Ever since I got my Graphic Design degree , I had the same question over and over in my head: If good design can imbue customers with trust, why are designers so removed from product management and the larger business strategy?
As the Internet became more and more commercially viable, “first to market” generally prevailed as a dominant corporate strategy. However, as technology evolved to be more open and reusable, product differentiation is now a proven strategic blueprint. This tectonic shift has been a boom for the design discipline. Consequently, design has gotten the proverbial “seat at the table” and is now expected to be a driving, strategic function.
As a consultant of User Experience and an Executive Master in Business Administration candidate, I aim to bring both worlds together to create a "new" model in which UX and design align with overall business strategy and company vision to drive increased revenue and customer engagement. From my experience, these are 5 reasons why designers should go to business school.
For us, designers, this is a celebrated and exciting advancement. However, it has also exposed a severe skills gap specifically for design leaders who are being thrust into cross-functional, overarching, executive positions, with little to no formal training in business nor strategy skills.
Most degrees in art and design such as BFA and MFA programs don’t cover traditional business skills and companies are not investing in cross-functional training for creative professionals. The resulting condition is tragic: Design teams and leaders are not set up for success.
I have experienced this first-hand in some companies I have worked for. I found myself in boardrooms and strategy sessions armed with nothing but Sketch, Figma, front-end programming competencies and Photoshop. I knew the value of design work but simply couldn’t articulate it in a convincing and relatable form to my corporate stakeholders.
When [DM1] working as a consultant in the design field, it is common to find a wide range of clients from different backgrounds; such as finance, marketing, business, etc. This observation allowed me to formulate the following hypothesis: If I were to be educated in core business skills, I could shift myself (and product/design teams) from providing service to running a highly strategic functional asset while driving a larger organisational direction.
Sooner than later, I decided to test my hypothesis [DM2] and applied to a part-time EMBA program where I would study and learn actionable skills of business frameworks and best practices of management. For just over two years I would be a consultant in UX design by day, and an EMBA student by night and weekends.
Despite studying many illuminating topics (economics, financial accounting, business, law, supply-chain management, corporate ethics, and human resources among others), I found three particular areas of study to be highly impactful as they related to design. They were, statistical analysis, organisational management and competitive strategy. These subjects were crucial and I think that every designer should go through them because of the immense impact career wise.
In case you’re not familiar with the terms:
Statistical analysis is the collection and interpretation of data to uncover patterns and trends and it is a component of data analytics.
Organisational management is the process of organising, planning, leading and controlling resources within an entity with the overall aim of achieving its objectives
Competitive strategy is a bit more complicated to explain. Try to think of it this way, the higher the competition in your industry, the harder it is to keep pace.. When you enter a concentrated market, you should set a high bar, or else you won’t manage to compete with your business opponents, especially with those who sell similar products. To build a successful business in such a competitive environment you should thoroughly analyse your competitors’ strengths, weaknesses, and advantages. With a thought-out competitive strategy, businesses and design solutions can make more informed decisions and constantly be improved.
When it comes to statistical analysis, as a creative professional I had an adverse physical reaction to the very idea of spending four months pouring over Excel spreadsheets and memorising formulae. In fact, I had done just about everything possible to avoid maths during my academic and professional career. I was guilty, like so many, of being stuck in the construct of a left-brain and right-brain duality.
It was surprising to me that my first weeks in statistics had very little to do with mathematical calculations, but rather, with theory and simply logic. I learned that statistics rest upon a singular premise: ratios. If you boil down ratios to their core, it’s quite basic: X ÷ Y = Z. Simply, take two forces, stack them against each other, and achieve an output that is influenced against both forces.
As a designer, the concepts and application of ratios were very familiar to me. I had comfortably worked with ratios in everyday design tasks (grids, padding, aspect ratios, etc.) throughout my career.
As I’m progressing through the course, I wallowed through increasingly complex financial and accounting models that leverage statistics. Over time, doing this on a weekly basis built up a muscle, and without even thinking about it, now I found myself toying with basic statistical models to help guide my design decisions.
Normally, I’d go through my design process (high-level concepts, interactive wireframes, visual design, usability testing, etc.), and leave it to the business unit to figure out the impact on our company and users. Armed with this new statistical skill set, now I’m able to incorporate business thinking in my design process as an early step.
