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A Shift from Engineering-Driven to Design-Driven Business Models

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A column by Janet M. Six
January 22, 2018

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss whether they are seeing companies’ business models change from being engineering driven to being design driven. In addition, our experts explore what it means to be a design-driven organization and how all members of a product team can impact a product’s UX design.

While some of our experts believe that we are seeing a shift to design-driven organizations, others on our expert panel think we’re actually observing a very different phenomenon. Several of our panelists encourage UX designers to acknowledge the equally important roles of Engineering, Design, and Business, or Product Management, in designing optimal product user experiences.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our expert panel answers readers’ questions about a variety of user experience matters. To receive their answers to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Stephen Anderson—Head of Design, Innovation Garage at Capital One
  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; UXmatters Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Csaba Házi—Co-Founder and UX Expert at Webabstract; Author of Seven Step UX
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Janet Six—Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: Some say we are shifting from engineering-driven to design-driven business models. What do you think of that?—from a UXmatters reader

“While it’s great that more companies are starting to perceive the true business value of design, I believe the desire to move to design-driven organizations is misguided,” answers Pabini. “While some UX professionals are clamoring for design-driven organizations, this is probably in response to their long experience working within companies and on product teams that are out of balance—teams on which some discipline other than design has dominated all other disciplines and staffing levels were completely out of whack. This has meant an unhappy experience for UX professionals—whether Engineering dominates and our designs don’t get built as designed or Product Management dominates and dictatorial product owners treat designers like order takers. However, there is an alternative response. Design need not dominate as Engineering and Product Management have attempted to do.

“In my very first UX design job—they called it Human Interface Engineering back then at Apple—I had a bit of a Goldilocks experience, learning what it was like to work on product teams with three different types of cultures:

  1. An engineering-driven team—I worked on an engineering-driven team, with an engineering lead who had some appreciation for what I could contribute as a designer—as long as I didn’t get any really big ideas. It was absolutely clear who was in charge.
  2. A product-driven team—My boss also assigned me to a product-driven team, but when I showed up for the first team meeting, the product manager said, “We’re not doing any work on the user interface in the next release,” and told me to leave. My boss let the product manager have his way. (Of course, the lead engineer on that project asked me for design advice on the sly.)
  3. A balanced team—The dynamic of the third team I worked with was just right and set my expectations for how product teams should interact forever after. We worked very collaboratively, and everyone contributed ideas. Together, we defined what the product should be and how it should behave. Working with this team was a very pleasurable experience.

“What companies really need are highly collaborative product teams on which each lead—typically, Engineering, Product, and User Experience—has a well-defined role to play, with clear authority should any unilateral decision making be necessary. Such product teams share ownership of the user experience. (I’ve described these roles in depth in my UXmatters article “Sharing Ownership of UX.”) The interesting thing is that, on such collaborative teams, there’s rarely a need for anyone to make a unilateral decision. Collaborative product teams work closely together throughout the entire development lifecycle, aligning around their shared goals and vision. They feel a sense of shared ownership for every aspect of the product experience.

“In every job I’ve had since I worked with that balanced team at Apple,” continues Pabini, “I’ve endeavored to foster balanced product teams. Working in this way enables everyone to be more effective and see beyond the boundaries of their primary discipline. Plus, everyone on a balanced product team feels valued.

“While it’s wonderful that some companies are now making the transition to valuing design as they should, many still are not. And, at some companies that were able to make this shift when they had the necessary C-level sponsorship, design has lost ground when those sympathetic leaders have left the organization.

“Of course, for companies to deliver extraordinary experience outcomes, it’s imperative that Design should play its rightful role, and investment in Design teams should absolutely be on a par with that for Engineering and Product Management teams. However, I can’t really embrace the term design driven or design led. When some people in other disciplines hear those terms, they mistakenly think Design wants to take over the ownership that has previously belonged to Engineering or Product Management, depending on the company culture. But this cannot be about ownership by Design—or any other individual discipline. Only when we work together on balanced product teams can we achieve great things. Kurt Walecki, VP of Design at Intuit, prefers the term design inspired. I rather like that. It speaks to the fact that design methods can inspire and enable everyone on a product team to work together and deliver great experience outcomes.

“Becoming a design-inspired organization requires a cultural transformation, and transforming culture is one of the most challenging goals a company can undertake. But companies that achieve this goal deliver tremendous value to their users, customers, the business itself, and its stockholders. In today’s world, if a company wants to sustain success in its marketplace, becoming a design-inspired organization is the way to go.”

Do We Want Design-Driven Organizations?

“We sure are!” exclaims Ben. “But keep in mind that:

  • Change is very, very hard, and there will be a lot of pushback.
  • The Engineering, Design, and Business, or Product Management, teams are all incredibly important, so failure is right around the corner if you leave any of them out of the equation.”

