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The Biggest Problem Facing UX Design

November 7, 2016

Many UX design leaders around the world have been watching and are now benefiting from the rapid rise that design has recently enjoyed. With the ascent of companies like Airbnb—who give credit to their designers for the role design has played in their success—more and more companies have been jumping on board the design train. While some of these companies do not fully understand how to utilize their UX designers, fear of missing out (FoMO) is a powerful thing.

As with many trends that have seen a rapid rise, there is a strong likelihood that there may be an equally strong decline in UX design. It is fear of this risk that is prompting many UX designers to call for their fellows to prove their value. It stands to reason that, if designers can prove their worth and, thus, convince their employers that design is providing a strong return on investment (ROI) to them, they’ll have no choice but to keep championing designers.

Now, if that were easy, nobody would have a worry, but it’s not. How can design—something that companies have traditionally assessed according to the taste of a few important people—prove to a company that it’s providing real, measurable value? How can UX designers show that they are actually valuable, strategic assets who can impact all areas of a business?

In this season finale of the True North design podcast, we’ll hear from some industry leaders and learn how they think we should tackle this problem:

  • Jeff Gothelf
  • Chris Thelwell
  • Jake Causby
  • Andy Budd
  • Joe Robinson

We’ll also go inside a large bank to hear how their design teams are making a huge impact.

Ben Newton: Hi guys! Before we get into the episode, I just wanted to let you know that this is the finale for season one of True North. If you’re looking for earlier episodes, head to truenorthpodcast.com or search for us on your favorite podcast player. Within series one, you’ll be able to find episodes looking at the UX of implants, diversity within design, and how the anxiety of sick children was greatly improved by a beautifully designed app. Now, here’s the season finale of True North.

In business, as with many things in life, you want to know if what you are doing is working and is worth the investment. When a new project or methodology is being considered, one of the key questions is often: Do we understand how to measure the ROI of what we’re about to do?

Jeff Gothelf: Despite all the progress that we’ve made, there is still a very strong perception at the executive layer that design makes things look good. Even organizations that invest heavily in them still rarely see Design as a strategic partner.

I mean, case in point, how many Chief Design Officers are there really in Fortune-500 companies? I can think of two, maybe three. And so the challenge is: how do we make it very clear that we can’t succeed without good design practices. And that the designers in your organizations are strategic partners. They’re not just tactical-execution partners, but they are actually strategic partners in building better products.

Ben Newton: That’s Jeff Gothelf, the renowned author of Lean UX and the soon-to-be-released Sense and Respond.

As designers, when faced with the ROI question, it’s important that we not only know how to answer it, but also how to set expectations. If we aren’t asked about ROI, then we should definitely ensure it’s brought up.

Why, you ask? Because if design isn’t kept honest and treated like all other areas of a business, then it’s most likely an afterthought. And, if that is the case, then the company will never truly be committed to design, nor will they understand it, and thus, it will most likely be cast aside when the next shiny new thing comes along.

Chris Thelwell, Head of UX and Design at Envato, thinks the danger of design being a fad is currently the biggest problem facing the design industry today.

Chris Thelwell: It’s a problem for a number of reasons. So design has become really huge overnight, and everyone is thinking now; “Okay, we need design thinking. It’s going to solve all of our problems.”

The truth is: it’s not.

You hire all of these designers to solve all of these problems, and what happens when it doesn’t solve the problem that you thought it was going to solve? You’ve got companies being acquired, all around the world. Some of the biggest names in design that we’ve ever seen are being acquired by companies that aren’t designers, to implement design thinking in their organization.

We have companies like IBM hiring two thousand designers globally and becoming, overnight, the biggest design agency in the world. What happens when they realize design isn’t going to solve all of their problems? I’m not saying that is going to happen or not. But if that does happen, what happens to all of those people, those two thousand designers they hired? What happens to the companies that were acquired by banks and the like when they decide design isn’t for us anymore, and they move on to the latest trend?

That’s my worry. As an industry, we’ve got to address the problem that design can’t be a fad. Design should be here forever and always have a role. But we’ve turned it into a fad, fads go away, and that’s the biggest problem we’ve got to face.

Ben Newton: So, if design is in danger of becoming a fad and being able to reliably measure the ROI on design is key addressing this, the question becomes how and where does design fit into business in order to not only add value, but make that value measurable.

Hi and welcome to True North. My name is Ben Newton, and I’m from Loop11. This is the podcast where we share stories of discovery and innovation.

So experience design is important, right? Well, we think so, but you and I are in the trenches. As we’ve heard, there is a real concern that the value we’re creating isn’t being felt higher up the chain.

