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Delicate balance between design and business

Often over the course of our work, we product designers will be faced with a common, seemingly fundamental dilemma. Do we want to create a feature that could contribute to the business and boost key metrics, but at the expense of the user experience?

How do we, as designers, balance creating value and utility for users against the demands of business? How do we argue against what seems like making more money?

If you ever find yourself in this position, I hope this article will shed light on how we at Carousell navigate such decisions.

The intersection of product design and business

First of all, we should recognize that it’s a mistake to think of business objectives and user objectives as mutually exclusive.

At the heart of a successful business is a product that fulfill user needs with a great user experience, that is when the goals of business and design are aligned.

As a product designer, we need to understand the organization’s business inside out. That is when we can design and make design decisions that have real impact.

Designing for one of the region’s fastest growing classifieds

Carousell Land, from your screens to exhibition halls

Carousell is one of largest and fastest growing classified marketplaces in Southeast Asia. Started in Singapore in 2012, the company has since expanded to seven markets across the region. In 2017, Carousell started investing in two high value categories, Cars & Properties.

I joined the team as a Product Designer for Cars & Properties. I remember it took me many hours of reading, observing and on-boarding to fully understand the two industries that house three parallel business models, and business relationships:

  • B2B: Carousell & Partnership (Suppliers, Services)
  • B2C: Property agents/ Car dealers/ Merchants to buyers (Subscription packages)
  • C2C: Direct owners to buyers
Carousell events for Cars & Property

Having began life as a general classifieds marketplace for second-hand items, Carousell was generally understood to be a C2C marketplace for buyers and sellers. Now with the investment in Cars and Property, where we engage agents, dealers and businesses, the needs and requirements evolve.

The requirements for each model and market are very different, and this can lead to requirements contradicting one another. It is a complicated relationship, between:

  • Product and business objectives
  • General classifieds and Cars/Property
  • Non-merchant and merchants

So how do we navigate requirements coming from different business models? I have learned that it helps by asking the following 3 questions:

1. Is our design aligned with the organization goals?

When we design, we start with understanding the mission and goals of our organization, even those that we might not be directly responsible for, in order to see the big picture. This will help us align goals and be more coordinated with other teams. After we have understood our organisation, we can then make strategic choices in design that would deliver specific outcomes, that would in turn help our organization achieve its mission and goals.

In Carousell, we share our plans as early as possible — even when we are still at the goal-setting stage. This ensures that everyone is aware of the rationale driving certain decisions and is aligned with the overall direction.

A recent project is new profile design for Carousellers to optimize for wide-range of user types. It is like the root of tree that capture users’ characteristics and nurture their interests to grow. Thus, revamping a “legacy” design to something new can be quite scary.

Yelp’s users interact with businesses in a variety of ways.

Carousell’s New Profile design is a good case study. User profiles are like the roots of a tree, helping us to capture certain user characteristics. It is an important touchpoint that can directly impact a user journey .

Thus, the decision to revamp a “legacy” touchpoint had to be well planned. It took us three months to discuss and align the entire product team. Over the course of our discussions, we discovered possibilities and opportunities to build off each other’s work to enhance the user journey and embrace business goals. Once we achieved alignment, every team could start building and adding more features inside Profile. This keeps it growing, like a tree.

This keeps it growing, like a tree.

2. Is our design self-reinforcing?

The choices that executives make while creating new business strategy should complement and build off core values. There must be internal consistency. When the core values are not reinforced with a cohesive strategy, it’s too easy to change the course of the business model and features by abandoning past values and starting something new.

Carousell started off as a marketplace to inspire individuals to start selling. We call such users casual sellers, as they sell only when the need arises. However, as the Carousell community grew in size and popularity, we started to see more merchant sellers on the platform. These sellers are usually consistently list new items and sell at high volume.

Recently, we also launched a series of monetization efforts on the platform, for example visibility features like Bumps and Spotlight. As we design our monetization products, our responsibility is to strike a delicate balance and business model that works for both the merchants and casual sellers on Carousell.

By making the conscious decision and asking ourselves if it reinforces our core mission, we can create an environment where casual sellers can be just as successful as merchants.

3. Is our design competitive?

Having taken in the strategic considerations when designing, ultimately whatever we design should be competitive, to help us stay ahead of our competition over time.

Competitors will catch up. By focusing on what our user needs and constantly looking for new technology to solve our users’ needs, we can build a long-lasting product that our users love.

By focusing on user needs and constantly looking for new technology are the keys for a long-lasting product.

Carousell is on the mission to inspire people to start selling. And our users need the selling process to be as simple as possible. We envision reducing the time taken for users to list — from thirty seconds to just three seconds. And we’ve already taken steps to realize this vision, by investing heavily in machine learning that can detect information and data from images, and suggest relevant categories, titles and even prices.

Reference: How to Design A Winning Business Model by Ramon Casadesus-Masanell and Joan E. Ricart.

By always keeping these 3 questions in in mind when designing features, you’re more likely to get alignment between product and business.

Sometimes, just focusing on user goals first and creating an amazing experience will not be sustainable. In reality, many projects fail to budget for the upkeep. Running a business is complex, and if you’re spending time and resources in the wrong places, you will eventually fail to meet user expectations.

Same goes if we focus too much on business objectives. Many business models do not really have a firm grasp of user objectives, they only have hypotheses about what will help customers.

As a product designer, it’s our role to help the business find the best feature that meets both management and user objectives.

So to all up-and-coming product designers, my advice is to keep learning and moving in a quick and sensible manner. By understanding constraints and trade-off, we can create optimal balance between user and business needs to push the product moving forward at pace.

Be a Visionary

Thank you for reading this blog post.



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Anh Pham (AP)

Anh Pham (AP)

Product Designer. I believe joy exists in simple forms, so does design. I’m studying joys for a living.