Most of the debates on the importance of design in business are usually focused on how aesthetics affect a business’s bottom line. Whether it’s Facebook vs Myspace or Microsoft vs Apple, the argument is a lot like the infamous invisibility vs flight hypothetical. With absolutely no data, it can be argued on several levels and, in the end, often say more about the person than the companies involved.
On our team, our experiences and workflow have brought about a richer appreciation for the role of good design in a company. While we do like to focus heavily on the look and usability of our products and experiments, we believe design’s greatest value to a business goes deeper than the idea that it’s a glossy exterior that attracts customers. In an interview with Fortune Magazine, Steve Jobs said:
“Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product.”
It’s a little romantic, but we believe the greatest asset of this “fundamental soul” is the ability to dramatically influence the quality of a product and the culture of a company before production even begins. We think it’s a shame when developers debate the merits of design after the core product is already completed, because it misses out on design’s true potential: to impact your internal business. Good design in our company doesn’t just sell products. Good design fosters collaboration, communicates strategy, sets expectations, improves the efficiency of a team, and most importantly inspires and motivates like nothing else.
Seth Godin recently mentioned in a post on expectations that when it comes to business, promising big and delivering bigger seems to be the only reliable strategy. To gain buzz you need to set expectations high. To gain and retain customers, you need to surpass those expectations on a regular basis. A great way to start is by setting the table for quality early on inside your organization and one of the best ways to do this is through design.
Numerous research studies have illustrated the impact of expectations on individuals and groups. The Pygmalion effect, which is more commonly known as the Teacher-Expectancy effect, describes situations where students perform better than other students simply because they are expected to do so. In 2003, J. Sterling Livingston wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about the Pygmalion effect in management. He explained that “if [managers] are skillful and have high expectations, subordinates’ self confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop, and their productivity will be high.”
Garr Nolds, an associate professor of management at Kansai Gaidai University and an ex-Apple employee, believes that these high expectations for an organization should be set with design.
“[Companies] are beginning to preach design internally and demand great design, not just of the product-development teams, but of all departments. If an organization’s true brand is actually inside the company, then we sure as heck better make sure we have an internal climate that preaches great design and lives incredible design everyday.”
Two Types of Quality
One culture that does a fantastic job of incorporating design expectations into business practices at every level is the Japanese. Their version of total quality management, which is a management strategy aimed at embedding awareness of quality in all organizational processes, is heavily dependent on aesthetic values. The relationship between design and quality is very close for the Japanese, who believe that in order to have a quality product or service, it needs to be created in a way that satisfies two different ideas of quality. The first, atarimae hinshitsu, which is roughly translated as “taken-for-granted quality,” is the idea that things will work as they are intended. The second, miryokuteki hinshitsu, which means “enchanting quality,” is the idea that things should have an aesthetic quality that appeals to a person’s sense of beauty. Here’s a simple example to help make it a bit more clear:
A pen will write.
A pen will write in a way that is pleasing to the writer AND leave behind ink that is pleasing to the reader.
For the Japanese, the product or service isn’t good enough when it just works—it needs to also work elegantly to be considered of a sufficient quality that makes it presentable to the consumer. This belief is embedded deeply into Japan’s corporate culture and permeates everyone’s values from management to the workers on the factory floor. What Nolds and Japanese companies like Toyota understand is that to be effective in creating values that expect quality work from everyone on a team (not just designers), you have to instill these design values from the beginning and at a fundamental level that presents a commitment to beauty and elegance for everyone and at every step in the process. When you do this, you find your team rising not to the challenge or your competitors’ cries, but to the designs presented before them.
Design Helps Get Things Done
When you provide engineers with a design from the beginning, in addition to setting expectations of quality, you provide a holistic understanding and strategy for what needs to be accomplished. Good prototypes show exactly what the product is supposed to look like, and which features need to be created without getting in the programmer’s way.
“…without product design, our manager’s two fears remain unquelled. She has not established whether or not the users will like the product, which indeed leaves its success a mystery. Nor has she established what a ‘complete’ product looks like, which leaves its completion a mystery.”
Good designs that are established at the start of a project prevent the programmer from leaving features incomplete or straying off course to create “neat” features that may turn out to add unneeded complexity and reduce the usability of your products. Incomplete features hinder productivity and when you remove a programmer’s cool features after they’ve already created them, you open up the potential for arguments and bruised egos. The sunk cost fallacy might be one of the most difficult concepts to accept when it’s your time and energy that has to be sunk.
Most of the programmers we know seem to have a common problem where they love to start challenging projects, but have a hard time following through and finishing. You may disagree on exactly how detailed a functional spec should be, but when your engineers are also acting as your interaction designer, chances are your product is going to take longer to complete and you won’t end up with the results you intended. There’s actually a common saying that goes something like this:
“The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time.”
Our team is definitely no exception, and while we have no problems working on features that excite our users, the boring features like backend account management or even documentation seem to be a real drag. To help speed up the work on boring or tedious projects, we often turn to design to get us going. To illustrate what I’m talking about, here’s two screenshots showing the old administrative interface compared to the new design proposed by Kevin:
We couldn’t help but want to actually make it work. Well-designed comps show you what could be accomplished if you would only get off your lazy butt and bring the design to life. Not only does design get us started, but we find ourselves finishing projects that were well designed ahead of time much faster than projects that didn’t have a wireframe or prototype (like our billing system). We’ve come to learn that it’s hard to motivate technical people, including ourselves, through money, colorful toys, or gigantic monitors. We try, instead, to have a design ready for everything we’re about to approach so the motivation for accomplishment is instilled by our need to see something that looks cool come alive.
A good design also has the ability to remind us that we’re working on something worthwhile, which is another way design can help fuel productivity. This seems to be a common motivational factor for programmers. Here’s a few quotes from programmers discussing the problem on how to motivate programmers in the Joel on Software forums :
“If they’re new meat they haven’t really had the feeling of shipping a product and seeing it in the real world help somebody. That’s what gives me the biggest kick.”
“I think the inverse of that is why most programmer’s get so fired up about not wanting to ship crap. Having been involved with a couple of projects that were total garbage I can’t tell you how horrible it is to continually have to apologize for the complete piece of shit that is sitting in front of a user.”
By designing first, you know that you’re working on a product with a soul and not some middle manager’s steaming turd of a project that they’re just trying to ship out the door to make their quarterly bonus. Programmers do not want to work on garbage and when they see something that’s useful, real, and worth accomplishing, they’re internally motivated to not only start but to also finish.
Deep down, we all have a desire to be proud of our work, and design is a great way to set the stage for excellence within your organization. When you start out with a beautiful and awe inspiring wireframe or prototype, your expectations about that product and everything associated with it is expected to also be beautiful and awe inspiring. If the initial expectations for a web application are low by bad or no design, then bad practices seem to find their way into the code, the web site marketing, and even the attitudes toward customers by employees. When you start with great design as a foundation, there is a snowball effect on the quality and execution of a product from start to finish.
In a healthy business culture, what’s good for the company and for customers comes together and becomes the driving force behind what everyone does. Whether or not design results in a few more units sold can be debated, but I don’t believe we’d argue about the importance of instilling pride and values in your workforce. This is where the true value of design lies.