How Designers Learn Business

Dom Goodrum
Percolate Design
Published in
4 min readFeb 14, 2016


Last week Joshua Taylor just wrote this piece on ‘Why designers shouldn’t code. They should study business.’ It gets at what I believe is the biggest responsibility of designers today — understanding the business of our customers to increase the impact design has.

Business + Design at Percolate

We are a design team of 14 people across New York and San Francisco. A mix of product designers that design our software, and a creative team that design our communications. Recently we’ve been discussing the skills we believe product designers need to create enterprise software. As a result we’ve broadened our definition of the product designer skill set to include business.

Research — The methods we use to identify and analyze field insights.

UX — The practices we use to map out our customer experiences.

Visual — The approach we take to apply our brand to enhance usability.

Systems — The understanding of how we integrate into the software ecosystem.

Business — The knowledge we have of how marketing works.

To further illustrate Joshua’s thoughts I’ve laid out the practices and activities that help designers at Percolate learn about the operations of our company, and the business of our customers.

Business from Day One

Business learnings begin on day one when designers join the company. Our onboarding documents and department sessions introduce them to our customers; who they are, how our software has helped them, and how each part of our company contributes to their success. We’ve also introduced a Marketing 101 so people can get a good sense of how the industry works.

Organizations and industries

We kick each week off with a business team meeting to share tactics around how each team is taking our software to market and expanding our relationships with our customers. Here key business challenges are surfaced and explained to everyone. This is helpful as it builds a profile of the personnel and intricacies that make-up the organizations of our customers. It also highlights the different needs across industry verticals.

What makes a deal

Our business team file field reports every time they interact with customers and prospects. These reports keep everyone on the business team updated on the tactics and moving parts of deals. Noah, one of our co-founders sends a bi-weekly note to our product team to share team updates, and also includes field highlights from the business team. Why is this information important for designers, product managers, and engineers? Knowing how deals are sold and which of our products influences deals provides a view on the market, and it’s also great feedback for the team.

Company operations deconstructed

Once a quarter our company all hands meetings provide a broader lense on our business. The cast of these meetings change from quarter to quarter. From financial reviews with Pete our CFO that provide a look at our performance and how we are operating our company, to customer success stories that show how our products are being used. Sales teams share lessons learned and team progress against revenue goals. Our Marketing team share strategies for how we’re approaching customer acquisition, and how we then manage and distribute these leads across the business. These sessions have naturally started to introduce new vocabulary that needs to be explained to the wider group. They also do a good job of showing how it all comes together; what’s involved in building a technology company.

Management perspective

Outside of company wide meetings we share timely updates with everyone. From subscription pricing changes to slides from board meetings. Being on the executive team has also provided me a valuable first hand view on the biggest opportunities we are focussed on. I’ve found this view allows me to share my observations with our design team. It helps me guide our projects, and shape our schedule as needed.

How our customers work

Day-to-day, designers are getting their hands dirty with business needs as we carry out research projects to better understand the jobs our customers do. These projects are guided by briefs which clearly layout the business objectives our customers are looking to support with software. We have various research methods from understanding the value of competitive pr0ducts, research interviews with customers, and prototype sessions to get feedback on product concepts. The big business lessons emerge when we take a step and process the learnings from a broad set of customers. This gives us a view on how company’s of different shapes and sizes operate and what their biggest workflow challenges are. From here we can plan how to shape our software designs to ensure it can be configured to meet all of their needs.

External commentary

Then there are the books people are reading across the company around the business of start-ups and marketers. A couple come to mind in Zero to One and How Brands Grow.

Learning on the job

Designers at Percolate tap into a range of things to pick-up business learnings. Currently this isn’t something we have designed as a learning program as such, it’s more of a ‘learnings on the job’ type of education.

The exposure we get to our company and customer’s businesses gives us the insights and perspective we need to solve problems. And this isn’t just about the design team benefiting. Our exchange of knowlege and insights has shaped our culture since we started the company in 2011.

There were times in the early days of the company when we designed without enough understanding of our customer needs and assumption took over. Needless to say those product releases didn’t have the impact we hoped for.

Today we operate with confidence knowing our design decisions are validated by real business needs and that the products they shape are going to deliver value to our customers.