’ve used Google’s H.E.A.R.T framework to measure success and highlight the value of component library work. If you’re advocating for a redesign, continuation of existing work or simply looking to bring greater team understanding to the value of design, then calculating ROI can be really effective in making this happen.



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