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"Design is not just about what is immediately visible, but also about creating a shared language to articulate why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place."
"It’s easy to lose track of the business context as a project goes on and critiques become increasingly focused on usability, craft and aesthetics."
"If you want to extend the influence of design, it’s important to expand your vocabulary."

Ryan Opina, Engine Digital

Design Critique through the Lens of the Business Model

Design Critique through the Lens of the Business Model

You hear about the impact of design everywhere. A recent issue of Harvard Business Review was titled “The Evolution of Design Thinking.” There are calls for designers to enter the C-Suite as Chief Design Officers. Infographics illustrate how design-led businesses perform better. Articles explain why good design is good for business.

For many designers and agencies, however, this idealized scenario is far from what we encounter on a daily basis, leading to frustrating conversations that seem to be more about personal opinion than creating the right solution. Does the client just ‘not get it’? Are they unable to understand wireframes? Were they unsure about what to say when they were shown mood boards? Do they keep saying ‘just do what the other guys are doing’ or generally revert to what is familiar?

Don’t they understand design is the single driving force to making them and their business successful?! (it’s not btw)

Frustrating no doubt, but these are all common behaviors that you may see every day. Unless you change the steps leading up to them, you will continue to see them over and over again.

What is it about the process of creating something new that repeatedly puts us in this situation? Our colleagues are smart. Our clients are smart. We all want to be able to collectively stand up and proudly point to something that elegantly solves a problem while fulfilling a business objective – and therein lies the challenge.

What we forget sometimes is that design is not just about what is immediately visible, but also about creating a shared language to articulate ‘why’ we should be doing something in the first place.

Not justifying the ‘why’ behind a direction or concept through a shared language can end up creating a gap between project team members and those responsible for moving the idea forward. Quite simply, the two parties involved are not speaking the same language.

So what is that shared language? I believe it starts with how we practice critique, or more specifically, how we aren’t practicing critique. The critique process should involve evaluating and iterating an idea to make sure it’s considering the right things in the right ways.

When we think of a design critique, it usually looks something like this:

  • Gather a core group of people working on the project to discuss sketches or prototypes
  • Get feedback about design approaches for a specific feature or section of a website
  • Walk through scenarios of how you would expect someone to use the product/ service
  • Discuss which adjustments need to be made
  • Leave and make said adjustments

What’s missing from the above is a mechanism to evaluate what is being created against the business context in which it needs to live. I’m not saying this never happens. I’m just saying it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of business context as a project goes on and critique becomes increasingly focused on usability, craft and aesthetics.

The team is likely familiar with the business objectives described by someone at the beginning of a project (e.g., raise conversion rates, increase monthly active users by 50%, grow sales by 20%). Everyone nods their heads in agreement. Then, as the days and weeks go by, the team slowly loses track of how the product or platform they’re creating actually impacts the agreed upon business goal from that original kick-off meeting.

At Engine Digital, we have been using a tool called the Business Model Canvas. It is something we use to facilitate common understanding between a large group of stakeholders that vary in experience and focus. Originally created as a tool for developing new business models or documenting existing ones in a lean startup or strategic management environment, we have found it useful for three specific things:

  1. Creating a shared language
  2. Validating viability
  3. Understanding who you are going to piss off (and how to approach it)

Creating a Shared Language A shared language is the foundation of a solid design critique. If everyone involved doesn’t have a perspective on what is considered great when it comes to information architecture, typography, color, space, balance and usability, then how can you have a successful critique? For designers, these critiques are critical.

But what about the VPs you are interfacing with? The C-Suite executives who you want to support your vision rather than block it. What is the language they are familiar with and expecting to hear? Rather than waxing poetic about color theory or responsive design, you’re more likely to hear them talking about things like:

  • The project’s impact on resources
  • Value propositions
  • Channels
  • Customer segments
  • Revenue Streams

These are the things that are important to most client stakeholders. Therefore, you need to be prepared to articulate your design against such factors. Unable to tie your information architecture back to the value proposition? Don’t have a clear perspective on why you’re emphasizing the mobile channel for admin dashboard access vs the desktop? You’re going to run into problems.

Validating Viability You should also look at the business model as a tool to validate the feasibility and sustainability of what you are making. Can the user actually use it? Sure, no problem. Can you technically build it? Yup. Can the business support it and evolve it? That’s more complicated.

Gaining an understanding of customer segments through personas and research is a pretty standard part of the design process. Connecting the dots between how those personas experience the value propositions of the product or service, through the channels you are using, while considering the partners and resources required to make those value propositions a reality, is much more difficult – especially if you don’t have those connections mapped out in the first place.

If the strategy is documented and clearly articulated for everyone to see, the design team can better ask themselves if what they are creating can satisfy those requirements.

Understand Who You Are Going to Piss Off With new experiences and innovation comes change. The issue is that sometimes change can end up having a direct and significant impact on the people you are working with. It’s not because the proposed solution isn’t the best thing for the business or that they don’t like it aesthetically. It’s because it now creates the realization that getting the design off the ground requires a new set of key partners.

Maybe it relies on a channel that falls outside of their working group’s responsibility. Or perhaps they don’t have the requisite technical expertise to speak intelligently about how best to move the initiative forward via the newly discovered channel. What I’m saying here is that understanding how your design relies on groups and individuals outside of the design team is critical in gaining support and creating advocates for your vision.

If you want to extend the influence of design, it’s important to expand your vocabulary. The intersection of business, audience and technology is where design needs to live. Design critique through the lens of the business model is one way to create that crossover.

About the author:

Ryan is the Vice President of User Experience at Engine Digital. He has an MBA in Design Strategy and 15 years of experience working in physical and digital product design. A frequent speaker on the intersection of design and business strategy, he is continuously looking for new ways to apply unconventional approaches to interaction, function and content in order to influence businesses that are integrating digital in completely new ways.

Illustration by Uruguay-based illustrator, Martín Azambuja