Recently, I hosted a Fireside Chat about how to best communicate the value of design with Leanne Waldal (research leader at Dropbox, Autodesk, and more) and Kerry Rodden (co-creator of Google’s HEART framework). While we discussed the various reasons why design is seen as overly-qualitative or “squishy,” we all agreed that the path towards securing the respect design deserves boils down to one key idea: You gotta bring design metrics to the table. From identifying exactly which data points will tell an effective story to bolstering your presentation, here are seven ways we’ve continually found success in communicating design’s value:
#1: Have empathy for your colleagues
Kerry suggested thinking of your non-designer colleagues as users of your work and extending them empathy just as you would users of any other product. Start by understanding the constraints they’re under and try to speak their language a bit.
“I think [it’s] really, really helpful when it comes to having the value of your work be understood,” she said. “It’s clear that you’ve made the effort to understand the value of theirs.”
Leanne echoed this sentiment and also recommended stepping back and considering their priorities and anxieties.
“Any PM who’s been around for a while has had the unfortunate experience of launching something and having some major thing blow up in their face,” she said.
Think about communicating exactly what you can measure on their behalf to help sure there aren’t any surprises after a launch. Not only will you quickly raise the estimation of design in their eyes, but you’ll also build trust.
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#2: Embrace evaluation of your work
Applying metrics to your design work ultimately means opening the door to critique. This takes a certain courage, especially because metrics aren’t perfect. But both Kerry and Leanne urged designers to embrace evaluation as a learning opportunity:
“Sometimes it’s hard to be open to being evaluated,” Kerry said. “But if you can embrace it and treat it as an opportunity to learn something, then that’s another way to help bridge gaps with product, engineering, marketing, and so on.”
Embracing quantitative evaluation from a broader perspective can also improve a design team’s knowledge of the business and help them understand how their work aligns with strategy and goals, Leanne explained.
When you care about the business, it gives you a bigger voice in your company, she said.
#3: Measure what matters to the business
While we may have had little data 30 years ago, Leanne said we almost have too many options to choose from today. If you want to prove design’s value to your organization, make sure you’re aligned with your leadership and colleagues’ goals and priorities. What KPIs or OKRs are your business focused on? She suggested using these as guideposts for deciding what design metrics you should track and communicate.
If you’re still not sure where to begin, Leanne recommended benchmarking an aspect of your user experience against that of a competitor’s product. Non-designers are often used to analyzing a competitor’s feature set, so this kind of comparison is a particularly good way to highlight the competitive advantage of a well-designed user experience.
#4: Start with a solid baseline
If you’re just getting underway with measuring user experience, consider starting with a redesign project—even if it’s small. You can then use your data from before the change as a baseline to compare against. If you see some good deltas in the metrics, you’ll have some easily conveyable successes.
Kerry said they used this approach at Google and it allowed her team to create case studies that clearly demonstrated the value of sound design decisions. This created an organic ripple effect within pockets of the company and eventually led to institutional change.
“Ideally, people are going to see what you’ve done and want to do it themselves,” she said.
#5: Involve collaborators in your research
I’ve heard many designers say it’s difficult to get their organizations to switch from concentrating on features to the user experience flow. In these cases, Leanne recommended inviting stakeholders into your observational research to help them see the whole picture of a user’s experience, such as participating in remote interviews or helping you evaluate user surveys.
“There’s nothing like sitting with someone and watching them have trouble or be delighted and then seeing what else they do around that,” Leanne said.
Kerry added that this big-picture approach can be mirrored in your analytics as well: Instead of measuring aspects of individual features, measure how a change to a feature or other item affects the other metrics in user flow. How does it change the steps or order in which they do things? Seeing this connection can help broaden perspective.
#6: Package your insights to sell
During the Fireside Chat, an attendee asked what to do if executives aren’t paying attention to your metrics. After some discussion, we landed on that it’s not just your metrics that matter, but it’s how you present them. As mentioned above, it’s important to know what format is best going to land with leadership.
“What you’re trying to do is sell your product,” Leanne explained. “Just like any salesperson knows: In order to sell your product, you have to know what people are drawn to.”
Now, this may take some experimenting: For example, what worked for Heidi Munc and the user experience design team she leads at Nationwide was a printed “coffee table book” for executives to page through during lunch. Facebook designers, on the other hand, said they use lots of short video documentaries. For you, it may come down to making the right choice between a deck, spreadsheet, or Freehand.
#7: Correlate quantitative and qualitative data
I saved this one for last because it’s next-level stuff: When you reach ninja-like mastery of your metrics, you’ll be able to easily communicate the user’s state of mind from particular data points. But it takes a lot of qualitative and quantitative research and monitored user analytics to get to this level.
Leanne said that only after iterating back and forth for an extended period of time could her team come up with a useful algorithm.
Also, much of this work you have to do and understand yourself: For example, she said that if you were told from an outside team that “Eating apples and banana makes users happy,” but “Eating papayas made them sad,” you shouldn’t take this insight at face value. Instead, she urged teams to dive deep into the research and ask questions to fully understand any findings and the data they derived from.
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Remember: Metrics don’t always measure what matters
While metrics are important, don’t let them become the only way you see value in your work. “Be aware of the different ways you can have an impact, even if it’s not something necessarily noble or something that makes sense to try and count,” Kerry said. Being able to articulate other changes you’ve helped bring about in the organization is valuable—even if it’s just for yourself.
If you’re looking for additional information on communicating the value of design, check out the numerous resources at DesignBetter.com, especially this podcast with Abigail Hart Gray, director of UX at Google.
As the VP of Design Education at InVision, Aarron Walter draws upon 15 years of experience running product teams and teaching design to help companies enact design best practices. Aarron founded the UX practice at MailChimp and helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. His design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups and venture capitalist firms. He is the author of the best selling book Designing for Emotion from A Book Apart. You'll find @aarron on Twitter sharing thoughts on design. Learn more at http://aarronwalter.com.