How to raise the impact of design in your organisation

This article is based on a keynote I first gave at the Service Design Network event “Designing for Change” in 2018. It has since then been revisited with more examples and updated links for a keynote at the Maersk design conference “Motivation Deconstructed” in 2020. The article is directed towards in-house design contributors and leaders, who want to maximise their impact inside an organisation. It is based on my professional experience and learnings from the last ten years.

Table of content

The potential of design
How to understand your current design maturity level
How to secure the buy-in for design
How to show the value of design for the first time
How to deliver continuous value with design

The potential of design

In the scene above the creative director Don Draper reveals an ad campaign for Heinz ketchup bottles — which don’t contain the ketchup bottles. Don insists that the tagline — “Pass the Heinz” — is a winner because the company name is already synonymous with ketchup. His argument is: “The greatest thing you have working for you is not the photo you take or the picture you paint; it’s the imagination of the consumer”. What Don misses is that the executives in front of him never learnt to put themselves in their customer’s shoes. So what they are left with is to judge the work by how it looks. And they are not happy.

Design used to be this discipline of eccentric language that makes it hard to understand by those who do not have design training. Bu we as designers learned, we improved and we established ourselves as a more integrated practice that can be understood by all. And this transition of design has a name: Design Maturity.

Design Maturity measures the impact and overall value of design over time and throughout different areas of the business.

Studies have been examining the value a more mature design discipline can bring to an organisation. This report by Forrester on IBM’s Design Thinking Programme show how design maturity can drive productivity with projects needing 33% less time resulting in nearly $1.5million average cost savings. By bringing design thinking into the business, not only was IBM able to increase productivity of designers, but it impacted the productivity of the engineers and overall teams working on building their products and they were able to bring their products to market 50% faster. Or take this report by McKinsey which shows how design-enabled companies can accelerate revenue growth of the company by up to 10%.

When companies that put design at the heart of their business are able to return a higher value to their shareholders, why isn’t every organisation doing it? Because in these numbers lie complexity. So let’s unpack this complexity a little.

Design Maturity is usually measured in five levels. Most organisations start at level 1 and work their way up to level 5.

Level 1: Aesthetics
Design is utilised as a way to make solutions look good. Designers are typically the last step in the process. Design is often seen as the bottleneck, since the “important” work has already been done.

Level 2: Connected
Design at this level is now working with different departments around an organisation. For the first time, the departments task designers to find solutions to actual problems.

Level 3: Integrated
When design is integrated it is no longer bound to the walls of the design office. It has autonomy and facilitates creative problem-solving sessions for other teams in the organisation (such as marketing or sales).

Level 4: Strategy
At this level design is highly integrated across the business and spends months out of the year in the field doing research. Design supplies insights to create strategies that fit the business and the customer needs.

Level 5: Culture
The final level is a very rare position for a company to reach. When design becomes a culture, everyone across the business understands what design is, how it fits in, and may even use its processes in their day to day work. It’s not that everyone becomes a designer, it’s that everyone understands how to solve problems in a creative and systematic way. People are open to new ideas, they prototype, they challenge their assumptions, and they focus on creating customer-centered experiences.

A recent study by Invision with 2200 companies found out that the majority of organisations are still being stuck in seeing design as delivering aesthetic-only value. Only 5% of organisations actually reach the last stage, which raises the question How for the other 95%.

How to understand your current design maturity level

Raising the impact of design in your organisation basically comes down to two phases: an analysis phase in which you lay the groundwork and a continuous value delivery phase in which you show the value of design.

There are many maturity models available to measure the high-level impact of design in your organisation:

While all models are worth your time, I want to highlight two models. If we have a look at Jakob Nielsen’s model, we can see that it describes in total eight stages for design to reach maximum impact. Interestingly, the model claims that “it takes about 20 years to move from stage 2 (extremely immature approach to user experience) to stage 7 (very mature UX discipline). Companies probably need another 20 years to reach the last stage [Stage 8, culture].” The exact timing obviously differs among organisations. Start-ups might be more customer-centered from the beginning, while a more traditional industry such as property management might be still in the first level.