Okay, so what we need is an example to show us what to aim for. Hmmm, Jeff, you got one?

Jeff Gothelf: One of my favorite examples is actually from Australia—Westpac Bank in Australia. Their design team is having a huge impact in their organization and increasing their strategic value. They’ve done a design system that has empowered the entire organization to understand how to better design any experience in the bank, even the ones they don’t support. But I think, even more powerfully…. I don’t know that powerfully is a word. In a more powerful way, some of the designers at Westpac have taken the initiative to create a wall-sized customer-journey map of specific processes when it comes to interacting with the bank.

What they do is they call over teams that work on that customer journey to visually illustrate to them where their work fits into this customer journey.

Ben Newton: WestPac, hey? When an I hear of an Australian company leading the way, I’ve got to take a closer look.

So I jumped on a plane to Sydney where I made a beeline for the Westpac head offices. After initially being held up by some menacing ladies at security, I was granted access and met by Jake Causby, a CX Design Lead at the bank.

So Jake, tell me what we’re looking at and what it’s for and what it does.

Jake Causby: We’re looking at the main design wall that we’ve got for the particular program that I’m working on at the moment. It’s called Mobile Moments. It’s a piece of work about how we can potentially support our customers using mobile technology—ideally, helping them in the moment.

So basically, the way we structure our wall is: we’ve got this section here near the start of the wall, which is all about the framing. We get some objectives from the business, saying: “Hey, we think we should be doing more in the mobile space. Tell us where the opportunity is, and we could potentially either increase Net Promoter Score (NPS), how we could get more sales, how we could increase engagement.” That sort of thing. It comes as a business objective right at the start of the project.

We grab a team together, and we start mapping out what the project is actually for, why we’re here, what success looks like, what are we actually going to do, and how are we going to measure the success.

We put the business objectives up on the wall and then we take a step back and say, “Well, okay, how are we going to do this?” The first step along that journey is trying to work out what pieces of data we’ve got at the start of that journey to start informing us.

Ben Newton: Jake and his team use the massive amounts of data, which already exists within the bank, and start by pulling out what is relevant to their current project. They stick [it] up on the wall and start to form a picture of the area they’re playing in.

Jake Causby: As you can see, we’ve got a section for looking in; we’ve got a section for looking out. So looking in is all about what are we trying to do internally, what do we know internally. And looking out is more about what are our competitors doing.

So, quite often, we’ll stick pictures up of interfaces or advertisements that our competitors are working on. Then we’ll also flesh that out with what we know about the customer.

Ben Newton: The walls at Westpac, and there are a lot of them, are constantly evolving and being added to as the project progresses and moves in and out of different phases. They act as a discussion point where the team and internal stakeholders can look at things like value propositions and assumption maps in order to get a better understanding of the customer’s problems and possible solutions.

It’s interesting. Most of the people I speak to have a product or a tool, and they’re like: “How do I make this tool better, because it’s obviously the right tool.” But this approach is: let’s understand our customers, the problems they have, and what tools do they need without being wedded to one in particular. Which is why I was like: Are we talking about an app here? No, no, it’s bigger than that.

Jake Causby: I guess the way that we’re doing things is by, first of all, identifying the needs or the problems that customers have. And then we take a look at what we’ve already got. If we’ve got something that’s meeting half a need or half getting rid of a problem, then the focus is on iterating what already exists to make it better.

If we don’t have anything that’s supporting the customer in that need or that moment, then we’ll obviously look at ways in which we can do that. Sometimes that is an offline experience. But being part of the digital team, I guess our focus is initially how can we solve this using a digital tool. But we are certainly not restricting our thinking to that at all.

Ben Newton: So if the walls only added value for the discovery and strategic-design phases, then that would be okay, but that’s certainly not where their value ends.

Jake Causby: I think that it’s easier to get buy-in from the executives about the initiatives you are doing because you actually can show them several bits of data—insights that you’ve found, verbatims that customers have had—and you can map out a bit of prototype to show them what the experience is going to look like. Generally speaking, it’s easier to get executives on board with the idea of it.

Ben Newton: Jake and his team have proven the value of strategic design, time and again. When work is done based on one of their projects, they pay close attention to metrics like NPS, click-throughs, and dropouts. But it’s their work on sales-related projects where the value really shines through. Huge up ticks in sales have been directly attributed to their projects that worked on the journey mapping, identifying opportunities, and then tackling chunks of the end-to-end experience.

