Product DesignStrategy and Innovation

Think Design Isn't Your Responsibility? Wrong answer.

Standard design process: the design visionary carries their tablets down from the ivory tower and espouses a vision to the engineering group, who then absorbs every ounce of nuance, description, and strategy contained in the concept. The engineers remember every flourish and ‘moment of delight’ throughout the software delivery lifecycle, and ultimately launch a beautifully executed digital product that matches the designer’s vision to a T. Right?

Well, no. Of course not.

In reality, the design team is flown in to create a beautiful design, then that design undergoes a series of feasibility or scope compromises that leave the original design a shell of its former self. What’s worse, the team left to carry the flag through delivery no longer has a shared understanding of what they are really building. It can get existential.

This is not another post about agile. This is not another rant about why design is important. This is an examination of how talented, cross-functional teams working in a continuous delivery model with clear and established goals will produce better business outcomes at a higher velocity with lower risk.

McKinsey conducted perhaps the most rigorous and informed study on the real business value of design. Refreshingly, design is defined here as much more than pushing pixels (which is still critical!). Rather, in the most successful companies, design drives product delivery and affects macro operational flows, collaboration, research methods, and the measurement of success and failure. The upshot is that businesses that embrace McKinsey’s themes of good design see meaningful growth—as much as 2:1 compared to industry benchmarks.

McKinsey’s Themes of Good Design

  • Analytical Leadership
  • Cross-Functional Talent
  • Continuous Iteration
  • User Experience

Through these themes, the study describes an operational ethos that produces brilliant business outcomes by determining what users need (rather than by what they say they want). This approach also minimizes the risk of delivering a less-than-ideal product through continuous iteration. McKinsey broadly states that world-class UX takes an entire company dedicated to user experience, not just the design org.

At WillowTree, we deploy hundreds of digital products with our clients, so we’ve seen just about every pothole and barrier to excellent delivery imaginable. We’ve also seen many great outcomes through efficient working methods. Through these experiences, we have developed a working methodology at WillowTree which, as I’ve outlined below, upholds McKinsey’s themes of good design.

Analytical Leadership

By defining specific outcomes that align the design to business objectives, the team has a clear way of measuring the success of any design or implementation. Nearly every feature corresponds to a measurable outcome (either by qualitative or quantitative research).

For example, for a fitness studio mobile app, an outcome might be reduce time to book a class by 50% to fit within industry benchmarks. Designers and engineers will collaborate to optimize the user flow, the API team will focus on performance optimization for the flow, and conversion specialists will focus on designing experiments that optimize for speed and accuracy within the funnel.

Cross-Functional Talent

From McKinsey: “In the tired caricature of traditional design departments, a group of tattooed and aloof people operate under the radar, cut off from the rest of the organization. Considered renegades or mavericks by their colleagues, these employees (in the caricature) guard access to their ideas, complaining that they have too often been burned by narrow-minded engineering or marketing heads unwilling to (or incapable of) realizing the designers’ grand visions.”

Or, as John Maeda recently (and somewhat controversially) said in his 2019 State of Design: “Alone and isolated within a company, design is a microworld of aesthetic high-fives.”

We like for our entire product delivery team to engage in “aesthetic high-fives.” WillowTree’s teams have dedicated designers, engineers, project managers, data analysts, researchers and more who have a shared understanding of what it takes to deliver great user experience to our client partners. Here are some examples of how we collaborate:

  • Engineers are encouraged to contribute to the design, regularly offering improvements via the latest OS features, performance optimization opportunities, or competitive inspiration.
  • Researchers and data analysts include Engineers and Project Managers in user data synthesis efforts
  • Test engineers are a core part of the product delivery team and collaborate deeply with the rest of the team.

Continuous Iteration

By shipping new versions to customers at regular intervals (every 2-4 weeks), WillowTree teams reduce impact of risks incurred by functional or design changes and reduce the organizational stress that can accompany a product release. These teams are best positioned for regular experimentation via user research or AB testing, and are tuned into incremental evolution of a product based on data from the field.

User Experience

By studying the holistic CX, we can move beyond the digital product and identify operational or service improvements in need of attention. WillowTree researchers create CX journey maps, defined by user research and ethnographic study. We often identify customer support opportunities, brick and mortar enhancements, or micro-moment opportunities that perhaps fall outside the scope of the immediate product we’re making. Since our teams work together in the same physical space, we have fewer barriers to communication and higher team velocity.

The bottom line: making good design happen is everyone’s responsibility. Investing in a great design output is still important — we need our design experts to consider user impact, moments of delight, how the design carries the brand voice, and indeed how the design impacts the brand position itself. However, in order to bring it all to light and not let it languish, entire teams should play active roles in the design process. In other words, design is strengthened through pervasive and continuous collaboration.

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