Here is an example: A designer is given the task to redesign a home for an existing website. Prior to using statistical analysis, I would have just tried to find a design that represented a compromise for all use cases and move on with it. Now, I am able to step back and use statistics to help prioritise my layout rather than just designing a variant or two. In addition, I am able to provide a thoughtful overview of the revenue impact correlated to my design decisions.In a first pass of a design, the layout would prioritise email registration as the primary action for a user. Consequently, this would have the immediate impact of fewer orders.
Imagine the designer is now creating the new home and for a second pass at the design, their layout would feature a search bar. This would lead to a decrease in email registrations but would also increase the number of immediate orders, as well as conversions (users would convert better because they found results they were looking for).
This is a basic application of a statistical model, but as it scales, it becomes even more powerful for larger design initiatives (launch of an app, new product offering, new checkout page, e-commerce feature, brand campaign). What is more, the model becomes more specific and predictive the more it is used.
As a wrap up, once I was able to build this sort of analysis into my design practice, my initiatives got more and more investment. It became formulaic. I would not only present a jaw-dropping, visually striking design prototype that solved actual customer problems, but would also offer precise measurement and financial gains (or savings) to the company.
One of the things I struggled the most is how to be more “strategic.” But to be honest, I had no idea what that really meant or how to mix it with the design world. How is one strategic? Is it planning? Be more organised with the flows? Is it innovation[DM1]? In my study of strategies, I read quite a lot about strategic frameworks to help guide decision-making. I spent a great deal of time understanding the work of Michael Porter, a famous professor from the University of Michigan, where I studied. He is a specialist in economics, business strategy, and social causes.
Porter constructed a simple yet far-reaching structure to guide corporate decision-making. It all rests on the premise of achieving an enduring advantage over your competitors. He defines the two ways in which an organisation can achieve competitive advantage over its rivals: cost advantage and differentiation advantage. In short, to stand apart, you can either have a very different offering or win on price. (Mind Tools has more on this.) If executed correctly, the business will have achieved a competitive advantage over its competitors.
Porter’s model is powerful for larger-scale strategic initiatives and it is equally important for feature development. How often do we see decision-makers deploy a strategy to merely copy existing functionality (see Instagram and Snapchat) Porter would say, “… bad strategy simply ignores competitors; average companies copy; and winning companies (e.g TiKToK) lead their competitors.”
From a product design point of view, articulating the flawed logic of replication becomes simple and also powerful. A series of designs showing our product changes to be benchmarked to company B’s advantage showed the futility of the effort and how differentiation would never be achieved. In contrast, a differentiated product (alongside a statistical modelling) can clearly illustrate that the optimal path allows for both differentiation and long-term revenue gain.
To innovate and improve, companies need creativity, courage and technical expertise. But those capabilities will not have the desired impact if something else is missing. In my experience in the design field, we have all three, we are natural optimists. Where others wish to cut corners, we take pride in completeness and quality. Where others see disorganisation, we see the prospect of beauty. And on top of that, we are problem solvers, collaborators and, let’s be honest, we are the cool ones at the office, too! We are the people who are needed to be constant, positive creative, cultural, and strategic forces within companies around the world.
On the other hand, I would argue that while we can be epicentres of culture and innovation, our discipline has not devoted much attention to successful management of our organisations, and that’s the “missing piece”. Far too often, we mismanage work, not the individual nor the collective.
But thanks to Edward Deming - often referred to as the father of quality - a breakthrough in thinking about how to structure design departments was found. He based his entire business philosophy on an ideal of cooperation and complete employee fulfilment. Lots of his experience and life work were codified in his amazing 14 points.
Said points are an exact plan for how to build and scale a thriving design organisation. I encourage every reader to share these with their teams and to ask for a grade on each point. Committing to these changes,will provide all the guidance needed to build a connected and thriving organisation.
If you ask me, I think the most common mistake we tend to make in large organisations is Deming’s point 9: “Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service”
This point — and my entire EMBA experience until now — reaffirmed that communication between departments/groups/colleagues is key in order to achieve success, remember that working in an organisation is not a solo sport, and working as a team will lead you to solve your customer’s problems, and if you can accomplish that, they’ll solve your business problems. Remember to Invest in yourself and in your team. Invest in learning new skills. When you do, you will see great returns for yourself, the team, the customer and the business.