Good Design Is (Still) Good Business

Katrina Alcorn
IBM Design
Published in
7 min readNov 28, 2022

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Any company can hire designers, but that won’t guarantee results. Getting the full value of design requires strong leaders to create the conditions for success and get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Most of my posts recently have been for designers. This one is for product and business leaders, and it comes with a tough-love message:

If you are a leader in tech and are not embracing design, you’re not doing your job.

I’ve been thinking about this since Fast Company published: “Why Corporate America Broke Up with Design.” According to the article, companies like P&G, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s went all-in on digital design practices in the 2000s and 2010s, expecting it to magically transform their companies. But now they’re pulling back because, as one Bay Area design leader explains in the story, design “is hard.”

What is this, 1999? When I started my career in tech, I spent a good portion of my time at every social event explaining what I did for a living to people who had never heard of “user experience design.” Sadly, it wasn’t much better at work. Over and over I was asked to prove the value of design to skeptical clients and even to some coworkers.

To them, ‘design’ meant how things looked, not how they worked. Interior decorating, not architecture. The practice of digital design was still in its garage stage, mostly performed by engineers as a byproduct of meeting technical requirements.

But that was changing. Sometime in the early 2000s, I read “The Inmates are Running the Asylum,” by Alan Cooper, who is now famous in the industry for his role in humanizing technology. In his book, Cooper argued that to be successful in the Internet age, companies had to design software to work for people, not the other way around. This required a complete reversal of the usual product development methodology: Technical requirements needed to be a byproduct of user requirements.

Today, we know better

Today, of course, mainstream consumers expect technology to work for them. It must solve a real need they have, and be easy to use. That expectation extends to enterprise software, too.

Many universities now offer degrees in the practice of design, with specialization in user experience research, content strategy, visual design, and service design. Even MBA programs include a basic understanding of design and design thinking in their curriculum. (The DeGroot School of Business, where my IBM colleague Karel Vredenburg teaches, is one example. Another example: Berkeley Haas School of Business, which teaches design thinking as “one of the most crucial innovation technologies for professionals to succeed in the job market.”) And companies are adopting design thinking programs, which offer a way for all employees to develop a human-centered mindset when solving business problems.

What’s more, many companies have become wildly successful by embracing design. McKinsey found that the most design-mature companies are growing twice as fast as their competitors and see 32% higher revenue.

Embracing design means improving the user experience. One common way companies measure this is through Net Promoter Scores (NPS). And a higher NPS translates to more revenue.

The London School of Economics estimates that revenue grows by 1% for every 7% rise in NPS. Bain and Company estimates that on average an industry’s NPS leader will outgrow competitors by a factor greater than 2x.

In short, when we create things people love, they are more likely to buy them and use them. That is what former IBM CEO, Thomas Watson Jr. meant when he said in 1973, “Good design is good business.”

Good design is also hard

So how did we get back here, with designers having to defend the value of their work?

As the Fast Company story points out, companies that invested in design expecting instant results learned a difficult truth: Hiring lots of designers does not automatically equal business success. What’s more, many companies do design thinking wrong, leading them to abandon the framework or declare that it doesn’t work. They’re being ineffectual and not having impact, making many question the value of design thinking itself. That’s not a failure of design. It’s a failure to implement design well.

Interestingly, the Fast Company article mentions IBM as one of the early adopters of design, with our goal, announced in 2014, to hire 1,000 designers. It fails to mention that while other companies are bailing on design, we are doubling down.

Today we have 3,000 designers at IBM, including dozens of design executives, and they are embedded in every part of our business.

We know that to get the value of our design investment, we must create the conditions for design to thrive. That means getting continuous feedback from customers, developing strong cross-functional teams, and creating opportunities for ongoing learning. Ultimately, it means transforming the mindset and culture of everyone at our company and getting us all to pull in the same direction.

