When Companies Question the Value of Design

‘What’s the ROI of UX?’ is the most idiotic question ever asked

Alan Cooper
Jul 3, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Designers get asked the value of their work all of the time. They never have a good answer.

There are good reasons for this. Often, designers don’t actually add value. They tweak colors and shapes of objects on the screen, or they move controls from one side to the other. They change the hamburger menu to a tossed-salad menu. When much of what passes for interaction design is really just visual tweaking, what quantifiable value does it provide? Not much.

But far and away, the reason design practitioners don’t add value is that their organizations prevent them from doing so.

If your boss is asking you to quantify the value of your work, you need to understand that your work indeed has no value. Not at that company. Not with that boss.

The people who hire designers and ask them what their value is pretty clearly don’t know what designers do, don’t really care, and don’t really want any value they might contribute.

There are far, far more “UX designers” employed today than there were 20 years ago, and yet most of the newly created software I use today suffers from the same interaction errors that were around 20 years ago. The failures of contemporary software include some of the most basic, elemental, and egregiously unnecessary violations of good interaction-design principles that were called out and vanquished by the ’90s. Apps show me confirmation dialogs but fail to offer “undo.” Developers seem adamant that users grasp the nuances of the file system. The software fails to remember simple things that the user requests every time. The app is impolite, concealing its state and its consequences, and it interrupts the user with idiotic alarms. These are well-known user-interaction failures, and it is inexplicable and unforgivable that they continue to resurface in new products today.

What the hell kind of discipline allows that to happen?

Hmm, maybe a discipline that has no discipline. Maybe a discipline that values user surveys and interviews more than actual hard work. Maybe a discipline that likes drawing pretty wireframes instead of solving difficult problems of user understanding.

Or, maybe it’s a discipline that has Stockholm syndrome. Maybe it’s a discipline that accepts being marginalized by product companies that don’t understand or value user-centered design.

The defining characteristic of the early days of interaction design was fighting for a voice, fighting to be recognized. After emerging from the wreckage of the collapsing dot-com bubble, survivors finally embraced the value of design, and the practice surged. When the iPhone was released it became clear to everyone that products that behaved well had massive advantages. Design had finally won its seat at the table. But somehow, amid all the profit-taking, a familiar all-we-need-is-engineering-and-sales ethos that had defined the old Silicon Valley came roaring back.

Companies (big, successful companies like Sonos, Autodesk, and Apple) gradually marginalized the contributions of interaction design. Their brands were established, and they discovered once again that it was easier to convince users that their products were easy to use than it was to actually make them easy to use. And middle managers — always gaming the system, looking for personal advantage and professional advancement — began to ask questions like, “What is the ROI of UX?”

“Return on investment” is a manager’s term. Understanding it, tracking it, and increasing it are a manager’s job, not a practitioner’s. The designer’s job is to design, to make the product effective and desirable. It’s the manager’s job to make sure money is made from its being desired. And yet, managers continue to ask design practitioners about ROI. When they ask, they aren’t seeking enlightenment. They are expressing their doubts. They are voicing their skepticism. They are building a case against the discipline.

The people who hire designers and ask them what their value is pretty clearly don’t know what designers do, don’t really care, and don’t really want any value they might contribute.

And designers take the bait every time.

There are a thousand blog posts where design practitioners drag out case studies and click streams to defend the assertion that a well-behaved product makes more money. It’s a lot like those safety placards on chainsaws that say, “Possibility of Injury.” Duh.

The value of interaction design is massive and awesome! You can see its value a mile away. Interaction design makes users love their products, and makes product managers look like heroes. Apple built its reputation on it. Thousands of companies have bested their competition with it.

If your boss is asking you to quantify the value of your work, you need to understand that your work indeed has no value. Not at that company. Not with that boss.

So when your boss asks you “What is the value of your work?” you have only two valid courses of action: 1) Accept that you and your situation are a valueless combination, or 2) Go some place where your work is valued. Go somewhere that doesn’t ask the value of your work, but instead values your work!

If you cannot find a company that values your work, you are experiencing what it was like back in the 1970s, when the software revolution began. When the entrepreneurial revolution in Silicon Valley began. When established companies doubted anything that wasn’t engineering or sales.

Back in the ’70s, the company that invented the microcomputer refused to believe that it was actually a computer. The company that invented personal computing refused to believe that people wanted computers. The company that created the first operating system refused to believe that people wanted it to be easy to use. These were all failures of vision, blinded as those managers were by all of the money they were making. And successful, disruptive startups grew these tiny niches into giant markets. Entrepreneurs knew those big companies were wrong. They knew the value of their own thinking, their viewpoints, their innovations. They didn’t allow their boss to dictate their value.

The question isn’t, “How can I convince my boss of the value of UX?” The question is, “How can I convince myself of the value of my own work?” What is the value of your work? Does your work have value? If it’s not obvious, it doesn’t have any.

Written by

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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