Design Discipline Should Not Represent Business

Design Discipline Should Not Represent Business

I mean it.

But, Designers Should Understand the Business.

A Personal Story

When I had a retail business, a nearby vacant lot was frequented by drug dealers. Home Depot proposed to develop the area, but the neighborhood center blocked the proposal and demanded a comprehensive impact study. I was puzzled. Obviously, any business move-in will be much better than what is there now and bring jobs to the neighborhood. The neighborhood center executive director, Mauricio Vela, explained, “We’re not opposed. But someone must ensure the business considers the neighborhood’s impact, social impact and environmental impact. If we don’t stand up for it, who will?”

Design and Business

Lately, I’ve heard arguments that design needs to pivot to represent business more, suggesting that design loses its seat at the table if it doesn’t. However, there’s a critical difference between representing the business as a discipline versus understanding it as a practitioner.

Design a Discipline

EPD Model Venn Diagram

The EPD (Engineering, Product Management, and Design) structure exists for a reason, with each discipline offering unique perspectives on product development.

  • Engineering’s Role: Engineers focus on the feasibility and implementation of technical solutions.
  • PM’s Role: Product Managers focus on the needs of the business. Align product to the business goals.
  • Design’s Role: Design represent the customer, focusing on user experience and needs.

As illustrated, each discipline has its primary responsibility. If the design discipline also represents the business, we risk prioritizing organizational goals over user-centric solutions.

If we don’t stand up for it, who will

Recently, there has been a trend for some major businesses to remove their design leaders, not because they don’t believe in customer experience or focus on customers’ voices, but because they believe design could be a sub-division of or a service to product management. Since product management already talks to customers, they can relay the information to design.

PMs are talking to the customers. Very true. But, are they talking to the customers who are using the product day in and day out?

NO.

It is crucial to understand that there are different customer voices. PMs talk with product owners, those who manage budgets and pay for the product. Absolutely, it is important to hear the product owners’ voices and pain. However, this is very different from the end users, who the design discipline focuses on. Design needs to speak with those who are using the product every day and observe how they interact with it, what job they need to get done, and what their journey is. Designating with customer support can ensure a holistic end-to-end customer experience.

Therefore, design discipline should represent customers and only customers.

Designers as  design practitioners

taking into consideration of the business need and articulate user experience

As designers, we need to understand that, essentially, we are serving our customers, but we are also serving the business that hired us. Therefore, we need to understand the business.

As Katrina Alcorn emphasized in her article here, good design is (still) good business.  

…I implore our designers to understand our business and the complex technical domains in which they work. I expect them to learn the language and practices of product and offering management and engineering so they can be effective partners on our teams.

What will I not ask them to do? Explain why their work has value.

—Katrina Alcorn

  • Speaking the business language: When presenting and discussing design works, designers must understand who they are presenting to. If the audience is their business partners, presenting the design decision from a business perspective will resonate with them. It is storytelling.
  • Understand the product strategy: Design practitioners must understand business goals and work with PMs and engineers to strategize and prioritize effectively. Striking a healthy balance. Prioritize high impact to the customer, high value to the business, and feasible product. It is strategy.

Many programs, from the accredited Design MBA program to AIGA+Yale School of Management’s “Business Perspectives for creative Leaders” to the D. MBA school, help designers acquire business skills. It is essential that design leaders who represent the industry can speak the business language. However, it is equally important for designers to articulate design decisions in business languages that resonate with cross-functional partners in everyday jobs.

Therefore, designers should absolutely understand the business.

It is a dual-role

Designers have long practiced this dual role.

However, the difference between Design as Discipline and design as practice has rarely been pointed out, and the difference of representing vs. understanding has never been outlined clearly.

Design practitioners must recognize and embrace our dual role: representing the customer as a discipline and understanding the business to deliver high-impact, high-value products as design practitioners. These roles are complementary, not exclusive.

Reference

Alcorn, K. (2022, December 2). Good Design Is (Still) Good Business. IBM Design. https://medium.com/design-ibm/good-design-is-still-good-business-a1e0c13f8a50

Image credit: Ben Kolde

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