At a lower level organisations might be tempted to try to bootstrap the situation and move directly to one of the higher levels, asking everybody to do everything that’s recommended in the full user-centered design process. From my own experience I can say that this approach will fail, because the change attempt will stop once the drivers behind the change leave the organisation and no one is pushing anymore. As humans are habitual creatures, we need time to adjust, understand and learn the introduced changes before we can advance. Organisations need to progress in sequence and you need to accept that it takes time and patience.

If you want to understand what is preventing you from moving to an upper stage, the Design Maturity Matrix can help to identify indicators. The matrix consists of five key categories which are similar to the five levels of design maturity:

Empathythe understanding of your customers in your organisation,
Mastery — the execution of design thinking and crafting in your organisation,
Character — the support for design in your organisation,
Performance — the market’s response to the output of your organisation,
Impact — the cultural, social and its environmental legacy through its design.

The measurement is done by answering a questionnaire which will give you a maximum average score of 5.0 as an output. Below you can see two examples of matrix outcomes:

You can see how useful the matrix is to score design maturity in your organisation. It will give you the foundation for your further efforts and can be used to continuously benchmark your efforts.

How to secure the buy-in for design

Often we are told as designers to get the buy-in first and then we can do more and better design. And here’s where I don’t agree. I don’t think that the buy-in comes first. Let’s have a look at two typical scenarios an organisation might find itself in:

Scenario 1
An organisation is open to make some sort of an investment in design — maybe because it wants to become more user-centered, they may have heard about the potential of user-centered thinking and/or is lacking customer insights. But at the same time it is also lacking knowledge of how to make the investment, and is keen on not just investing in the design team.

Scenario 2
An organisation’s leadership team needs to be convinced to make an investment, and thats usually because management sees design as a bottleneck, or as an aesthetics-only discipline.

If you look at the core of the problem when an organisation is at a lower level, it is that the team can’t see beyond aesthetics or other forms of outputs for design. They don’t think of design as process and it’s on you as a design contributor or leader to challenge their assumptions and convince them otherwise. It’s on you to start showing the value of design to your stakeholders.

How to show the value of design for the first time

When I joined a young and fast growing ecommerce retailer in 2017, it aimed to be first in class when it comes to customer experience and service. Every team showed high levels of empathy, but the low levels of Mastery set the boundaries when it came to user-centered impact. At that time design was mostly centered around communication output like posters, banners, campaigns, etc. Design was measured by how slick it looked in mockups on ultrawide monitors. A process which worked well for marketing, but very ineffective for their digital products. A more effective process needed a restructuring of the organisations and redefinition of design, which required me to show the whole organisation what design processes are and what they are capable of.

To show the value of design, I recommend to fill three requirements:

  1. Choose a low-maturity area of the business.
    A low-maturity area usually describes a part of the business where design hasn’t been invited before, which limits the team’s abilities to create high impact.
    In my organisation, I picked the internal tools which support teams in their daily work and are developed in-house. These products are constantly evolving to the needs of the organisation, which makes them more and more complex to use. Usually, the team would formulate a brief of requirements and engineers would implement a couple of new buttons that would answer to the requirements. Designers would not be invited to this process.
  2. Integrate design.
    Once an area of the business to work with is chosen, its stakeholders should experience the potential of design first-hand. A designer should facilitate their work and provide them methods to find better solutions.
    In my organisation, I facilitate workshops, mapping activities, and co-designing sessions for the internal tools team. We were able to iterate quickly because we had direct access to the users.
  3. Create measurable results (fast).
    To demonstrate the value of a more mature design for the business, it is necessary to measure performance and impact instantly. Focus is on the existing business KPIs here.
    In my organisation, the users liked the outcome of the sessions so much that they pitched the solutions to their own managers. They themselves could estimate how much faster they were able to do their jobs and how much more satisfied they would be with the improvements.

It was a successful example of what value design can offer and word spread across the organisation. As a result, managers increased project budgets not particularly for a new designer or the design department, but for design to happen: from small budgets like having better tools at hand to eventually building a new product design team which was integrated into the business units rather than being its own department.

How to deliver continuous value with design

With some funding secured, expectations are raised. It is time to deliver on the promise. Although the second phase is very similar to the first phase, value delivery will happen on a more broader and systematic way. Every effort in this phase needs to be built on the intersection of three pillars:

  1. Include design Practice where design practice was excluded from before and keep on elevating design as a craft.
  2. Integrate stakeholders into the design process and expand the horizons of the People working with designers.
  3. And finally measure design against the existing KPIs of the organisation’s business Platform.

