Why You Should Adopt a Business-Minded Approach to Design

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by Jamie Myrold, Vice President of Design at Adobe

Mysterious things happen in corner offices. Things involving spreadsheets and forecasts—things that only an MBA can understand. We designers are artistic souls who just want to create.

Does that sound ridiculous? It should, but it also contains a grain of truth. In an environment structured around sprints and iterations, designers may feel distanced from the business realities that their work supports. When deadlines are tight, the process becomes the purpose, and our true work—connecting with customers—can become subsumed in the chaos.

business minded approach to designimage from Getty | Yuri Arcurs

New Customer Base, New Challenge

Here at Adobe, a design challenge emerged when we discovered that a lot of casual users were downloading software intended for creative professionals. These are powerful programs with a lot of features, including some that require a solid grasp of the technical issues around things like resolution and portability. Not every function can be intuitive.

But frustrated users soon become former users, and we weren’t retaining these non-professional customers.

Has there ever been a clearer case of a problem that could be solved with design? We set to work, focusing on, of course, the user.  But the resulting designs lacked a cohesive center. Of course we wanted to retain customers, but there are many roads to retention. Should we tutor? Inspire? Something else entirely? We had a lot of questions. But the question we had to answer first was, Why did we wander off course?

Every creative professional knows that feeling. Sometimes designs fail because they were an experiment that didn’t come together, and that’s okay. But something else was going on with this project, and we had to figure out what it was.

We Didn’t Know What We Didn’t Know

We’re the user experience team. We think about users. Of course we want to delight them and make the world a better-designed place, but that’s not the reason companies hire us. Companies need to be profitable, and pleasing users is the path to profit. When the needs of the users and the needs of the company conflict, the design team has to find ways to bridge the gap.

But we’d designed without knowing the business goals our work was meant to serve. So that raised a second question: Why didn’t we know the business goals?

We realized during the brainstorming process that we’d taken a backseat to the business experts. This isn’t a matter of laying blame; everyone has their area of expertise, and the whole point of cross-functional brainstorming is to arrive at a solution that serves the business holistically. But everyone at the table needs to feel equally free to contribute. Our designers didn’t feel they had authority to express a strong point of view.

This is a box that a lot of creative professionals lock themselves into. We can feel that our expertise is specific to our discipline. We may be great designers, but we’re not qualified to speak on strategic business matters.

However, anyone working in a business knows more than they think they know about their customers, products and competitors. Those three things are the same three things that MBAs are concerned with. An MBA will have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of them, but that doesn’t mean a designer’s ideas aren’t valid. After all, conversations have to start somewhere, and every exchange of ideas is a chance for both sides to learn from each other.

High Profile, High Pressure  

When projects are strategic, the whole company is watching—especially the C-levels, and with good reason: These are the people who are accountable to the board and shareholders.  If the project goes well, this attention is a boon; designers gain respect throughout the organization when top executives are excited by the results. But along with that promise comes a lot of pressure.

The type of people who rise to the top of large organizations tend to focus on results rather than process. That can be stressful for a design team, since the act of designing is one of exploration—there’s no straight line from inception to completion. When changing business needs cause executives to move deadlines forward, the design team can become driven by anxiety instead of the desire to do the right thing.

Sometimes the process must even be sacrificed entirely. When a CEO says, “Go and do this thing,” he knows what he wants but not what it looks like—he’ll recognize it when he sees it. Then the design team has to figure out what is expected without any direction.

That leads to a third question: But how do we do that?

Business Literacy is No Longer Optional

Designers are quietly realizing that business knowledge is necessary to produce excellent design. Increasingly, design schools are teaching business, and now there are even design MBA degrees.

But for the most part, design schools don’t prepare people for the workforce, so team leaders need to help their designers get up to speed. One way to do this is by encouraging their designers to learn about business through both formal and informal channels. Thanks to self-paced classes like those offered by Udacity, Coursera and even free MOOCs offered by brick-and-mortar universities, there is nothing stopping any designer from becoming business-literate.

Building business expertise into the team’s skill set benefits both the individual designers and the company as a whole. A designer with the ability to articulate ideas and the confidence to challenge the ideas of others can do more than bridge the gap between technology and users; that designer can also align the end user experience with the goals of the business.

Build a Business Star Brand

Designers shouldn’t wait for business leaders to outline business goals. Every business problem is a design problem, and designers should recognize that the design process can actually help define and streamline a business goal. That’s a contribution any executive would appreciate. So rather than waiting to be led, ask what problem needs solving and use design-led thinking to ladder up to the business goals.

Jamie Myrold is VP of Design at Adobe. Myrold has led large-scale design efforts at Adobe for more than 11 years, touching nearly every product in market today in some capacity. Most recently, she led the redesign of Adobe Acrobat and created the all-new Adobe Document Cloud.

Want more from Myrold? Check latest episode of the HOW Design Live podcast, in which Myrold discusses what designers of the future need to know and learn, what constitutes a “design-led” company, and whether designers need to learn how to code.


Creative Strategy & the Business of Design 

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