From Vision to Value: Techniques for Demonstrating the Benefits of Design

A guest post by Cooper U alumni Grant Baker.

At every conference session I’ve gone to, someone has asked some variant of “this all sounds great, but how do I sell it to my company?” This is especially true when talking about processes seen as business cost centers, like design. To the initiated, it makes no sense why anyone would try to build a product any other way. Yet our business partners look on these same strategies with a cold eye, blinded to anything but added expense. Add this to frustrations such as impending deadlines and frivolous demands, and it’s no wonder many interaction designers have great theories, but no way to put them into practice.

In March, Cooper U hosted their Design Leadership workshop, which teaches the skills needed to meet these problems head on.

Over the course of the workshop, Kendra, Jenea, and Karin pushed our group to look deeper into a collaboration challenge, picture the desired outcome, layout a plan to overcome the challenge, and commit to improving the situation. Summed up: Assess > Plan > Act.

Assess:

Although students came from all over the world, we shared several goals. Prioritizing strategy over tactics, uncertainty surrounding roles, and pitching UX strategies to the team back home all sounded familiar. But before we could go about solving these larger issues, we had to understand what wasn’t working in the first place.

One technique for analyzing the current situation was to look at familiar objects with a different eye. Kendra introduced the concept of “vu ja de” meaning approaching something you have seen before with a fresh perspective and asking yourself “What would a better outcome be?”.

Lately, my co-worker Nate Smith and I have worked to revitalize a section of our company’s website. Our business partners saw an opportunity to spruce up the copy—keep the same pages, but tweak the wording. Of course, we designers knew there was a bigger problem, but couldn’t find a way to be heard.

In an effort to integrate the marketing team in the design process, we led them through the “vu ja de” exercise to help them understand the user’s point of view. Now they are changing their approach from conducting a simple copy clean up to rethinking what content is really valuable to users.

Plan:

Once you know your challenge, you can devise a strategy to overcome it. Here are some tips Kendra and Jenea offered to help get us started:

To gain consensus on what you’re building, host an experience workshop. Ask stakeholders to vote on images that best articulate what they want their product or experience to be like. This clarifies what aspects of the design are important, gives everyone a shared vocabulary and centers the team on a clear direction.

Not seeing eye-to-eye with your business team partners or engineering team? Use your UX skills to interview and create a proto-persona based on them. Knowing their goals and motivations will help you reframe conversations and hone deliverables to more effectively communicate with these audiences.

Act:

You sell design by being valuable.

Moving from current struggles to harmonious collaboration doesn’t happen just by talking about it. It happens though action. In class, we were challenged to write down some commitments to improving our situations and give ourselves a deadline to act.

After the first day, Nate and I began to build a list of possible actions we might take when we got back to work.

Our first commitment was to start a daily standup focused on attaining a large goal for each week. Once established, we’ll have a measuring stick to know if we’re on track or not, and help us decide whether an activity or meeting is in service of achieving that goal.

In addition, we pledged to take a hard look at the meetings we schedule to be sure that each person invited has a meaningful reason to be there, and that all meeting requests help participants understand how they will be expected to contribute and toward what outcome. Now, our clients and partners do not just feel a part of the design process, they are integral to it.

Finally, we made the commitment to interview our development and marketing communications partners to try to understand more about what’s important to them, what they are trying to achieve, and how our work fits with their work.

Keep on learning:

Organizational habits and work styles don’t change overnight. But I’ve learned that designers already have the skills they need to become valued leaders in their organizations, sometimes they just need a jumpstart. For that and more, check out the next Design Leadership training and be a force for transformation in your organization.

Grant Baker is an in-house designer at a financial services company. You can follow him on twitter @BakoInd

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