At Westpac, there is already a deep design integration, but that doesn’t help you at your company. Here’s Jeff Gothelf again.

Jeff Gothelf: So really one of the key things is to say you can’t take technology and silo it as a department somewhere and have them be a service provider into these organizations. Because that’s not the role of technology anymore. Technology is integral to the success of all of these organizations.

So how do we take the engineers, designers, and product managers and move them horizontally into the business so that they’re a part of everything that we do? Whether it’s deciding whether someone is credit worthy or printing a piece of plastic. How do we start to integrate traditional industry-domain thinking with modern technological thinking?

Ben Newton: When we hear what they’ve been able to do at Westpac, it can seem simultaneously simple, yet daunting. Success for one company unfortunately doesn’t always generate a replicable blueprint for others to follow. And it’s here where well-meaning designers can struggle to make an impact and focus on the wrong things.

Andy Budd: I think that, as designers and as technologists, for some reason or another, there is something baked into our psychology where we constantly want to please.

Ben Newton: That’s Andy Budd, he’s an author, speaker, and founder of the UK agency ClearLeft.

Andy Budd: And we constantly believe that it is our duty to extend that olive branch and break into other disciplines. And so I think there is a lot of validity in saying designers need to be better versed in the language of business, if designers want to impact business. That just makes common sense. But let’s not forget that there is the other side of the coin.

If the business industry wants to take more advantage of design, then business should also be better about talking the language of design. We’re seeing this start; we’re seeing this in articles in Harvard Business Review about design thinking. We’re seeing it in the rise of books like the design sprint book from Jake Knapp, which is not pitched towards designers; it’s pitched towards business leaders.

We’re seeing Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden’s new book, again, not pitched towards designers, but to business leaders. So I think there needs to be a bit of a quid pro quo. I think we have a certain amount of responsibility, and we, as designers, can really only influence the stuff that we do. We can’t influence the stuff that other people do. So the more we are able to talk the language of business and the more we are able to be convincing, the more likelihood we will have that—we will have an impact—and we will allow our great design work to flow.

Also, I would argue that, in some instances, by overly adapting and adopting the languages and practices of business, we sometimes water down the amazing stuff that Design can do. For instance, I totally get the Lean Startup movement. I totally get the idea of testing assumptions etcetera, etcetera, and constantly validating. On the other hand, what you could run the risk of doing is getting into this trap where you are iterating to a local maxima.

If you start off with a product or service, or even an idea, and you constantly only evolve it by asking small questions, making small tests, then you might end up optimizing something that is not very good. You might get to this idea of a local maxima.

I believe that design thinking—and the abductive reasoning that comes with design thinking—allows the best designers to make giant leaps of foresight. Those giant leaps can leap over this local maxima and allow you to have amazingly innovative products. Innovative products that might have tested badly in the market, but when they come out, can have a massive positive effect.

Ben Newton: So what Andy is articulating is the very problem designers face. Many designers will talk about methods like design thinking without having a proper understanding or experience level to deliver what they are promising. Here’s Chris Thelwell again:

Chris Thelwell: You know I think we’re starting to understand that what we can achieve with design is held in a lot more high regard, because we’re seeing huge organizations come from nowhere because they’re more user centered. They take a more design-led approach. I think people are waking up to this thing that used to be the thing that designers did in the corner is now really core to the success of a business.

People have jumped on the bandwagon and design thinking has become popular. Design thinking was a really great concept, but it’s now been adopted by too many people who shout about it without a proper understanding of what it means.

It’s taught by people in really short time scales, and people leave these short courses thinking they can now do design thinking. It takes years to become a designer. It generally happens on the job, after you leave training. You have to learn the craft of being a designer. You have to learn how to behave around clients and stakeholders. You have to learn the business side of design and how to actually make money from doing design. There is so much about design that you have to learn. That’s not taught through the process of design thinking.

Ben Newton: A lot of what we’ve been looking at so far is how design can be measured and provide results. Although Andy touched on this, we haven’t yet asked the question, should design be quantified?

Joe Robinson: Let me start by saying that I don’t fully agree with the sentiment that design needs to be constantly delivering and communicating ROI.

Ben Newton: That’s Joe Robinson, he’s the founder of Designers and Geeks.

Joe Robinson: I think that it’s a good thing if you’re able to do it. But I think that pigeonholing Design into a box where it constantly needs to be showing analytical results maybe could lead to suboptimal design results.

