Why design must help business stay North Star-focused in 2021

4 min read
Liz Steelman
  •  Jan 19, 2021
Link copied to clipboard

This winter, we’re publishing select interviews from the 2021 Product Design Trends Report. If you missed it, last week we checked in with Nathan Curtis for a recap of design systems growth in 2020, as well as the changes he expects this year. And today, we’re delighted to share a conversation Heidi Munc, VP of user experience at Nationwide. Here, Heidi explains how designers strengthened their business muscle in 2020 and predicts how that will lead to their continued success in 2021:


Inside Design: Let’s start here: How did 2020 shape up for designers?

Heidi Munc: In the beginning when a UX team would work with business partners, they’d focus on the negatives, like time and cost. They realized, however, how powerful reframing those insights as benefits could be. Design made great progress on this over the years, leading many businesses to offer them a consistent seat at the table. In some cases, design even helped create a North Star for business’s future and brought attention to the pivots they’d need to stay relevant to their customers.

But then we had a pandemic. We all suddenly worked from home—and we learned that we could complete a technology transformation not on the six-year track a large enterprise had originally planned, but essentially over a weekend. (I saw something recently that said “Who completed your technology transformation: CEO, CIO, or COVID?”) I think what that’s done for a lot of organizations—especially those of a large scale, legacy enterprise sort—is to show them they can react and pivot like a startup. They now know they’re capable of doing powerful things they didn’t think they could before.

Alongside this, many companies experienced a steep downturn in revenue, forcing them to become reactionary and focus on operational efficiency. Design’s challenge became not only helping the business survive the next quarter, but also figuring out how to keep their attention on their North Star. And that meant helping the business realize that once consumers are in a disrupted mode, some behaviors stay with them. Customers learned that they can do things differently, too—and they might even prefer to do them differently. Their priorities in February 2020 might not ever be important to them again. For example, what behavior changes happened after the Depression or World War II? Design’s role has been to help their organization not only track changes during this super disruptive time, but also identify how to capitalize on them.

That brilliantly brings us to the topic of 2021: What opportunities are you most excited about this year?

This pandemic has made it clear which points in our customer journey that a customer will conduct tasks in a digital channel, and which they just need to speak to a human. This focus has uncovered an opportunity to do more in our digital channels beyond just adding incremental features. So for 2021, we’re moving the whole roadmap from a feature-to-feature path to one that reimagines the whole way our members experience us digitally.

As a leader, how do you help your team members grow this business thinking muscle?

The most sought after designers have adopted a business-thinking mindset—and that’s the best sales pitch I have. And now that everything is virtual, I can help more of my team get the training they need. It’s more democratized now since we don’t have to pay for hotels and flights.

I have a new group in my team called Practitioner Enablement. They are a small, nimble team who continually seeks out which human-centered tools and resources we can build and deploy to upskill ourselves and stay best-in-class. They are dedicated to that mission and can’t be pulled into working on other projects. However, they do also provide consulting to our business partners to help them understand how to take a more human-centered approach to problem solving. The demand for that service is exceptionally high. We’ve had to think hard about how to build and scale the team’s capacity so they can have as much impact as possible throughout the organization.

Designers aren’t just designing—they’re also expected to collaborate with their other product-focused colleagues. We’ve seen many design leaders come from a product management or engineering background, and vice versa. Why do you think we see this merging of roles? And what is the business case for that?

I think UX successful teams require deliberate and organized methods: We’ve had to learn stakeholder management to get and keep that seat at the table. We’ve had to be realistic about what can be accomplished, empathetic towards our business partners and their needs, and constantly share the power of storytelling. Overtime, we’ve become multidimensional and help cover components that used to be solely managed by business leaders. We’ve helped change customer centricity from a milestone to a mindset.

We also model to other stakeholders how to think and approach their work from that perspective. For example, I was just in a meeting where a telematics colleague told me that he appreciated how my team not only led the creation of the project plan, but also made sure that the entire cross-functional group came together to make it clear what needed to get done so the project would work.

One last question: For 2021, what do you think will be an important business principle for design to focus on?

UX must find a relatable and effective way to make sure we reorient the business towards that long-term goal while the pressure continues to mount until we’re out of this. I can see it getting worse before it gets better—that can cause narrowing. We need to help the business think multidimensionally about what they’re trying to achieve short-term and long-term, and create that bridge for them that keeps customers in mind.

You can’t predict the future, but you can look back at historical context and see some patterns. If you’re only focused on the short-term, though, you’re not going to build anything. 

History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. It will never be exactly the same, but common themes arise in how humans approach disruption and how they reorient what’s important to them. So don’t be afraid of it—just acknowledge it and figure out how to make it an opportunity for your business.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Want to learn more about how design will hold its seat at the table?

The 2021 Product Design Trends Report offers answers to this and other top of mind questions.

Read the full report here

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard