MIX08: The Business Value of Design

by Luke Wroblewski March 7, 2008

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at Microsoft’s MIX08 with Dave Blakey (IDEO), David Watson (Disney/ABC), Jason Brush (Schematic), Jimmy Kim (Nexon), and our moderator Will Tschumy (Microsoft).

We discussed many facets of creating business value through design and dissected a few key ingredients for success. Here are some of my thoughts on the outline we worked from (a full video of the session is coming soon):


What do you consider a design problem?

Since I come from a visual design background, I define a design problem as one that requires communication with people that goes beyond words. Though some might define design problems more broadly, I’m apprehensive about casting the net too wide. There are many problem-solving methodologies and a design approach is certainly one of them but I’ve found it’s not applicable to every situation. However, when you need to communicate functionality in an interactive application, or consistently deliver a brand message, or even present a corporate strategy with PowerPoint, a design approach is essential.

Is there a common understanding of design in your organization?

Jess McMullin did a great job illustrating the different levels of design competency in his design maturity continuum (PDF). The one in most people’s head is design as styling: “can you make this look good?” More recently, it’s become commonplace for design to be associated with defining functionality as well: “can you make this usable and enjoyable?” However, there are still few people outside the design industry who regularly turn to designers for problem solving and framing challenges.

How do you talk about the value of design?

Because design is often defined quite broadly, I make a clear distinction between the value design deliverables, methodologies, and principles can provide. Design deliverables (the end result of the design process) can help create experiences that are meaningful, enjoyable, and usable. Design methodologies can provide a problem-solving framework that leverages empathy, observation, and rapid iteration to solve problems that matter to people in the real world. Design principles can help people make sense of an increasing amount of information and opportunity. They simplify the world around us and make it understandable.

Each of these aspects of design is potentially valuable for the bottom line. Design deliverables help sell products and services. Design methodologies help companies stay relevant and in tune with customer needs. Design principles aid decision-making and organizational efficiency.

How has the vocabulary you’re hearing from customers about design changed?

From my experiences working with and talking to many firms in the Web application space, the past few years have been proliferated with five u’s: user experience, usability, and user, user, user. On one hand, it’s great to hear many companies putting “user experience as their top priority”. On the other, it’s often just lip service. When push comes to shove and the trade-offs between timelines, cost, or capabilities and a great user experience need to be made, design rarely takes priority.

I think this stems from the fact that though value can be gleaned from design, it comes with a cost. While many companies will tout products like the iPhone as their aspiration, few will put in the herculean amount of effort a product like the iPhone requires. Getting business value from design requires investment and risk. Not many organizations are willing to put in the effort.