These erasable tiles enable teams to visualize the flow of goods and services in a business

An Insider’s Guide To Business Design At IDEO

What “Good” Looks Like

Illustrated by Ina Xi

When I first joined IDEO as a business designer, I had no idea what the role would look like day-to-day. To start figuring it out, I turned to some of our veteran business designers. As I went from one conversation to the next, I was surprised to find that each person had a unique perspective around how business design can be applied to a given challenge. However, they all agreed on one thing:

Good business design is invisible.

If you’re considering becoming a business designer or working with one, you’re probably in search of what this “invisibility” looks like.

I recently sat down with three business designers at IDEO’s SF location to learn how they collaborated with other designers on their teams and applied business design to their most recent projects.

Here’s how they see good business design.

Our first interview is with Miki Heller who focuses on innovation in education.

Miki (center) getting immersed in the classroom with teachers

After studying aerospace engineering in college, Miki taught and consulted for Teach for America and founded a non-profit to mentor students in the college application process.

How would you describe business design to a third grader?

You know when you want a new toy? There’s a group of people who have designed it — its color, how big it is, how fast it goes. That’s the toy you get to play with.

But there are a lot of other questions that people answered when building the toy: How much do your parents have to pay for it? Where in the store can you find it? What should it say in the commercial? What should it be called?

Those questions help make the toy into a good business for the toy company. Business designers answer those questions. At IDEO we’ve found that if a toy company doesn’t have the answers to those questions, even the best toy won’t make it to the stores.

What’s your favorite design tool?

Okay, hear me out. I love Excel. It has a lot of hidden abilities which make it a reservoir that goes infinitely deep. The more you use it, the more you learn. Though the default setup doesn’t make for a good way to share things with a client or team, you can get creative (it gives you a lot of flexibility) and turn it into a really beautiful storytelling tool.

What skill do you think is most valuable to you in this role?

When we look for creative solutions to user problems, those solutions typically come in the form of a product or service. But what we deliver to a client — and what a customer eventually experiences — is not a product or service in a vacuum. It’s all the stuff around it too. I am able to think creatively around the design of the business by deconstructing all the assumptions around its business model and reassembling them to derive value in new ways. I believe that for a lot of products and services out there, the brilliance is in the business. Having hands-on experience in the education sector, I also bring deep industry expertise to my studio.

Now on to your most recent project. What was the design challenge? Our team was tasked with creating a global platform to help teachers in the classroom.

What did business design look like on the project? For many projects, the beginning involves some sort of competitive landscaping to understand who else is playing in the space. The education space is massive. I enlisted my team to help me dig in. We went through a round of research and compiled a list of organizations who could compete with or substitute the thing we were designing. We dug up more information about each company and bucketed them into categories to understand the different levers we were dealing with.

Then we did a timed activity: Each person chose a company’s name, spent fifteen minutes researching and writing a blurb about it, then shared it with the group. This was a great way for everyone to become aware of the landscape.

What were your biggest surprises? We traveled all over the world doing research for this project. We had hypotheses around how the classrooms would differ depending on location. But what we observed is that the education world is becoming flat. Teachers are increasingly turning to the internet for inspiration, so classrooms feel very similar. A teacher in India watches a YouTube video of a teacher in Italy for ideas.

What is a new product or business you admire?

The line of companies in the sharing economy. It’s admirable for a business to help people take something they don’t use much (for example cars and apartments) and turn it into an extra source of income. Good business design is one where you can see there is an obvious opportunity to stop wasting something valuable.

Now let’s move over to Carl Fudge who is part of our studio for organizational change.

Carl debriefing with Design Researcher Priti Rao after feedback sessions

Formerly a strategy consultant, Carl leads projects and is especially passionate about tech and finance.

How would you describe business design to another designer?

Business design focuses on making the business as beautiful as the design. Our clients are always making some sort of business decision. For example: Who would use it? How would we sell it? Would it make the client money? What makes this idea different from other solutions in this space?

Let’s talk about your most recent project. What was the design challenge? We were working with a client in financial services looking to attract millennials who don’t currently use their product.

Can you give me an example of a specific business design activity on the project? Our team came up with three different concepts for our client to test with millennials. Each of these concepts was based on first-hand research, which included talking to the target customer and experts. I also tried out competitive products and purely inspirational ones, identifying what worked and what didn’t based on what we had learned in the field. I then led the development of “pitch decks” for each concept, which included market sizing, customer segmentation, and projected revenue.

Thinking creatively about payments

What were your biggest surprises on the project? For a deeply personal topic like finances, it’s important to build a product people can trust — A product that feels like a trustworthy friend.

Looking outside IDEO, what is a product or business you admire?

I think Betterment is brilliant. It’s approachable and affordable and wrapped up in a nice online user experience. I recommend it to everyone. Do you use it? You should use it.

Our final chat is with Vaughn Baker who is particularly interested in new venture design.

Vaughn preparing for in-context user research sessions

Vaughn has previously worked at Bank of America and launched an equity crowdfunding startup.

How would you describe business design to your grandma?

My job is a lot like being a translator. But instead of translating language, I’m translating business concepts. Say I’m familiar with a concept, for example a pricing model, that seems to fit well with the idea our team is discussing. I’d teach my team the concept with enough detail so that they could apply it to our design concepts.

What’s your favorite design tool?

SPSS, a predictive analytics software. It is an effective tool for identifying differences between what people say and do.

What skill do you think is most valuable to you in this role?

Telling coherent stories. I often find myself trying to convey the relevance of an abstract concept to my team, and the best way I’ve found to do so is by telling a specific story of the concept playing out in the world.

Using fake money to visualize heat around possible product features

Let’s talk about your most recent project. What was the design challenge? We were helping a startup come up with an offering — the service and business model — that would cater to their target market.

What were one of your business design activities? When it was time to turn our research insights into concepts we could test, our team’s graphic designer sketched concepts while I designed a pricing model for each of them. That way, when we showed our ideas to target customers for feedback, they could react to the experience we were selling and what they would be willing to pay for it.

What was your biggest surprise? On my first project, I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t expected to just go into a hole and build a financial model. My role was more about introducing various business tools and frameworks to my team and deciding as a team whether it made sense for our context or not.

What is a new product or business you admire?

Codecademy. They’ve taken a subject matter that is conventionally known to be unapproachable and they’ve gameified it.


Behind-the-scenes complexities

There is no one definition of business design or one way to approach it. But there are certainly common threads that weave into this “invisible” tapestry.

Good business design is collaborating with other designers to deliver a fantastic end-to-end user experience.

It is about solving problems for the consumer and the client.

It is applied in different ways throughout a project, from conducting competitive user experience analyses early on to running pricing experiments mid-project to building a robust financial case into the final concept.

It is invisible because it takes complex systems — the way a business is run, the way customers engage with a business, and the way a team understands the business — and makes them so simple that things just work. For the business and its customers.


Have a business+design topic or challenge you’d like us address? Send us a note at askBxD@ideo.com.