At IBM, we have trained close to half a million people, inside and outside of IBM, on the fundamentals of design thinking. We not only make our products and services better, we apply these same human-centered design skills to unlock innovation and help our business run better and more efficiently. And we are reaping the benefits. Some examples:

IBMers are becoming more innovative and effective

· Our Enterprise Design Thinking (EDT) program is helping us reduce development time by 75% and get to market twice as fast. The ROI on our investment in this program is 300%. A study in 2020 found that when we used EDT with our clients through IBM Garage, they experience a 10x increase in innovative ideas.

· We regularly hold “design jams” to bring hundreds of IBMers from different business units together to apply short, intense bursts of design thinking to big, new user experience problems. In a recent design jam on sustainability, 92% of participants reported that the process made them more innovative.

Our products and services are improving dramatically

· Products with a mature design team have seen a 33 percentage point improvement in Net Promoter Scores, on average.

· Most of our software products now go through a Design and User Experience (D&UX) review before shipping, where they are assigned a grade based on standard usability heuristics. These reviews are attended by product managers, developers, and designers, and foster a sense of shared accountability for shipping great products. We have seen a 10% improvement in average D&UX scores, year over year.

· Many individual products and product lines have undergone dramatic improvements once they were assigned a design team, and soon after, sales and adoption improve as well. For example, our IBM Z (z15) mainframe business has seen a whopping 45% increase in install base over the previous version. As a Harvard Business School Case Study showed last year, the transformation was in large part due to our investment in design thinking.

· IBM software products have been raking in the design awards. In 2022 alone, we won five coveted Red Dot awards for software products in Cloud, Security, and AI, as well as our open source Carbon Design System, and client work for the BARMER mobile experience.

· Design teams that support IBMers are winning awards, too. For example, this year the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) announced IBM’s intranet (w3) was a repeat winner of its Intranet Design Annual Award.

“It’s unusual for the same organization to win our contest more than once, but it’s incredible and unprecedented for an organization to win four times,” wrote NN/g. “Yet this is exactly what IBM has done, as the quest for a better employee experience is not just a set of projects at IBM. It’s a culture.”

Our Carbon Design System is saving money and time and making products excellent

IBM has invested in creating and maturing a single design system for all software products and web experiences. As a result, we are seeing:

· Massive savings in developer time — about 2,000 hours for each Carbon component that is reused. Multiply that by hundreds of components adopted by hundreds of individual products and millions of web pages.

· Products that adopt Carbon instantly become more accessible for people with visual and hearing impairment, and more usable and delightful for all. NPS scores of individual products often increase dramatically after Carbon adoption.

· Carbon is an open source system, and our IBM Consulting business now regularly works with clients to help them adopt and get the most out of Carbon.

A lot has changed since 1999. Have you?

Twenty years ago, I had boundless patience for explaining the value of design. Those days are over. Digital design left the garage a long time ago. Businesses that think they can “break up” with design are fooling themselves. Their products are still “designed.” The only difference is now they aren’t designed by skilled professionals.

As GM of Design for IBM, I implore our designers to understand our business and the complex technical domains in which they work. I expect them to learn the language and practices of product and offering management and engineering so they can be effective partners on our teams.

What will I not ask them to do? Explain why their work has value.

If you are a product manager, offering manager, business leader, sales leader, engineering leader, account executive, or executive at any size company in the world, and you still don’t get design, that’s on you. You have an obligation to educate yourself. If you don’t, you will be left behind.

No one needs you to be a design expert. But you do need to understand the role you play in making design successful. Because design success is product and company success. Design success is your success. Here are three resources that will help you learn some of the basics:

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, by Alan Cooper

What CEOs Need to Know About Design: A business leader’s guide to working with designers, by Audrey Crane

IBM Enterprise Design Thinking: Fundamentals Course | This is a free 2-hour self-paced online training that our program has made available to anyone, anywhere who wants to learn the basics of human-centered design.

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Do you have other learning suggestions? Please add them in the comments.

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The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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Katrina Alcorn
IBM Design

General Manager, Design at IBM. “MAXED OUT” Author http://amzn.to/2mCZsAT Opinions are my own.