The Business Case for Enterprise Product Design

Steve Daniels
Art of Product Design
6 min readDec 6, 2015


IBM CEO Ginni Rometty chilling with my homies at IBM’s Austin studio. Photo credit: IBM

In 2010, I was a software engineer at IBM Research. But, to my leadership’s chagrin, I self-identified as a designer. One afternoon, I hitched a ride home with a vice president, who explained to me design didn’t have much to add to our work and that I should focus on developing my coding skills.

All too often, designers working on enterprise products can feel like second-class citizens. After all, enterprise buyers value things that end users might not: compliance, administration, tracking, security, integration, consulting, other packaged products and services, or simply coming from a ‘trusted vendor.’

Design is progressing lightning-fast in the consumer and SMB markets, and enterprise designers feel left out. Naturally, we ask, “Why doesn’t anyone understand my value?” and come up with soft defenses for our craft like “User satisfaction will increase” or “Millennial employees expect good design in the workplace.”

The truth is design—defined here as scoping the value delivered to a product’s end users as opposed to its buyers—is just one tool in a product arsenal and should not be a business priority in every domain. Instead of defending our craft in arbitrary domains, enterprise designers should seek opportunities where user and buyer value overlap most.

At IBM Research, I was one of three self-identifying designers out of some 3,000 technical employees, and I struggled to convince my leadership of my worth. So when IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty announced what would ultimately become a $100 million investment in design, I jumped at the opportunity and became the first designer to join IBM Design. Over the following two years, I helped grow the team into the largest design force in the world. Design might not have presented as much opportunity at IBM Research, but by the time I left IBM, a crash course I developed had extended its tentacles all the way back to that VP in Research, and he became an advocate.

It was through this process that I came to understand what drives a CEO to place this kind of bet on design and how to allocate design focus for the biggest impact on enterprise software. It’s why design is now fundamental to my own enterprise business, Able Health.

When searching for opportunities to add business value, look for cases where:

  1. Users are influential in buying decisions
  2. Self-service is needed to reduce operational cost
  3. Users are lower-skilled
  4. Engagement is core to the value proposition

Users are influential in buying decisions

At IBM, there was a lot of talk of disruption to the typical IT purchasing process: power was shifting from the IT department to the lines of business. That meant that users, armed with business or personal credit cards, were buying software. In companies where the CIO still had a grip on IT budget and policies, this presented a kind of IT shadow economy.

Such users might start with a single or team SaaS license. While a sale of this size won’t make a company like IBM salivate, if enough teams in the company bought small licenses and showed high levels of engagement, a sales rep could present the client’s CIO with a valuable case for scaling the product across the company.

This stealth land-and-expand sales strategy is now typical of enterprise SaaS. In this strategy, it’s not just important to please your users so they want to extend and expand their use, it’s also important to guide their financial journey through a well-designed customer success experience so you can up-sell and cross-sell.

This strategy may not apply to every domain. The clearest opportunity to sell to users is in marketing and sales; according to Gartner, CMOs will spend more on IT than CIOs by 2017. Will users swipe their own credit cards for your supply chain or security software? It depends on how decisions are made in your customers’ organizations. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much sway do your users have on trying, buying, renewing, or scaling your product (1 = no influence; 10 = full autonomy)? If it’s high, you have a good business case for design.

Self-service is needed to reduce operational cost

In the world of big, custom, on-premise software, clients fork over the big bucks to cover the cost of these operations. If the market is willing to pay for customization, installation, user training, maintenance, and phone support, then go ahead and give it to them, along with dedicated field sales reps.

But in the SaaS world, where Able Health plays, things are different. If your buyers are okay with something out-of-the-box, delivered from the cloud, and supported by documentation and tickets, there’s no way they are going to pay enough to cover the costs of the old way of doing business. In other words, they value self-service.

If this is the case, design has a lot to offer. At every point in the customer lifecycle—find, try, buy, onboarding, regular use, upgrades, support, extension, and so on—there’s an opportunity to automate the vendor’s role. Here are a few examples:

  • Self-discovery can reduce the marketing budget
  • Self-trial can reduce the sales budget
  • E-commerce can reduce the billing and legal budgets
  • Self-onboarding can reduce the IT services budget
  • Self-service use and documentation can reduce the support budget
  • Automated upgrades can reduce the customer ops budget
  • Public APIs can reduce the development budget

Self-service is not an all-or-nothing option. See which points in the customer journey are costing the vendor the most unnecessary resources to support, and focus design efforts there.

Users are lower-skilled

Designers know that good design has a democratizing effect. By reducing the effort it takes to accomplish a task, it enables more people to participate in that task. Just as Instagram turned every consumer into a photographer, Heroku turned every developer into an IT ops wiz.

Is there value to your buyer in enabling a task to be done by lower-skilled employees? Maybe the organization can eliminate an entire department by pushing a task from IT to finance or from analysts to call center reps. Or maybe the company can start taking on more junior employees. It might sound harsh, but if this is the case, design can help.

This is one of the main value propositions of Able Health—that healthcare administrators can report, coordinate, and pay based on clinical performance without the technical, bioinformatics, and policy expertise normally required to wrangle the data.

You might think of this value purely as technical automation, but it is also a user experience problem. In order for a product to be used by a specific user archetype, the vendor must know exactly what the capabilities and expectations are of that user and then remove friction standing in the way of that user’s success. This defines the scoping of the automation in terms of what actions the user can take and what information to present to the user to inform those actions. Interaction and visual design then enhance the user’s likelihood to complete the tasks efficiently (or, in some cases, at all).

Engagement is core to the value proposition

What value proposition does your product offer your buyers? If you see or imagine some of these buzzwords in your marketing materials, there’s a good chance the vendor should invest in design:

  • Employee, customer, or user engagement
  • Behavior change
  • Change management
  • Employee performance improvement
  • Employee satisfaction

Design as a discipline is uniquely qualified to influence user psychology and behavior. Whether through affordances, feedback, or game mechanics, designers can guide users toward particular actions and improve their performance.

This is another value proposition of Able Health—to enable administrators to coordinate care among potentially reluctant physicians and patients in order to boost clinical performance and, therefore, pay-for-performance revenue from insurance companies. As much as it aligns with our values, it’s not enough to simply want to improve the physician experience around pay-for-performance billing, especially as a start-up with limited resources. Our customers tell us repeatedly that physician resistance is one of their biggest pain points and something they are willing to pay us to address. Design to the rescue!

If, on the other hand, your product’s primary value proposition is compliance or technical performance, there’s likely less business value for design. However, the value is rarely zero because even admin users must engage with products effectively, and acknowledging this ecosystem of roles is what distinguishes enterprise design from consumer design.

Where can you add value?

As much as we designers would like to provide every user in the world an enjoyable experience, not every business is set up to make users happy. If you find yourself working on a product that doesn’t touch many of these four cases, stop complaining, get out, and find yourself a better fit!



Steve Daniels
Art of Product Design

I serve a vision for the more-than-human world grounded in interdependence. You can subscribe to my newsletter at