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Communication

Designers: earn your seat at the table

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As designers, we’ve all been in situations where our work feels undervalued or misunderstood.

A manager asks you to crank out a few more variations on that design before today’s meeting, or a client asks you to remove what they believe to be unnecessary steps in the design process to get to the final result quicker.

We walk away bitter and dejected, blaming the stakeholders’ ignorance to our artistic genius.

But here’s the thing: design isn’t art.

If you treat design as art—and perhaps your stakeholders do—you’ll miss out on the bigger picture and the true value of design in business. Design is a critical skillset for operating in the business world, but it’s up to you as the designer to show and tell this to your stakeholders.

“If you treat design as art, you’ll miss out on the true value of design in business.”

If you feel your client, your boss, or your company doesn’t care about design, ask yourself if you’ve given them a reason to care.

We often hear each other complain about our work being undervalued or misunderstood, but do we properly value and understand the businesses that we’re doing the work for? How can we expect the CEO to value design if we don’t value the CEO’s business objectives?

What design is—and what it isn’t

Design is often undervalued because it’s misunderstood. Many people still see design as decoration, choosing a font, or “making it pop,” but a good designer knows that design goes much deeper than what’s on the surface. Design is about problem solving. It’s about not only how it looks, but how it works and how it feels.

“Ask yourself if you’ve ever given your client a reason to care about design.”

In other words, we don’t just design how something looks, but how it functions, the user’s experience with the product, and the purpose for the product itself.

Hopefully you’re nodding your head because you already know this, but this perspective on design may be completely new to your boss or to your client. If so, it’s up to you to introduce them to design thinking.

Inclusion and collaboration

One of the best ways to introduce stakeholders to design thinking is collaboration, and it’s also one of the best ways to earn their trust.

Show stakeholders your process and invite them to participate. The goal isn’t to turn your client or boss into an expert designer, but to give them insight into the process that they might better understand the value behind design—they might even enjoy it! As an added benefit, their unique perspective will help you to explore ideas you may not have if you had kept the process to yourself.

“Show stakeholders your process and invite them to participate.”

We are all designers. In addition to showing stakeholders your design process, find common ground by helping them identify the ways in which they design. You can design a pricing model, a business plan, or an organizational reporting structure. Design can and should be a part of all of that. Teach stakeholders that they too are designing, and they’ll better understand what we’re doing.

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When you include stakeholders in the design process, it not only helps them understand the value of design, it also helps build trust as you collaborate together. When they see the final result and know they were a part of the process getting there, the sense of shared ownership will help to reduce resistance and keep momentum behind the project.

Set goals

Goal-setting is not only another great opportunity to collaborate with stakeholders to get consensus and buy-in, it’s also a great way to establish credibility. More importantly, it establishes objective goals that we can point back to later in the design process. So when designs are presented, the question isn’t “Do we like having the call to action in the header?” but rather “Will having the call to action in the header increase the number of signups?”

“Design is often undervalued because it’s misunderstood.”

Setting these objective design goals, especially when they’re tightly tied with the client’s business goals, will save headaches come review time—and it’ll help establish credibility with the stakeholder. It shows that you care about their business goals, and it reinforces the idea that design is a tool that’s going to help them accomplish those goals.

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As an example, we at Studio Science have a close working relationship with one of our SaaS clients and we frequently design new areas of their website. Because we’ve spent the time up front to talk with them and understand their business, we know that their goal for the site is to increase conversions and funnel traffic to the Request a Demo page (if you work for an enterprise SaaS company, you know this is fairly common).

“Setting objective design goals shows stakeholders you care about their business goals.”

We craft the designs to accomplish that goal, but we frame our presentations around that goal as well. Not “We think this orange section really pops,” but “We use orange specifically in this section to draw attention to the request a demo and direct visitors there.” This not only strengthens our relationship with the client—by showing we care about what they care about—it also leads to better design and better results.

Show results

When defining the criteria for success, include a measurable goal so that after the design is launched, you can point back to real numbers. For example: “After the new signup page launched, we saw a 30% increase in conversions.” Sometimes you’ll need to work with clients to get access to these metrics and to ensure that there’s something to benchmark against, but it’s just another opportunity to show how the design process is tied to helping them accomplish their goals.

“A good designer knows that design goes much deeper than what’s on the surface.”

In the example with the aforementioned SaaS client, we were able to work with them to find that conversions on one page rose dramatically—from around 1.5% to nearly 3%. That metric and the increase in leads helps our client be a hero within their organization, and it helps strengthen our collaborative relationship.

Speak their language

Think about how repulsed and/or confused you are by nonsense marketing jargon and you’ll know how a CMO feels when you start talking about how “the ghost buttons really complement the aesthetic of the material UI.”

When you’re pitching your design—and you should be pitching it—don’t talk about how clean and modern it is. Talk about how each element is strategically working towards the goals you and your stakeholder set together and evaluate the design using those terms. A great way to do this is to tell a story about how a user will experience the design and how the elements of the design work together to guide the user towards the established goal.

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If you’re not already familiar with the business and its goals, you’ll need to learn. Read about the business, its history, and the industry it’s in to get a sense of the landscape.

But perhaps the best possible way to learn about the business is to talk with stakeholders and directly ask them about the goals of the organization and how they’re responsible for contributing.

An important part of this is asking about any language you don’t understand. If you don’t know what an industry term or acronym means, just ask. Not only will it help to clarify your understanding, it’s a great active listening skill that helps further reinforce your desire to understand their business and their goals.

A company that understands design

As you work to better understand the goals of your stakeholders, you’ll become a better designer as a result, but you’ll also foster trust and a better relationship with your client or boss. Your understanding of their perspective combined with your inclusion of them in your design process helps them understand how critical design is to their success and the success of their business.

A designer who has earned a seat at the table is poised to do great work, and a company who is educated on the importance of design is poised to transform their business and their industry.

Author

Justin Zalewski, Design Lead at Studio Science
Justin Zalewski is Design Lead for design and innovation consultancy Studio Science. He’s worked with companies ranging from small startups to established players like Salesforce and Stack Overflow to improve their UX design.

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