Designing for Outcomes Means Starting at the End

Dan Stulck
IBM Design
Published in
7 min readSep 14, 2020


“At IBM, we define design as the intent behind an outcome” - First sentence in the IBM Design Thinking Field Guide

Design Thinking is an excellent framework for finding human-centered solutions to human-centered problems. Yet, like an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, Design Thinking will land where you point it when you let go, so it’s critical to aim in the right direction. Getting Design Thinking pointed in the right direction means having clearly defined target outcomes before you start.

Often, Design Thinking starts with the definition of a problem. With a defined problem, the framework is exceedingly efficient at finding solutions.

However, if our goal is to create measurable business impact, design must begin much earlier. Design really starts with the definition of outcomes. To produce meaningful design, we need to ensure we target meaningful outcomes, for both our business and our users. Design Thinking will only produce the outcomes we define for it, so we need to make sure they’re impactful!

Business Outcomes

If we’re using Design Thinking to help achieve a business objective, identifying the business outcome we want is the logical starting point. Our business outcomes should be measurable, directional, and support our business strategy. For example, we might pick reducing costs associated with the call center as a business outcome. Even if we don’t specify how much we can reduce costs, we can align stakeholders around the target, begin to establish a measure for the success of our design, and integrate business strategy into the experience design.

Aligning stakeholders around business objectives is critical to establishing the scope and focus of the design. Stakeholders from across the business, operations, and technology teams often have their own objectives and agendas, so getting alignment on target business outcomes for a specific project is necessary for its success.

When multiple stakeholders are advocating for different sets of outcomes, then we must prioritize which matter most. The more outcomes the project includes, the broader the focus. If we target a broad set of outcomes, the project will either need more time and resources, or the project might not address each outcome in the depth each deserves. Decisions made during the tradeoff between scope, size, and depth will impact how we define our Design Thinking problem, so we need everyone aligned from the beginning.

Defining our target business outcomes also allows us to identify metrics to measure success. Any project, whether using Design Thinking or not, needs to understand how success is defined before starting. While identifying specific targets is often necessary to support business cases, design typically only needs directional targets — up or down, increase or decrease — to get started. Business cases can expand on these details once there is a better understanding of the solution, benefits, and costs. Still, having a measuring stick from the beginning enables projects to effectively target a destination, understand when course correction is needed, and iteratively improve performance by assessing how well the goals and outcomes are being met.

By identifying business outcomes that connect to our strategic objectives, we’re able to incorporate business strategy into the design process. Without that connection, Design Thinking may produce excellent user experiences that don’t support the business strategy. If our business objective is vague, such as “we want to improve the customer experience,” you might design an exquisite white-glove service model, or you might design a seamless self-service experience. Both designs could claim to improve the customer experience, but they represent very different business strategies. Through clearly defined business outcomes, Design Thinking can structure problems so that the solutions contribute to the overall business strategy.

However, defining business outcomes is not enough. Design Thinking is human-centric, so we still need to convert business outcomes into human actions. To do this, we need to build on our business outcomes with a second type of outcome: user outcomes, or the target for how we want Design Thinking to influence the behaviors and actions of our users.

User Outcomes

User outcomes are something we can directly observe in the real world — a change in actions or behaviors, such as someone purchasing Product A who previously didn’t. We can directly design for the user outcomes we observe in the real world because we design for users and can encourage them to take specific actions. In practice, when defining our problems, we state exactly who and what action we’re trying to encourage:

Design a better way for someone to do something

How might we do something for someone?

Design becomes the intent to achieve these outcomes. What isn’t included in the problem statement is which actions or behavior design is trying to discourage or change. We only see the “Do This”, not the “Don’t Do That”, part of Design Thinking. When we identify our target user outcomes, we need to consider both the actions we’re encouraging and discouraging.

For example, if our business goal is to increase sales of Product A, we need the customer (our user) to change from not buying Product A to buying Product A. Our user outcome is the change in buying behavior that causes our desired business outcome, an increase in sales. We can see this change is important because if our design targets customers who were already going to purchase Product A, there is no increase in sales and therefore no impact on our business outcome.

In contrast to user outcomes, we observe business outcomes indirectly by tracking metrics, such as the sales revenue from Product A. Without specified users and actions, which are prerequisites for human-centric Design Thinking, we cannot directly design for business outcomes. Yet, we can see that user outcomes directly impact business outcomes — a new customer buying Product A causes an increase in sales. So to achieve our business outcomes, we need to identify and design for the user outcomes that directly impact our business outcomes.

Connecting the Two Outcomes

In order to identify user outcomes with direct business impact, we need to start by examining the business levers that impact our business outcomes. As we look at these, we can apply basic business strategy to break the outcomes into more granular parts. We also want to gather basic research on our target users. As these business components get more discrete, we can incorporate user knowledge to better understand how user actions impact our business outcomes. Finally, we can begin to identify which actions we want to discourage, and which we want to encourage.

For example, if we start with a target business outcome of reducing the cost of our call center, we might conclude that the biggest business levers are the cost of the technology to run the call center, and the cost of the agents answering phone calls. Focusing on the agents, we can see that the number of phone calls and the duration of phone calls are the biggest factors in determining how many agents the call center needs. With this, we can start to identify the change in user actions needed to achieve these outcomes. We can reduce the number of phone calls by discouraging customers from calling the call center and encouraging customers to self-service. Or we can reduce the duration of phone calls by eliminating low-value and cumbersome actions for agents and provide agents with efficient service methods. By examining the components that drive our business outcome, we can identify two user outcomes, with two different users, that directly impact our business outcome. Now, we can confidently write problem statements that will have both business and user impact.

Linking business and user outcomes requires us to make assumptions. In the above example, we’re assuming that customers will call less frequently if they have a self-service option. Identifying and validating these assumptions is a critical part of user research. As we validate or disprove our assumptions, we continue to modify our problem statements so that they acutely focus on the users and the actions that have the greatest impact on our outcomes.

As simplistic as it might seem, taking time to align our business and user outcomes is a key step to ensure we correctly define the problem we’re solving with design. We need to be clear on the business outcomes we pursue. We need to understand what components of that business problem can be changed through user action. Finally, we need to understand what user actions will result in achieving our business outcome. Design Thinking is exceptional at creating outcomes because our target is defined before we release that metaphorical arrow. We just need to be absolutely sure we have picked the right target!

Dan Stulck is a Business Designer at IBM based in Cambridge, MA. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.



Dan Stulck
IBM Design

Business Designer for IBM iX