A part of that belief is that people have been talking about data-driven design forever. We’ve been talking about it on product teams—and the constant use

of testing. Measuring different outcomes associated with different designs. Things like that. That all has its place, and I feel that it is fine for discrete, controllable tests where you can actually isolate the things you are trying to test and do very analytical tests. But I feel it doesn’t lend itself very well to the overall variance of a product. The overall user experience, people’s brand perceptions of a product, how they think about it, and how they come to remember it. So I think that it’s important for both management and designers to understand where to use data, where to test things, and where to rely on the good taste of the people you’ve hired.

Ben Newton: It’s important to understand that what Joe is saying here is not to ignore data, but rather it’s important to make sure the initial problem is relevant and, therefore, data is also relevant.

Joe Robinson: I think that entrepreneurs frequently will create a problem in their mind. They’ll invent a problem that they believe a user has, that normal people have, and then they’ll set out to solve that problem.

There [are] lots of different flavors of this, but you can imagine setting out to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and then using any variety of data-driven decision testing, decision making, to incrementally improve your way to a solution or a problem that never really existed.

I think, in the entrepreneurial process, it’s very important in the early stages, validating that people actually have the problem you’re trying to solve. Because, when they don’t, the types of feedback that you’ll get are: “This is a great solution;” “You’ve done a really nice job;” “I like the way you’ve done this, the design looks great”—all these things. But when you get to a question like “Would you seek this out?” or “Would you actually use it?” the answer is “No.” Sometimes that only shows up in repeat-user, repeat-visitor data.

Ben Newton: Most of us are, hopefully, asking the right questions and, in turn, solving the correct problems, which brings us back to ensuring we’re making a meaningful impact on the company and products we work within. For this, I return again to Mr. Gothelf. Jeff, how do we measure the ROI of design?

Jeff Gothelf: That’s a great question. I think there is ROI to measure on two fronts. There is internal ROI, and there is external, consumer-based ROI. Internally, it’s very easy to demonstrate that this is having an impact on the organization. There’s a shared understanding, a level of collaboration, an increased level of communication, an increased level of inclusion of design within other disciplines. They’re becoming more regular. They’re becoming more self-facilitated, self-serviced.

So, it doesn’t necessarily take a designer or a team lead to call people over and say, “Let’s understand where we fit into this process.” They know these things exist. They know these conversations exist, and they’re seeking it out on their own. That’s helpful on the internal ROI. You can measure that in morale, in attrition, productivity, and efficiency. So you can definitely put some numbers behind that, too, if you were looking for that kind of ROI.

I think that, externally, it becomes obvious when the metrics for success for big banks, for example, are fairly clear. At least the ones they’d like to measure and test for the health of their business. It’s things like acquisition, retention, conversion rates. Essentially, if we get people to the products, do they sign up? Another big one is number of calls to the call center and the topics that people are calling on. It’s a huge cost center for organizations of that size. If you’re reducing the cost and increase the self-service that customers can take on, it’s measurable in dollars to most of these organizations.

Ultimately, I think that there is a word-of-mouth component where their marketing and acquisition costs start to go down. There’s a brand perception that goes up. There’s a public conversation about their products and services that illustrates that they are at the forefront of modern practices and great customer experiences.

All those things can be measured. Could you tie a direct correlation from a customer-journey map to a reduction in customer calls? Probably, if you stretched a little bit. But, ultimately, I think that the teams could credit some of those activities and say, “This gave us a better understanding of what customers are looking for and what they need to move on from us. We provided that in a compelling way and that reduced the amount of calls we got on that topic.”

Ben Newton: There [are] going to be many different examples out there, where teams have successfully demonstrated the ROI on their design work. While a lot of those example may be niche, some will be directly relevant to your situation.

At True North, we want to hear from you and how your team is making an impact. Sharing stories of success and learning will ensure the design community continues to rise and get stronger.

You can get in touch with us at truenorthpodcast.com. We’d love to hear from you.

This was the last episode for series one, but we’ll be back early in 2017 with a brand new series. We’ve already started making it and, for one of our first episodes, we’ll be going inside the design team of one of the tech industry’s fabled unicorns.

To find links to groups and people mentioned in this episode, go to truenorthpodcast.com and see the show notes.

Our music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. True North is produced by Loop11.

We’ll see you next time. 

Growth and Product Manager at Loop11

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Ben NewtonFor over ten years, Ben ran a development agency that created Web-based solutions for government, PR agencies, and small-to-medium—sized businesses. Ben now offers consulting services to aid companies with strategy, marketing, growth, and product development. He is currently working with one of Australasia’s leading UX companies, the U1 Group. With a keen interest in all things creative, he is also producing a documentary series that is supported by longer-form podcasts.  Read More

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