Designers have long complained about not having a “seat at the table.” From what I have seen this week in San Francisco, they no longer have to ask. Forward-thinking companies are well aware of how design impacts their bottom line, but outside of the bubble, management and designers have yet to adopt a shared vocabulary for these conversations.
Fortunately user experience (UX) luminary Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering has brought this issue in focus with great clarity in a new talk he premiered yesterday at the Warm Gun design conference in San Francisco. In UX Strategy Means Business, Spool clued a room full of designers and developers into the five business priorities that they must consider as the ultimate goals of their efforts. Yes, as a designer you must be the strong voice for aesthetics and some of the more subtle aspects of user experience, but your bosses need something more concrete to respond to.
But before Spool gets to how to speak that actual vocabulary he takes a short meander to South Park. The character in the image above is an underwear gnome from the second season. The joke is that these gnomes have been stealing the boys’ underwear and collecting them in their cave. When discovered, the gnomes reveal their business plan: Phase 1. collect underpants, Phase 2. ? and Phase 3. profit. This mysterious question mark in phase 2 is, of course, to hole in the business plans of most internet companies (Twitter, anyone? Perhaps Snapchat?).
Spool digresses for humor sake, but also to remind designers of the nebulous question marks in their own usual value proposition. We designers know that design is important but we also want to be important and it is important to keep these two agendas separate. The secret to really sitting at the table—to not being an underwear gnome—is to fill that question mark in with actual business priorities.
So, as you can see in the slide above, Spool identifies these five business priorities as increasing revenue, decreasing costs, increasing new business, increasing existing business and increasing shareholder value. He goes on to say that these same principles apply to universities, non-profits and even government, just with slightly different names. The important point in all cases is that each design or content elements that a UX person wants to propose ultimately has to impact one or more of these priorities in the proper direction.
Design and content go together because content is not just stories or videos or podcasts. In Spool’s terms, “Content is what your user needs or wants right now.” And design is how you deliver it. So something like Zappo’s wonderfully clear self-service return instructions are not just boilerplate but in fact one of the most important pieces of content on its site. Amazingly, Spool explains that these instructions actually achieve all five priorities simultaneously! Zappos customers who return more also buy more (net after returns) than those that don’t return as much (thereby increasing revenue); The clarity of the instructions cuts down on customer service calls (thereby decreasing costs); Knowing that returns are easy and clear encourages new customers (thereby increasing new business); The return policy boosts the sales to current customers (thereby increasing existing business); And all of these contribute to the value of the company (thereby increasing shareholder value).
But with all of the underwear gnomes running around in business these days, how can you be sure that increasing business, as Zappos does with its return policy, really makes money for a company? There’s an old joke about a business that loses money on every transaction but “makes it up on volume.” Spool turns to Amazon (which owns Zappos, see above) and Apple (see below) as examples of companies whose business models are wonders of design in themselves. Amazon, Spool’s chart shows, makes money on float even if they sell everything at the price they buy it at. And Apple, because it does not discount it’s products, actually makes more than 100% on the value of their products compared to, for instance, Samsung products sold at Best Buy.
Once you see examples like this it is clear how designers can sit at the business table and have valuable input. Business models themselves can be design as can all of the things that contribute to the success of those models. The secret, both for designers and the businesses they work for, is to share a vocabulary about the company’s goals that is free of both business and design jargon. The customer experience, the user experience increasingly are the business, which is why design in its many forms is on the rise.
Spool hopes to quicken this process with a new school that he is launching in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, code-named the Unicorn Institute. “We can create the next generation of UX professionals, also known as Unicorns,” they write, “by connecting industry, education, and community.” They imagine a vocational school for the 21st century designed to give students the skills and experiences they will need to actually work successfully in this new world and to give employers a solid basis for hiring them. Guaranteed, the designers who graduate from such a school will mean business.By Anthony Wing Kosner for Forbes.com