One of the reasons, why I mentioned the Design Maturity Matrix further above, is that it is a great tool to continue to benchmark your efforts. It also helps with its key categories to target efforts more specifically.

Lower the customer avoidance of your team members

In one of my previous work we had a lot of users calling in for support. I wanted the teams working on building a product to be aware of how their users talk about their product and what bothers them. I would organize listening sessions, in which teams could listen in on the support for an hour — they weren’t required to take any notes or anything specific.

Afterwards we would debrief where I would just ask them what they noticed. Their insights were not gonna have direct impact on their work, but it wasn’t about that, it was about starting to develop a different mindset. Later, the same participants were offered to get trained in user research and participate in conducting field research. Designers would plan and recruit users, while product managers and developers would do the actual research. And that’s when empathy didn’t need to be enforced by designers anymore. It was a natural step, where stakeholders would take a stance for the users and defend them in meetings.

Break down silos within the design discipline

Raising mastery happens within the design discipline inside an organisation. Designers often work independently of each other in projects or are assigned to verticals, which let’s them work in silos. Designers have to break out of these silos and develop their own community and agenda outside of the daily work.

Maybe designers start with their own lunch talk series to share inspirations. These talks can be short and theme based, or loosely like a designer talking about an interesting insight from a project, or a hobby which is relatable to something within your design discipline, or a book/movie recommendation, etc. A different example are workshop sessions to train the latest design tools, prototyping methods, or research analysis. Make sure to invite non-designers to these sessions. You’d be surprised how many will sign up!

Turn saboteurs into your allies

Changing an organisation will naturally create saboteurs. Be prepared to identify them and turn them into your allies.

At a previous workplace every meeting room was equipped with a whiteboard but not a single room had markers, post-its or cleaning tools. The office manager removed them, because in their opinion the rooms would be too dirty after meetings. After we found a solution together, I created spaces for creative collaboration and turned a meeting room into a permanent design thinking room? If thats not possible, you can prepare portable design boxes that contain all you need for a creative session.
Design leadership is responsible for the political game inside an organisation, but also to secure budgets for initiatives and conference visits.

Eliminate uncertainty by measuring your output

Many designers I’ve met don’t want to learn even the basics of how an organisation works. But designers don’t need an MBA to understand how businesses function. If designers won’t measure their output, organisations will likely never know how much the design of the products or services play a part in the financial benefit of the company. That’s why a mature design discipline must be able to measure how much of its output is enjoyed by its users or recommended to others. You can start with simple measurements.

The mobile app of the ecommerce retailer mentioned above was basically a copy of the mobile website, which wasn’t great either. The app was performing very poorly and because of it performing so poorly, there was no budget to improve on the app. It’s a situation we’ve all been in: After all, how can a designer guarantee that a better design will drive higher revenue? By using existing Appstore ratings and collecting more positive ratings with a prototype through user testing, we were able to get the project green lighted. After release, the appstore rating went up to a 4.7 and the conversion rate doubled.

Being able to understand KPIs also helps to call someone else out. At one of my previous places I had a product manager who hated a part of a product and wanted to spend a lot of resources redesigning the part to his liking. We implemented a Hotjar question popup to find out if customers actually agree with the manager’s problem and majority of customers were fine — in fact had other problems we then went on to fix instead of focussing on the manager’s personal preference.

Stop ignoring the impact of your designs on the world

And last but not least, the most important step to design maturity: taking your cultural, social and environmental legacy through your design seriously, inside and outside your organisation. Ask yourself, how meaningful are your products and services to your customer’s life? How can you minimise your environmental impact? How much are you addressing the needs of minorities? And inside your organisation, are you emphasising fair and ethical work practices?

Final thoughts

Raising design maturity in an organisation is a complex process with many actors involved. I hope that this article helps to shed some light on how you can play a role in advancing the design maturity in your organisation. If not, let’s continue the conversation! I’m always curious about organisations — feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent the companies positions, strategies or opinions I worked with.

Principal Product Designer at Swiftcourt.com

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