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The languages of business and design

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 10, 2009

Last week, I attended the MX (“managing experience”) conference in San Francisco. Hosted by the design firm, Adaptive Path, the conference blurb declared: “In this tightening economy, it’s more crucial than ever to make explicit the business value of design.” The audience of 100 or so attendees was mainly made up of those working within corporate user experience (UX) design teams or external consultancies working with the same.

Speakers at the two-day event discussed the ways in which they’ve focused on their intended customers in order to build their businesses to date. Brian Kalma, director of user experience at Zappos, outlined the online shoe seller’s much-touted approach to using social media (blogs, Twitter) as a marketing tool. “How does the company do this in an organized, predictive way?” he asked at one point. It doesn’t. “That’s the point!” he added.

Margaret Gould Stewart, manager of the user experience team at YouTube, gave a perspective on how Google’s focus on its user drives innovation within the company writ large. “Google search in particular was born from the belief that if you focus on user happiness and satisfaction then a successful business model will follow,” she said. (Interestingly, she also said you rarely hear the “I-word” mentioned within the Mountain View-based GooglePlex. Instead, all employees “are charged with slaying every sacred cow within every discipline.”) Meanwhile, Margret Schmidt of TiVo outlined how her company is “design-driven, not technology-driven” in order to ensure its product is something that will appeal to a broad swathe of society that includes the technologically illiterate, not just the world’s geeks.

But the greatest insight for me came from the workshop that concluded the first day.

The Experience Strategy Challenge saw attendees split into groups in order to focus on developing a specific strategy for a fictitious, Atlanta-based bank. My group, led by Sara Beckman, the former HP exec who’s now co-director of the Management of Technology Program at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, had to make the case for a user experience-focused strategy to the bank’s new CMO in a workshop entitled "Get Inside the Mind of Your CMO".

In the end, our small group didn’t do too badly. But it quickly became starkly clear that one of the biggest impediments to the adoption of design-based strategies in business is, ironically enough, designers themselves. Despite repeated entreaties from Beckman for metrics or details, our group stumbled — even though invented figures were actively encouraged in this context. “But tell me why,” pleaded Beckman, after once again one of us described design as “relevant” or “important”. Beckman, who the following day gave a wider-ranging talk on the strategic role of design in business, was supportive but unimpressed. “Whether we like it or not, we’re still driven by the financial statements of a company,” she said. “This stuff can be really dry and seem really boring and yet it’s at the core of what makes companies tick… If you can’t understand it then how can you possibly have a conversation?”

It all emphasizes a point that others have made repeatedly (cf, for instance, lectures and articles by the Dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin, who for the past few years has eloquently described the disconnect between the worlds of business and design.) But it was eye-opening to have this theoretical language barrier made so very clear in one three hour exercise.

Frankly, it doesn’t bode well for designers. Now, more than ever, as all around look to find efficiencies and cut costs, they need to be tuned in to make an emphatic case for their discipline that is very clearly based on more than gut and instinct. They need to engage and embrace their corporate overlords, and they clearly need to learn a new language in order to do so. I know many designers who love to feel like they’re part of a secret cult, but remaining aloof or apart isn’t a viable option. And falling back on that time-honored tactic of blaming the client or boss for “not getting it” won’t wash these days either. Designers love to say that design is far more than skin deep. Now they need to learn to talk the walk and find the words and metrics to prove it.

Reader Comments

Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

March 11, 2009 9:57 AM

I believe the supply and demand for information will continue to be text-based throughout the century (at least).

Design (the way I understand the concept - quote similar to "usability" IMHO) is primarily of significance at the point of "conversion".

Sifting and winnowing happens in text, but other aspects ("design") can motivate to action -- but iff ("if and only if") the user is present (which is what will happen during sifting and winnowing -- or "search" -- process).

:) nmw

Ravi Sawhney

March 11, 2009 7:18 PM


Great topic and one that challenges all of us.

I like to think at times as our clients as patrons and ourselves as facilitators.

Recalibrating the design profession is part of designing our future.

And, its absolutely the most amazing time to be a designer. Its filled with challenge and struggle which will lead us to a path of great value and success.

That is for those who see it, believe and are willing to evangelize it.

Hiding in the comfort of designer mindset and speak, will only force those who do, to miss the real ride that's coming up for us.

So, thank you for your insight reporting and comments. Now its time to use design to design our future.

Ravi Sawhney

Priyanka D

March 12, 2009 3:17 AM

Interesting article. The finances is the main concern of a business. Designers have to take that into consideration.


March 30, 2009 6:22 AM

I'm a classically trained graphic designer with a BFA from one of the top art schools on the east coast. The first 5 years of my career were spent working witht other designers in small to medium size design firms. Then, I moved in-house,and started designing for one of the world's largest mutual fund companies.

One of the first things that I noticed in the new environment was that I was no longer part of the majority. I was a minority, surrounded by people who were speaking a different language. The conversations at the water cooler were no longer about typography, kerning and leading, they were about ROI, cost benefit analysis, and Six-Sigma defect measurement methodologies. My head almost blew up.

This is when the typical inquisitive and resilient nature of being a designer came in handy. I decided that instead of quitting and finding a more familiar culture, I would perservere by going back to school and learning this language that my new peers were speaking.

Eleven years later, with BFA and MBA in hand, I manage a User Experience team at the same company. I have also, more importantly, begun working with a number of design schools to evolve and restructure their programs to help students learn the language of both design and business.

I encourage all designers to take responsibility for the future of our industry by looking inward first.

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