Design leaders from Airbnb, Google, and Wall Street Journal on inclusivity, impact, and measuring design

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Nov 6, 2019
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We wrapped up the third season of our Design Better Podcast last month, where we explored the connected workflow: how designers can work more effectively and efficiently with their engineering and product counterparts to create incredible customer experiences.

Across the ten episodes we interviewed a spectrum of guests, inside organizations ranging from high-growth companies like job-search site Indeed, to 130-year old media titans like The Wall Street Journal.

As we record Season 4 of the podcast, we want to share some of our best learnings from Season 3. We’ve collected three lessons we heard from some of the sharpest minds in product design today that we’re sure will help you with the challenges you face in your daily work as a designer or design leader.

We’ll be exploring:

  • KPIs and measurements that will help you understand the value of design for engineering and product partners.
  • The meaning of inclusive design with your users—and across interdisciplinary teams
  • Methods of making a direct impact on the bottom line through design to help connect with key business partners and executives.

Let’s dive into the lessons.

Lesson 1: Measure the value of design

We first met Abigail Hart Gray when we interviewed her for the case study report we did on Northwestern Mutual for the Design Genome Project. It was clear from our first chat that she’s an astute design leader with a wealth of knowledge about measuring the impact of design in an organization.Having led teams at Huge, AOL, and Northwestern Mutual and now at Google, Abigail has continued to champion the use of metrics to establish a baseline for the effects of design on the evolution of products and features.

Abigail is always eager to find partners across an organization who can help her identify metrics that are important to the business or work with her data, product, or engineering counterparts to find a proxy for value that can be measured. She has even used InVision’s platform to measure the productivity of the team.

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When her team at Northwestern Mutual grew exponentially from seven to 70, for example, her annual report on design impact would include:

  • How many screens have been uploaded into InVision that year
  • How many prototypes had been shared
  • How many comments were left in prototypes.

All of these were seen as an indication of how many people were interacting with design, and how design was “infiltrating” the rest of the organization.

“You should be really careful about what metrics you use. Statistics, everybody always says, can be very misleading depending on the way you use them. Metrics are the same way.”

Abigail Hart Gray, Director of UX at Google
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Abigail cautions that we need to be careful about the metrics we use and how things are measured. She gives an example of a good metric in eCommerce: reducing the drop-off from the shopping cart to the purchasing click.

In her words, “if more people are making it from a declaration of intent, like putting something in their shopping cart through to purchase, you know you’re doing a better job.”

Abigail Hart Gray, Director of UX at Google

Learn more about how to measure the value of design in Episode 22 of the Design Better Podcast.

Lesson 2: Inclusive design makes stronger products and teams

Benjamin Evans has a great story, going from a career in the performing arts to his current role as an Inclusive Design Lead at Airbnb. When we chatted with him for the podcast, we learned about the far-reaching positive consequences of establishing a practice of inclusive design.

Inclusive design is often presented as “the right thing to do,” but it has an outsized impact on the business as well. If you’re building for people from underrepresented backgrounds, having people from those same backgrounds helps you create experiences that have a much better chance of resonating. In business terms, this increases your potential audience and market-share.

And so just by embracing these ideas and these principles of, ‘Let’s focus on the needs of people who are not like me,’ you become better in business, you become as the designer, you become better in life.”

The principles of inclusive design help make stronger teams as well. As Benjamin says, “Inclusive design is really the process of bringing those who are outside or ‘the other’ …into the core of your creation, in the way that you create… Then it stands that inclusive design sets a strong framework for how you can collaborate with people from different disciplines.”

The baseline for inclusive design is empathy, which can also be used to understand what individuals on other teams, like engineering and product, struggle with, and what excites them about the problems they solve.

What is one simple way to start being a more inclusive designer? Benjamin recommends starting with a simple question. Ask, “who are we missing?”

“…if you just ask, ‘Who are we missing,’ early and often, you are able to better identify one of the ways that bias is subtly influencing the decision… who are the people missing from this boardroom table, from this design sprint? Who are the people who’re missing in our hiring practice? And it allows you to do it in a way that you can challenge your own bias, in a way that doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed for having a bias.”

Benjamin Evans, Inclusive Design Lead at Airbnb
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Benjamin Evans, Inclusive Design Lead at Airbnb

Learn more about how inclusive design impacts product and teams in Episode 23 of the Design Better Podcast.

Lesson 3: Making a direct impact on the bottom line with design

As we learned from Abigail, measuring the value of design often happens by proxy. It’s just not always possible to measure a direct impact on the business. In some cases, however, design does make a measurable contribution to the bottom line, and what better place to discover a story about this than the very business-focused Wall Street Journal.

We spoke with Che Douglas, then SVP and Head of Design at the WSJ, about a redesign that he led shortly after taking on the role. Their CEO gave his team a project to look into the subscription flow for new users. They learned that it was extremely difficult to subscribe on a mobile phone. Most users would struggle to do it in five or six minutes, and some would give up well before that.

This felt like a great design challenge for Che and his team. They redesigned everything, removing half of the form fields, making it mobile-friendly with proper validation and autocomplete features, and adding the option to use the phone’s camera to snap a photo of your credit card and populate the payment fields.

At that point they discovered how lucky they were to have the sponsorship of the CEO, who had said “I want to do this quickly. Let’s just do it. If anyone gets in your way just bring them in here when you’re presenting.”

This was critical to the success of the project when objections were raised by various stakeholders like, “we need this form filled for compliance,” or “we don’t ship to Hawaii, so we can’t do that.” Overall, the process took about three months, and when they launched the new mobile subscription flow, the results were immediate and immense. Conversions went from 2% to over 22%, which had a direct impact on the bottom line.

[invTweetSA author="Che Douglas, former SVP and Head of Design at The Wall Street Journal"]“That was proving to the business that we could remove friction and have a direct, instant impact on revenue. So month to month I could look at the dollars coming in from subscriptions and know that the experience we’ve built for subscribing on a mobile phone to the Journal was a huge improvement, and that was easy in terms of speaking to the business. That was speaking their language.”[/invTweetSA]

Che Douglas, former SVP and Head of Design at The Wall Street Journal

Learn more about having a direct impact on the bottom line in Episode 29 of the Design Better Podcast.

If you’re looking to make a direct impact on your business through design, we recommend a recent talk at the Awwwards conference by our very own Stephen Gates on Elevating the Business Impact of Design. Listen for his recommendations about investing in cultural and emotional innovation to create better teams and ultimately better products.

=Stay tuned for some bonus episodes headed your way before the launch of Season 4 of the Design Better Podcast, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.

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