I could not agree more with Ben. All of these teams are incredibly important to a product’s success. The creation of a product in an environment that not only acknowledges the importance of each of these teams, but also ensures that each voice is heard throughout the development process plays a significant role in a product’s success. Unfortunately, as UX design comes to a higher level of prominence, some UX designers are coming to the table with a chip on their shoulder. They say, “See, I told you UX design was important!” Whether this is conscious or happens inadvertently is beside the point. Remember, engineers have been making magic happen for years and years.

Yes, it is great that many companies are placing greater importance on design, but UX designers are not replacing anyone. We are coming to the table to increase the strength of the product team and the company. It is vitally important that we do so in a way that acknowledges the Engineering team’s previous successes and shows respect for all of the disciplines within our company.

“On my optimistic days, I think organizations are becoming more customer- and user-centric over time,” responds Adrian. “The value that design brings is more visible and more widely understood. The tools and practices from design communities of practice are now better integrated into the way organizations run.

“On my pessimistic days, I think organizations’ designers are making the same kinds of simplistic assumptions that the worst engineering-driven organizations have made in the past. Businesses are not any more capable of scaling up Design than they are Engineering. Design-led organizations would fail because of bad engineering just as engineering-led organizations have failed because of bad design. So the ideal is probably somewhere in the middle.”

What Does It Mean to Be a Design-Driven Organization?

“More and more companies are being created and led by people with design degrees rather than engineering degrees, which is a huge shift,” replies Mark. “To me, design driven means you’re solving problems, and tackling something from an engineering perspective is a way to implement a solution. What resonates in the market is problem-solving, and that means being design- and user-centric. There’s been a push to use particular technologies the moment they become available. But we, at Fuzzy Math, advocate reorienting that viewpoint. When deciding how we can leverage current technology, we utilize what users need and employ data to make that happen—in the simplest, most user-friendly way possible.”

How Can You Tell Whether an Organization Is Engineering Driven or Design Driven?

“This is a very welcome shift that is happening,” says Csaba. “The engineering-driven business model has excluded many good principles of product development that are vital from a business perspective. The engineering-driven mindset is all about how to build something and what technical assets are necessary. The design-driven model, on the other hand, is about finding and solving the right problems.

“Recently, I was approached by a startup who wanted to build out an innovative fitness app. They had a strong engineering mindset. They were all concerned about platforms, SDKs, and technical solutions. But, when we started discussing the project, it turned out that they didn't even know what platform they should develop the app for first—iOS versus Android, in this case. That’s because they were asking the wrong question. An engineering-minded business owner would suggest, “Let’s build the app for Android first because of XYZ technical or statistical reason. In contrast, a design-driven approach would be to find out what platform the early-adopters of the product would prefer.

“It’s easy to tell whether a company is engineering driven or design driven. A design-driven company focuses on solving users’ problems. However, this is about culture as well. Design is not something that only developers do. For example, to be a great front-end developer, you have to have an eye for and a love of design. You have to take ownership of the product, not just type endless lines of code. The best companies I’ve worked with have strongly embraced collaborative design. At the end of the day, everybody understands that everything is design—everything is about the experience. On an ideal product team, back-end developers understand that, if they screw something up, it will directly affect the user experience. So they focus on the product, not on individual team members’ tasks and roles. That’s what design-driven culture means. Engineering comes after this.”

Product-Driven Organizations

“I think this still varies with every company—or even by geography,” answers Stephen. “That said, while I do not see a shift from engineering driven to design driven, I do see a shift to product-driven organizations, in which healthy product management brings a good balance to the design, engineering, and business triad. Design driven may have made headlines in the past few years, but I’ve seen precious few companies that truly operate and make decisions based on design priorities. One easy litmus test for this: How many companies are willing to lose money to do the right thing for their customers? Very few companies pass this test.”

“When I attended the O’Reilly Design Conference in 2017,” responds Pabini, “I heard a talk by Atlassian’s Alastair Simpson, in which he told a story about how their Head of Design, Jurgen Spangl, brought consistency to Atlassian applications. Despite the fact that there was no customer demand for consistent user interfaces, high demand for new features, and some resistance within the company to developing a design platform, Spangl made the decision to invest in the Atlassian Design Guidelines and user-interface library. Alastair said, ‘He essentially bet his job on this.’ They pivoted engineers from the development of new features to the implementation of the user-interface library. Atlassian committed to improving design consistency to provide a better user experience—and make applications easier to build. This is just one example of a company that is committed to delivering great user experiences, but the world needs more companies that prioritize design.”

The design of today’s products often requires an intricate dance between the development, design, and business teams. Back when software engineers were building software products for other software engineers—or there was little competition in specific application domains—customers had a different set of expectations. But now customers usually have more choice, and they have higher expectations that products should meet their needs. Customers are asking, “Why can’t this enterprise product work as well as the consumer apps I use on my smartphone?” To create the best products possible, not only must products have strong engineering, the Design and Product teams must be integral parts of the development process as well. While is it difficult to create a well-engineered product, it can also be difficult to convey its strengths to the customer. I believe that what we are seeing is not so much a shift from engineering-driven to design-driven business models, but to the full integration of design and business into the product-development process—as opposed to their happening before or after development. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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