The mistakes we make in making the case for design.

One of the most common questions I get from designers is, “How did you convince your company to invest in design?” I usually answer that I didn’t, and to an extent that’s true. I’ve more often been asked to work on large design projects that have already been identified, rather than making the case for them myself. Dodging the question isn’t helpful to the courageous designers out there looking to influence their company roadmaps, though. I salute you and want to help where I can. Here is my approach for making the case for design, and the mistakes I and other designers have made along the way:

Understand your organization’s biggest challenges

One of the mistakes we make as designers, is to advocate for a project that is a good idea, but doesn’t align with the company’s current priorities. For example, you might have a great idea for a better first use experience when your company is struggling to retain existing users. Unless your solution is going to help with retention, it’s a distraction. You’ll be more successful in building momentum for your initiative if you take the time to really internalize your organization’s priorities, and think about how (and if) your project addresses those priorities.

Start with a user need, not a design

Another common pitfall I see designers make is to come to PM partners with a design suggestion rather than a problem to get buy in on. Starting with a problem is a much better approach for several reasons:

  1. You can get alignment on whether the problem matters before working on designs.
  2. You can bring your PM and engineering partners into the design process with you once you have agreed that the problem matters, which is more collaborative and helps them buy in to your idea. Everyone wants to feel that they are part of the solution creation process.
  3. You can ensure that your design solves that problem only and doesn’t include several other design changes which don’t relate directly to the problem.

Gather your metrics

I’ve seen many designers struggle to advocate for a project without having an educated guess about what the project will actually do for the business. If you feel that your organization isn’t prioritizing an opportunity that really matters, you’ll need to explain how solving the problem will be a good investment of engineering time. To do this you’ll need to gather data and conduct research that gives you a sense of the size of your problem. Work with your partners in data science, research, engineering, marketing and PM to gather information that answers this question:

If we do project A, our company will likely get X amount of increased revenue at a cost of Y in engineering efforts over Z amount of time.

Figuring this out is not an exact science so don’t worry if you are guessing at the numbers a bit. When making your case, call out the areas you are making assumptions and you will build more trust with your partners. Questions to explore:

  1. Are there other projects your team has finished that are similar in size or scope to what you are suggesting? What was the revenue on those? In what way can you use the results of past projects to guess at the results you’ll get for this effort?
  2. How many of your users are impacted by this problem? In what way does this problem impact adoption of your product?
  3. What is the timeline for getting revenue? If you do the project, what does it earn for the business in the first year, and beyond? PM and Finance will already have formulas they are using that can help you. Talk to them and ask their opinions about what your project could earn.
  4. If you do this project will people recommend it more to their friends? Sentiment metrics like brand awareness studies and net promoter score are used to measure likelihood to recommend. We all know that people are loyal to brands, and that brands have real business value. In many cases your product is the way users interact with your brand, so product changes can impact brand awareness and NPS.

Timing is everything

It’s not uncommon for designers to have an idea and want to see it implemented right away, even though there is a current plan in place that engineers aren’t finished with. Understand when your company sets a plan for the year, and work with the product team to gather data in support of your priority during the planning process. You haven’t failed if it takes you 6–12 months to get your idea heard, validated, and prioritized. This stuff takes time.

Embrace the messiness

When you work on a design problem you have been given and has already been prioritized, the process generally feels pretty comfortable. When you are making the case for a design project however, you are stepping outside the comfort zone and thinking like a business leader. This process is messy, uncomfortable and hard. Don’t expect that your partners are going to embrace your idea right away. Don’t take it personally if they have concerns or questions about your priority. Be open to evolving your idea so that it costs less for the business. The messiness doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong, it means you are pushing yourself and that’s a good thing.

Executing your design vision is 80% collaboration and 20% design

Lots of designers make the mistake of thinking that the design should speak for itself. If you have an idea you feel passionately about, you will need to spend a relatively small amount of your time developing the design and the vast majority socializing your design vision across your company. You will need to build a story of why your project is important and socialize this initiative in a way that touches hearts. Things to include in your story:

  1. What is the problem you identified?
  2. How does this cause real pain for people?
  3. What is the vision for the idea? What will the world look like after your idea is in the hands of users? How will your users’ lives be better?
  4. How is this different from the approach your competitors are taking?
  5. What is the benefit to the business if you execute on this well?
  6. Who helped you with this idea? How is this a cross-team effort rather than a “you” effort? Who do you need to thank for helping to bring this vision to life?

These are the places I’ve seen designers struggle, and have struggled myself in making the case for design. Hopefully this is helpful and empowering as you take on the messiness of influencing your company’s roadmap. Your users will thank you for taking the time to build a case well, and you’ll earn a much stronger reputation as a designer or design manager in the process.