You're Telling Me Designers Should Business?

Posted about a year ago
Eight-ish min read about Tech

It might be feeling like a wonky time to be a designer in technology right now. Between forces like looming layoffs and AI advancements, a specific kind of pressure can appear. That pressure often leads to folks re-evaluating what the role of a designer should be.

The role of a designer has always surfaced in many different ways over time, even before computers existed. What a designer actually needs to design changes a lot about the definition of role. Whether it be designing furniture or software, the act of design is ultimately the ability to shape an idea into reality.

So the specific skills needed to make the specific idea you're designing both a reality and a success might change based on the needs of the company you're working for and the team you're on. It can also change based on specific outside pressures a company is facing in order to be successful.

With the technology industry facing more macro-economic pressure this year, there seems to be a bigger push for designers to understand "business" more without always clearly defining what that actually looks like. Let's talk about it.

Should designers code business???

When I was working at Etsy in 2017, the company announced that they were laying off nearly a fourth of the employees and the board was replacing the CEO.

At the time, I was gobsmacked. I had been designing at Etsy under the good ol' classic premise a lot of designers design under, "good design above all," and I was really proud of the work we had done thus far, so how could this be? The team was incredible. We were motivated and seemed making progress on our goals. What was happening?

In that moment I realized I really didn't understand the fundamentals of how Etsy's business worked. I didn't actually know why Etsy had to change so drastically and realized I needed to learn quick so we could continue to stay in business and I could continue working with all the people I loved working with.

In that time, I studied and learned from others on the ins-and-outs of how an e-commerce business measured success — conversion rates, revenue targets, brand sentiment, and other metrics that would tell investors "hey, we're doin okay, please continue to give us money."

It was also an opportunity to better understand the importance of efficiency and prioritization and also help me realize the costs and benefits of what I considered "good design."

The concept of Good Design™ is often positioned as a noble pursuit — a way for designers to contribute something to the world that makes it somehow more beautiful and useful. Usually it's based on something that Dieter Rams, Steve Jobs, or some other revered design god had said was important, but often it's more of a feeling — often it really boils down to taste.

Good design is important because... I think it's important? That's good enough right?

Taste is a big reason a lot of designers have a hard time explaining the value of good design to others or even be able to define what good design actually is themselves. It's something that's ingrained into your mind as you refine your craft and therefore often has personal biases that can make it difficult to explain clearly.

Because of this, over-indexing on good design alone can become a distraction that will cause you to miss out on other things that can better help customers and lead to better business outcomes.

This is why understanding both business goals and and your customers is critical if you want to make a deeper impact as a designer. Now more than ever.

Most of understanding business comes down to understanding the setting and measurement of goals. Whether a company is public or private, they essentially give guidance to investors saying: "we think we can do (x) thing by (y) date" and investors check in to see if they actually did it and base their confidence in that company on the results of that measurement.

Higher confidence usually means continued investment and continued investment means that we (in theory) all still have jobs. Hooray!

Each company will have its own specific KPI (Key Performance Indicators) metrics that it's measuring its success and reporting on. It could be strictly revenue or it could be leading indictors of potential revenue like user acquisition, conversion rates, or active usage by customers.

If you're a designer, it's incredibly helpful to understand what those things are for your company for so you can take those things as inputs to the design work you're doing.

To put more simply, if someone is paying you for a design job, their expectation of you is that you make them more successful. Understanding how they measure success and how your work impacts it will ultimately help you become a more valuable employee.

But you're not just any employee. You're a designer! You care about things that other people might not and might see opportunities other people might overlook.

How might we use design as an invaluable lever to help us reach business goals?

By understanding business goals and explaining clearly how a specific design approach can bolster specific metrics based on your understanding of the customer, the conversation becomes less about "why aren't we focusing on good design as a company??" and more "how might we use design as an invaluable lever to help us reach business goals?"

This often takes a bit of responsibility and proactivity, especially if design isn't traditionally expected to do that at your company. Talk to your partners across product, data science, marketing, support and pay attention to what company leadership seems to be most focused on.

Try to understand as much context you can about what the goals are for the business every quarter and what has been most successful in driving similar goals in the past.

Understand why customers may not be doing the things the business wants them to do and look for where the gaps are in the product for the experience to be more successful with an improved design.

However! A problem I see too often is that designers feel that they have to end up swinging the pendulum too far towards the direction of business and start to only consider company KPIs as a measurement of success.

Sometimes it's good to do things just because it feels like the right thing to do.

In a topsy-turvy economy, it's easy to forget that there are things can be considered important without them being important to investors. Not everything has to have a 100% measurable business metric attached to it in order for it to be still impactful for the business. This is often where taste actually becomes extremely beneficial.

Much like people, companies separate themselves and align with likeminded individuals through personality. Whether intentional or not every company has a specific perception. That's often where brand and marketing step in to help, but the best product teams recognize this is not just a job for brand and marketing but also in how you build the product itself.

Design can be a solid perception differentiator between competitors through the lens of either quality (consistency, reliability, ease of use, etc) to alignment of personal values (fun, engaging, luxurious, etc), but these things are much harder to measure in the short term and often come through in longer term metrics like LTV (lifetime value). Which essentially asks: is your product good enough to keep people around?

Design is a balance between the short-term and the long-term.

While good design can have short term value, a lot of the harder to measure value comes in the long term and requires some element of risk, which is why balance is critical.

You need to deliver value in the short term in order to keep the business going, but thinking for the long term is really where designers shine.

A unique skill I see in designers more than other profession is a free sense of wonder. Our job is to conjure up the future, so you have to be at least a little imaginative in order to do that. That's often why we're more uniquely positioned than other roles to think long term.

The beauty is that imagination is the same imagination you had as a kid. The same imagination that turned sticks into swords, trees into castles, and the floor to lava is still inside you giving you ideas on how to solve problems in interesting ways.

This is why it's incredibly important that we continue to nurture that imagination. It's what makes us designers and also what makes us human. It not only gives us ideas, it connects us with people and gives us life and purpose.

So while it's helpful to understand what makes a business successful and use that to prioritize work, it can't be the only thing we do. We can't boil our profession down to just making numbers go up and down. People use the things we make and we should put in effort and care to make the world slightly more beautiful if only for the fact the world deserves beauty.

That doesn't also mean we should just design whatever we want in lieu of what the company needs to be successful either, it's about understanding how to frame the work you want to do in a way that isn't ignorant of the realistic needs of the business.

No matter who you are, the better you can understand how your company makes money and what your role in helping them do is, the better you can also push for ideas that are beyond what a company can see.

That's where the good stuff really comes in — ideas that are both beautiful and economical. It's possible. I've seen it!

At the end of the day life is short and businesses are even shorter. So definitely make sure you can do what you can to keep the company you work for successful, but please do me a favor and don't lose your sparkle in the process.

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