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Are You Really Ready to Grow Your Design Team?

May 21, 2019

Because the screen has become the primary touchpoint between companies and their customers, more organizations are ratcheting up their spending on design and bolstering their design teams. Recent years have seen a flurry of design M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) activity, with companies such as Salesforce, Verizon, Capital One, and many major consulting firms making a land grab for design talent. IBM has hired thousands of designers in its quest to become the world’s largest design company and reduce its designer to developer ratio from 1:72 to 1:8. Perhaps most telling of all, UX design is now the fifth most in-demand hard skill, according to recent LinkedIn data.

As someone who has worked in the design industry for nearly 20 years, I welcome these incredibly positive developments. However, it’s critical for both companies and design leaders to keep in mind that increasing headcount is not the only way to advance one’s design prowess.

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A Recent InVision Study

To explore the relationship between design practices and business performance and better understand what organizational behaviors engender design success, the Design Education team at InVision recently conducted an in-depth study, surveying 2,200 companies worldwide. Our study focused primarily on identifying the behaviors of companies that are leveraging design to drive business outcomes such as revenue and time to market. We published a detailed report on our study’s findings titled The New Design Frontier.

As we reported: “Companies with high design maturity see cost savings, revenue gains, and brand and market-position improvements as a result of their design efforts. … Leading companies are using design to drive efficiency, profit, and position. In fact, nearly three quarters of companies say they have improved customer satisfaction and usability through design.” Figure 1 shows the impacts of design teams’ efforts on their organizations.

Figure 1—Impacts of design teams’ efforts
Impacts of design teams' efforts

A Key Finding

Through our research, we discovered that the size of a company’s design organization doesn’t actually predict design maturity. In fact, the companies that ranked around the middle of the pack in terms of their design maturity had teams that were twice as large as the average company in the study.

In some ways, this might seem to defy the basic logic that, if you need to get more work done, you should hire more people to do that work. The reality, however, is that some companies dedicate a lot of resources to design, but still see small returns on their investment because their design team, its processes, and supporting structures are not properly calibrated. Organizations that continue to hire without taking the time to create the conditions for their design team’s success are likely to be disappointed.

Creating the Conditions for Design Success

How can your organization ensure the maximum ROI (Return on Investment) from your design practice? Read on to learn about three essential elements that should be on your checklist for design success.

1. Apply design to solving strategic problems.

It’s an oft-heard refrain that designers should have a seat at the strategy table, and our data bears this out. For a company to reap the full benefits of design, it is essential that designers have a voice at the highest levels of an organization. Our research revealed that the design teams with the greatest impact are 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 are also four times more likely to own and develop key products and features jointly with key partners in those other disciplines.

According to our findings: “Design is reshaping product development and corporate product portfolios at nearly 70% of companies. … Design is well integrated into every step of product decision making and evolution at about two-thirds of companies.”

2. Use data to inform design strategy.

Our study found that the more a design team relies on the use of data in making design decisions, the more likely it will be able to drive efficiency gains and cost savings across the business. Very few of the least mature design teams achieve these sorts of business goals. In fact, just 9% of low-maturity design teams regularly measure and report the impact of their work.

Truly sophisticated design teams understand that customer research is just the first step in a design process that leverages data at every point along the way. These design teams use sophisticated analytics and reporting techniques to measure the impact of any given project as it progresses. Plus, designers work in partnership with Product Management and Engineering to use this information to choose which opportunities to pursue.

We found that most mature organizations “are masters of data-driven design. They have sophisticated practices for analytics, experimentation, recruiting for user research, and monitoring and measuring the success of specific efforts. They also have the beginnings of a design-strategy practice, engaging in market research and vision development. In these companies, the design team is empowered to pursue opportunities it deems important.”

3. Involve people who are not designers in the design process.

Our study reports that the achievement of greater business benefits and financial outcomes correlates with involving people who are not designers more deeply in design. In the most successful organizations, people from other disciplines—that is, who are not part of the design organization—have regular, substantive contact with designers and actively participate in the design process.

While design workshops are a great start, they shouldn’t be the sole effort in this area. Key stakeholders from Product Management and Engineering should actively collaborate with designers to shape requirements, prioritize scope, and deliver on shared goals.

In Conclusion

However, don’t let these findings dissuade you from hiring more product designers. If your business is to adapt to changing customer expectations and digital disruption, it is essential that you build robust design capabilities. In fact, it is incumbent upon all of us who create digital experiences to take a long, hard look at our organizational culture. We must ensure that our culture is conducive to the success of all the individuals we’re bringing on board. This is especially true when it comes to hiring designers.

The indiscriminate hiring of designers can do more harm than good. To unlock the magic a well-supported design team can deliver, you must first create a culture that supports design success. 

Director of Design Education at InVision

San Francisco, California, USA

Leah BuleyLeah works on the Design Education team at InVision, a leading digital-product design platform that empowers more than five million users—including 100% of the Fortune 100—to create the world’s best user experiences. At InVision, Leah researches, analyzes, and shares what makes design teams successful. She is a veteran of the experience-design industry and author of the Rosenfeld Media book The User Experience Team of One.  Read More

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