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My secret weapon for helping executives understand the value of design

4 min read
Colin Narver
  •  Oct 15, 2020
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It’s the onset of a massive new project and I’m attending a week-long workshop with leaders across engineering, marketing, and business development. For this working session to be successful, we have to walk away with a shared plan of what we are building and how we’re going to get there.

At the end of the first day, a senior leader new to the organization, walks up to me and asks, “So…when do we get all of the screens?”

There’s an uncomfortable pause. I say something like, “We’re focused on delivering early sketches that represent the core product paths that we’ll iterate on through user research feedback. The number of screens needed is unknown at this point.”

I thought we’d put the conversation to bed. But several weeks later I hear the same question again from two different stakeholders. “How many screens have you made? Could we put the screen count on our dashboard for the executive team?”

Then it hit me. In these stakeholders’ minds, the number of screens was quantifying design’s impact. Business leaders hold each other accountable through data points, and if they don’t have a translation of design’s progress, they’ll create their own. We needed a better, easily digestible mechanism to demonstrate the breadth of our contributions.

Everyone has the best of intentions around UX. Everyone wants a usable, great product experience. But we often come into our processes with our own assumptions of why we’re doing what we’re doing and what needs to get done. To truly create a great end experience, we need to take time at the onset to grow a collaborative mental model, generate customer empathy, and set up shared expectations.

Thankfully at IBM, though not on the schedule of our weeklong workshop, we already bake these alignment sessions into the way we work. We call them playbacks, and they’re reflective presentations built into certain stages of our product development. They can define what problem to solve (Hill Playback), a solution to said problem (Playback Zero), the benefit to partners (Client Playback), or as a review of a technical implementation (Delivery Playback). They are also often treated as release gates: If we don’t all agree to what we’re consciously committing to at the end of a playback, we won’t move forward.

As a result, playbacks are naturally cross-functional. Preparation for the presentation forces interactions with critical departments (e.g. development, marketing, analytics, etc.). This early collaboration helps identify gaps, misalignment, or untested assumptions in ways that usually only come out later in the product development process. At IBM, we’ve found that holding Playbacks not only minimizes risk, builds consensus, and showcases an understanding of customer need, but they’re also the perfect method to gain trust and demonstrate value—with clients, collaborators or executives.

Take for example, Playback Zero. In a Playback Zero, design showcases a solution to the problem the team agreed upon during the first, or “Hill,” playback in the product development process. The solution design provides is mid-fidelity, as it affords enough room for adjustments, while being precise enough to showcase a designer’s vision.

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But rather than simply present the prototypes as a “design solution,” designers instead present a holistic solution. They tell a story of a persona’s experience of the end-to-end prototype, allowing the customer to make the argument for them. In the prototype a designer takes a persona through a “to-be” that showcases a future that addresses their wants, needs, key use cases, pain points, and value props.

Because designers account for cross-functional considerations, an effective Playback Zero easily persuades a diverse set of stakeholders that the proposed solution is the right one. Rather than focus on the architect’s vision, it focuses on the quantitative and qualitative benefits given to the end user. Designers address anything unclear about the solution at the end, when there’s formalized time for those in attendance to ask questions or comment. When the process is effective, the disciplines melt away and the clearest, best solution shines.

Playbacks enable clarity, definition, and consensus on critical questions such as, “Are we building the right thing?” If the answer is yes, everyone leaves the playback with marching orders and agreed-upon next steps. If the answer is no, then the playback is even more valuable, as the participants come away with clarity and a documented reason as to why a project is a no-go.

After that workshop, we decided to make playbacks and prototypes central to our planning process. As a result, the asks for screen counts went away. The asks for user-centered prototypes radically increased. Bringing our team together to demonstrate the art of the possible using research has permanently shifted the conversation and helped demonstrate design’s value. Almost too well: The biggest challenge we face now is that there’s so much interest in design that our bandwidth is limited. Even the most capable, well-staffed, design mature organizations can’t do everything simultaneously. But with playbacks in our back pocket, we have the tools to make sure that we’re solving the right problems in the most efficient, effective, and aligned manner.