Is your organization design ready?

Let’s presume for the moment that interaction design can be perfected and delivered to your organization in a tidy, shiny bundle of brilliance. Have you now got a magic talisman that will protect you from competition and summon market share? Of course not. Design is just the beginning.

Don't risk wasting ideas you've paid for...

Like any piece of good advice, your organization must be able to hear the design and then act on it for it to do any good. Take a look at this checklist to see if your organization is design ready.

Can your organization hear design?

I don’t mean this in a literal sense. (Even in a literal sense, a lot of design documentation is to be seen and experienced, not just heard.) But I do mean a couple of more abstract things.

Are the right people in the organization listening?

Who is experiencing the pain of your current design and focused on listening to ideas for improvement? Design problems may be experienced outside of the product team and executive team, such as complaint or support departments, or manifested as returns, or cancellations of service. Problems can even be hidden in the usage metrics of your purchase path if you’re trying to sell something. All of these are important ways to hear the voice of the customer, but are these same people who are listening empowered to make the major changes necessary to fix things? Patches to a problem can be implemented at a low level, but the ultimate solution to the problem is almost never at the same level. Most often attention is needed at higher levels to solve it effectively.

Is the audience willing to challenge the status quo?

As consultants we are often brought in to work with internal teams: either design teams, development teams, or most likely both. If internal structures pit design teams against each other, or external designers brought in ham-handedly to feel like interlopers, design ideas can feel like a threat rather than as market-changing innovations. More insidiously, an organization that is too comfortable in its market position may not want to risk any part of that position, even as an investment for a better and more disruptive one. We do what we can, but if there is a group that is dead set on resisting design on political or comfort grounds, then they can’t hear the new directions that design is leading.

Is the infrastructure in place to deliver the message?

In larger organizations, the best design may need to be enacted across multiple groups, across different physical locations. Email may not be enough. An intranet or wiki may serve for documentation, but to hear live presentations to understand strategy, ask questions, and make sense of the big picture, stakeholders need to travel to participate in milestone meetings, or colocation technological solutions like GoToMeeting need to be in place and easy to use.

Can your organization evaluate design?

Design ideas can come from many places: Design staff are paid to do this, and of course your design consultants will be mind-blowingly brilliant :), but really, design ideas can and should come from anywhere in the organization, including the customers themselves. With a flood of new ideas coming in, does your organization have the means to sift through these ideas, synthesize and evaluate them holistically, to avoid feature bloat and avoid ruining the core experience to accommodate the edge cases? This includes evaluating visual design, usability, and design strategy from a more objective and less subjective lens. Someone needs to be charged with safeguarding the experience of your product or product suite, and that individual needs to be able to evaluate design.

Can it act on good design?

Even if an organization can hear good design, that’s not enough. It’s got to be able to act on it, to make the changes necessary to bring goal-directed services and software to reality. This entails a number of other questions.

Can your organization implement design?

Does your organization have the development talent and leadership to implement good design? If your market solution was easy or off-the-shelf, your competitors would already have it and you would have no competitive advantage. So to push ahead of your competition and lead the market, you will most likely be dealing with new and challenging software and service design. That takes a team of forward-thinking, creative developers who can rise to the challenges that design will bring.

Can your organization extend design?

The first passes at a design almost always address the most common cases, the scenarios by which the personas typically interact with the system. But edge cases and exception cases will arise as the design gets implemented, tested, and extended. Does your organization have the design talent in-house to be able to extend design when the consultants have left?

Does your organization have the organizational will?

Can your organization commit the time, attention, and resources to make design happen? Will development resources be given focused time? Will management lose focus on long-term design goals at the first strain of quarterly results? Is there someone responsible for making sure that the top management’s attention stays on target?

(This same question may also be driving whether an organization commits the time and resources to do the research and design phases as well, or whether it constantly pushes to fix small-scale problems rather than look at the big picture.)

Can your organization measure design?

This isn’t easy, and given the problems that most organizations have with the above problems, measurement is the last thing on their minds. But how will you know if the design is right? Like insurance, sometimes it can be hard to know what misery good design has saved you from, but if you went into it with a measureable problem, you should research and measure that problem again post-implementation to see where you stand and whether you’ve met the goals of the users and the business.

How’d your organization rate?

6-8 Design Ready: Your organization is design-ready, able to recognize and act on design. There may be other challenges, but getting good ideas implemented that support your user’s goals is not one of them.

3-5 Design Problems: Problems sometimes crop up in the course of design projects, which prevent its completion or limits its effectiveness. The problems are probably tractable, and can be addressed on an ad-hoc basis, but at the risk of deadlines and long-term user satisfaction.

0-2 Design Resistant: Your organization isn’t ready to receive design, good or otherwise. If your software and services aren’t routinely frustrating your users and costing you business, count yourself lucky. You can manage small design projects, but to reinvent your business to be goal-directed, you will need organizational change, often with help from without, to get the top management aware of the power of design and to implement the systemic changes that will help you deliver it.

How do you become more design ready?

In our experience, this sort of change happens at the top. Design-aware employees can host brown-bag lunches, evangelize at the water cooler, and advocate for good design practices over the course projects until they’re blue in the face, but until the heads of your organization are thinking in a goal-directed way about its users (and customers) it’s going to remain design-resistant. If you’re one of the leaders in your organization, consider reading some of the fundamental design books out there, or take a class to get a better, first-hand understanding of design and how it can help your organization become more design ready.

Chris Noessel

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