5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Design Team

According to the latest data from Nielsen, the average American spends more than 11 hours per day looking at a screen of some kind. This finding has vast implications for companies across the board. Today, whether you are a bank, a retailer, a hotel chain, or a car maker, you are also a technology company. The primary touchpoint between you and your clientele is often digital. In this context, design has become a key differentiator in the battle for customers’ hearts and minds.

More and more organizations have begun to invest in their design practices — some in very high profile ways. Capital One has opened a series of research labs in cities across the U.S. as a way to deliver digital banking services tailored to modern consumers. IBM has invested more than $100 million to expand its digital design practice, including 1,000 new employees and 10 experience labs. Consulting firms like McKinsey, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young have acquired design shops in order to meet the growing demand for expertise in the field.

A recent study by my company InVision finds that organizations that have mastered design have seen outcomes that go far beyond improved product usability and customer satisfaction. Our data is based on a survey of more than 2,200 organizations around the world — from small businesses and non-profits to large enterprises and the Fortune 500. We asked each company about the specific behaviors their design team engages in, as well as the outcomes they see as a result of those behaviors. Our goal was to discover which processes separate companies that are simply practicing design from those who are truly using it as a key differentiator.

We identified five natural levels of design maturity, with Level 1 being the least mature and Level 5 being the most. Those at Level 5 are characterized by having achieved tangible benefits through their use of design, and have effectively institutionalized design to achieve those benefits repeatedly throughout the organization. Ninety-two percent of the companies that ranked at Level 5 said that they were able to draw a straight line between the efforts of their design team and their organization’s revenue. Eighty-five percent of those organizations said they’d delivered cost savings through design, and 84% said that design had improved their time to market.

One of the aims of the study was to identify the specific practices and behaviors associated with these kinds of concrete business benefits. We found that companies that achieve more business benefits through design exhibit some specific and markedly different behaviors than those that don’t. At the most design-mature companies, the entire organization — including the executive team —participates in design. This means that key stakeholders from outside the design team get involved in user research, work in shared software, and develop product ideas jointly.

What’s more, the organizations that saw the most concrete benefits treat it as a decision-making tool, whereas those who saw the least benefits approach design in a way that’s limited to improving the aesthetics of their app or website. Level 5 companies design processes to test and learn what best supports their customers’ needs. They also use design to strategize where and how to play in their market by developing a vision for new offerings that is informed by user research, validated with customers, and socialized throughout the organization.

Companies that are looking to realize the same business benefits can take a few critical steps to set their organization up for success. Below, we’ve put together a list of best practices based on the anonymous responses in our study, as well as real-life examples from companies that are living them.

Hire experienced design leaders. Building a team of solid design practitioners is just the first step towards building a successful design practice. Leaders who can create and share a vision, inspire their team and the rest of the organization, and advocate for design at the executive level are essential. Nearly two-thirds of the Level 5 companies in our study have teams led by design leaders who are directors and above, who likely have greater influence with executives, more accountability, and who are better positioned to develop strong partnerships with leaders in other functions. Ultimately, this means that the more senior the design leadership, the greater the impact on the bottom line.

Take the handcuffs off design. When compared to the Level 1 companies in our study, design leaders at the Level 5 organizations were nearly three times more likely to be involved in critical business decisions and to be peers with their counterparts in engineering and product management. They were four times more likely to own and develop key product and features with key partners, and nearly twice as likely to report directly to the CEO — underscoring the importance of empowering one’s design team within the context of the larger product team.

Netflix, noted for the level of autonomy it gives employees across the organization, has used a similar approach for its design team. Each product designer is empowered to question the status quo and to seek out new ways to grow the business. Starting with data, they ask questions about the business such as, “How can we improve the content discovery experience?” Projects begin with a “blue sky, anything goes” approach that isn’t limited by current technologies. The team then builds and iterates on different concepts, which are shared with members around the world to get feedback before anything is shipped.

Run experiments, lots of them. We found that the design teams at Level 5 companies have substantially more robust experimentation practices. They’re more likely to do concept testing, A/B testing, and beta tests. They’re also more likely to have the processes in place to quickly recruit customers for research and test their engagement with the products at hand. Lastly, they’re more likely to have standardized behaviors around measuring the success of experiments, which come with substantially more reported business benefits.

For example, design teams at Gap Inc. test early and often, typically recruiting employees from the “Gapateria” (the cafeteria at corporate headquarters) to run quick tests on concepts before taking them into more formal tests and experiments in a usability lab, online, or in retail stores. The teams at Level 5 companies, where experiments are the norm in the design process, were four times more likely to report that design had a positive impact on their revenue, five times more likely to see cost savings, and six times more likely to decrease their time-to-market.

Have measurement mechanisms in place. Design ROI is notoriously difficult to quantify, but Level 5 teams are more likely to measure standard indicators like NPS, design team operations measures, and initiative-specific indicators. USAA, for example, has developed a design scorecard that details everything from engagement with compliance and legal to the accessibility of designs. Many companies also use Google’s HEART framework, a series of user-centered metrics that allow designers to measure the user experience on a given app or website on a large scale.

Encourage broad design adoption. Lots of organizations have one or two areas where the design team is functioning at a high level, but an organization with a mature design practice should expect to see a coherent design culture, with practices, principles, quality standards, and tools that enable design at scale reaching throughout the organization. Keystone indicators include: Do people outside of the design team actively participate in the design process? Do they have a lot of contact with the design team? Are those interactions substantive? Note that while cross-functional team workshops are a good start, key partners in product and engineering should be actively working with designers to shape requirements, prioritize scope, and deliver on shared goals. At Google, the relationship between disciplines is viewed as a partnership, where accountability for the work is shared between engineering, product, and design.

As companies invest more and more in their design practices, it’s important for business leaders to be aware of these behaviors in order to understand if their organization is effectively using design as a business driver, or if they’re just going through the motions. What’s more, as product design continues to grow and evolve, it’s incumbent upon all of us who work in the design field to champion best practices, point to examples of what great looks like, and educate our industry stakeholders about the conditions under which design can flourish. This study shows that design is capable of incredible things, and it’s only by working together that we can truly unlock its potential.

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