What’s your company’s method?

By Tom Wood @Foolproofer

Many big companies are investing heavily in design talent. But relatively few have a clear, widely understood method for design. Without this the quality and impact of work may fall short of corporate expectation – and make it harder to build and keep talented teams. Companies need to start a conversation about design methods and arrive at a corporate consensus as soon as possible.

In his keynote to UX Hong Kong this year Jared Spool gave an estimate that there were 24,000 open vacancies for user experience design jobs in the US. There is a yawning gap between demand and supply for people who can conceive and design great customer experience. It’s the same in every other country in the world.

Over the last few years most large companies have realised that the quality of the customer’s experience is central to long-term competitiveness. And most have realised that their own ability to craft a useful, usable and differentiated experience for customers is their Achilles heel. As a result many major brands are trying to build an in-house team with the depth and breadth of skills to radically improve user experience.

But too many companies are thinking about this simply in terms of building capability: increasing headcount to handle the growing mountain of design work that needs to be done. Very few are thinking about formalising and communicating their company’s approach to design so that it can be shared and understood by everyone, right across the business.

There are two scenarios which regularly play out in companies which are scaling design capability in a hurry.

In one, old methods for design decision-making get imposed by management and stakeholders who don’t have any background in design. This casts the newly arrived design folk as foot-soldiers who need to execute the will of the business. It’s hard to hold on to talented design practitioners in this kind of climate. Working on stuff which you know isn’t going to have an impact for customers is demoralising.

In the other, hastily assembled design groups act like a modern-day Tower of Babel. New hires and freelancers import a wide variety of working practices meaning that there’s no consistency in approach or in the dialogue between the design group and the business. Some projects run well and have good outcomes and others don’t; no-one really understands why.

Four steps in the design process

At the atomic level every design project has four challenges:

  1. How do you identify problems or opportunities? 
  2. How do you explore and understand the nature of the problem or opportunity?
  3. How do you start to develop and evaluate possible solutions?
  4. How do you execute the chosen solution?

If you are a design professional reading this you probably just blinked and thought something like ‘No shit, Sherlock’. But, crucially, it’s not yet widely understood in business that the first three challenges are the domain of designers. To most people in business the first three challenges are the domain of managers. The result of this is that there’s a huge culture-clash happening in many large companies that are investing heavily in design.

Most companies are already (and have always been) good at challenge number one: identifying problems or opportunities. Pretty much everyone who has a job knows that they should keep an eye out for inefficiencies or obstacles and make others in the business aware of them so that they can get fixed. In fact for most companies the difficulty is at the other extreme: how do you prioritise amongst the thousands of issues which get reported back by staff and customers?

The problem with problems

The bit where most companies get properly stuck is with challenges two and three: developing a deep understanding of a design problem and exploring a number of different ways to address it. Time and resources allocated to problem exploration are often limited because spotting a problem is often confused with understanding a problem. In a simple example, if your analytics tells you that users are dropping out of a sales funnel at step four of five it’s tempting to say that the problem is step four and that this should be the focus of a new design solution. But perhaps users are dropping out at step four because this is where a misunderstanding in step one means they don’t know how to proceed. Or maybe the root of the problem is a promise you made upstream in your marketing campaign. Or because your sales funnel breaks a social convention that the user grew up with.

Asking your organisation for time, people and money to understand the nature and complexity of a problem can be difficult. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ is a common response. Most managers have been brought up to hate uncertainty. Who wants to report to the Board one month into a flagship initiative that “things are going well, we think we’ve nearly understood the problem we’re working on”? But that’s exactly the kind of conversation that design groups need to be having with the business if they are going to solve complex sales and service issues. Good designers need the space to explore the design problem and experiment with a number of different solutions. If their company’s culture denies them this they end up unhappy, unproductive and, eventually, gone.

Capability is not the same as method

As more and more companies start to see customer experience as a central component of competitive advantage they are beginning to see design capabilities as a strategic asset. Budget lines are opened up to build in-house design groups: talent is recruited; freelancers are contracted; external advisers and agencies are engaged. Design teams that might have boasted 5 or 10 people five years ago are now home for groups of 100 or 200.

Many companies are assembling teams across a spectrum of design disciplines like product management, user research, analytics, product design, service design, information architecture interaction design, visual design, front-end development and content strategy. Some firms, like Google, Facebook, Accenture and Capital One, are buying whole design agencies lock, stock and barrel in order to accelerate their design capability.

All this investment makes sense: you need diverse talent to solve the most complex problems of customer experience. But how do you keep your design people productive and happy? And how do you make sure that they are focusing their talents on the most important problems the business needs them to solve?

Businesses investing in talent also need to invest in method. What are the attitudes, behaviours, and processes which govern design at our company? Are we all speaking the same language when we explore and solve problems and create value for customers?

And to really create value out of this investment, understanding of design practices needs to extend all the way to the top of an organisation. If the C-suite don’t ‘get’ design the only thing they are buying is unhappy designers.

Open a conversation about method

There is no single ‘right’ method. Each individual and organisation has to find its own approach to design which works for them in their organisational and market context, and which aligns with the resources and skills they have as well as the prevailing culture of the business. Amazon is famous for having a very data-driven culture for identifying and acting on user experience problems or opportunities. Apple has a very different method based on empathy for the user and a rich understanding of their world. Neither of these is ‘right’, but they both provide a clear, explainable design method which is widely discussed and understood within the organisation – up to, and including, the most senior people in the company.

At Foolproof we have our own method (which we call the Experience Design Framework). It’s the approach by which we explore, understand and solve design problems. We use it and talk about it every day. Anyone coming into our business is introduced to it as soon as they join. They are also invited to add their own experience and knowledge to it. Our method works for us, but it wouldn’t work for every company. We won’t be writing a book about it any time soon. But it creates alignment for us in terms of thinking, language and action that helps us move quickly and confidently every time we pick up a new brief.

Maybe your company needs to think about method too.


Tom Wood

I’m one of the two founders of Foolproof. Within projects I usually take a role both in planning our approach and in the generative phases of design. I’m also active in gathering client and customer needs into the design space. My particular talent is helping senior stakeholders see and understand the customer’s world in richer detail, and helping them work out how to respond.

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