THE BUSINESS VALUE OF DESINGN
How do the best design performers increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts?
We all know examples of bad product and service design. The USB plug (always lucky on the third try). The experience of rushing to make your connecting flight at many airports. The exhaust port on the Death Star in Star Wars.
The business value of design
We also all know iconic designs, such as the Swiss Army Knife, the humble Google home page, or the Disneyland visitor experience. All of these are constant reminders of the way strong design can be at the heart of both disruptive and sustained commercial success in physical, service, and digital settings.
Despite the obvious commercial benefits of designing great products and services, consistently realizing this goal is notoriously hard and getting harder. Only the very best designs now stand out from the crowd, given the rapid rise in consumer expectations driven by the likes of Amazon; instant access to global information and reviews; and the blurring of lines between hardware, software, and services. Companies need stronger design capabilities than ever before.
So how do companies deliver exceptional designs, launch after launch? What is design worth? To answer these questions, we have conducted what we believe to be (at the time of writing) the most extensive and rigorous research undertaken anywhere to study the design actions that leaders can make to unlock business value. Our intent was to build upon, and strengthen, previous studies and indices, such as those from the Design Management Institute. We tracked the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries. Their senior business and design leaders were interviewed or surveyed. Our team collected more than two million pieces of financial data and recorded more than 100,000 design actions. Advanced regression analysis uncovered the 12 actions showing the greatest correlation with improved financial performance and clustered these actions into four broad themes.
More than a feeling: It’s analytical leadership
The companies in our index that performed best financially understood that design is a top-management issue, and assessed their design performance with the same rigor they used to track revenues and costs. In many other businesses, though, design leaders say they are treated as second-class citizens.
Design issues remain stuck in middle management, rarely rising to the C-suite. When they do, senior executives make decisions on gut feel rather than concrete evidence.
Designers themselves have been partly to blame in the past: they have not always embraced design metrics or actively shown management how their designs tie to meeting business goals. What our survey unambiguously shows, however, is that the companies with the best financial returns have combined design and business leadership through a bold, design-centric vision clearly embedded in the deliberations of their top teams.
A strong vision that explicitly commits organizations to design for the sake of the customer acts as a constant reminder to the top team. The CEO of T-Mobile, for example, has a personal motto: “shut up and listen.” IKEA works “to create a better everyday life for the many people.” And as Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull told readers in a McKinsey Quarterlyinterview, to “wow” movie-goers continually, his company encourages its teams to take risks in their new projects: Pixar considers repeating the formulas of its past commercial successes a much greater threat to its long-term survival than the occasional commercial disappointment.
It’s not enough, of course, to have fine words stapled to the C-suite walls. Companies that performed best in this area of our survey maintain a baseline level of customer understanding among all executives. These companies also have a leadership-level curiosity about what users need, as opposed to what they say they want. One top team we know invites customers to its regular monthly meeting solely to discuss the merits of its products and services. The CEO of one of the world’s largest banks spends a day a month with the bank’s clients and encourages all members of the C-suite to do the same. Through personal exposure or constant engagement with researchers, executives can act as role models for their businesses and learn firsthand what most frustrates and excites customers.
Many companies, though, acknowledge a worrying gap in understanding at the top of their organizations.
Less than 5 % of those we surveyed reported that their leaders could make objective design decisions (for example, to develop new products or enter new sectors). In an age of ubiquitous online tools and data-driven customer feedback, it seems surprising that design still isn’t measured with the same rigor as time or costs. Companies can now build design metrics (such as satisfaction ratings and usability assessments) into product specifications, just as they include requirements for grades of materials or target times to market.
The value of such accurate insights is significant one online gaming company discovered that a small increase in the usability of its home page was followed by a dramatic 25 % increase in sales. Moreover, the company also discovered that improvements beyond these small tweaks had almost no additional impact on the users’ value perceptions, so it avoided further effort that would have brought little additional reward.
More than a product: It’s user experience
Top-quartile companies embrace the full user experience; they break down internal barriers among physical, digital, and service design. The importance of user-centricity, demands a broad-based view of where design can make a difference. We live in a world where your smartphone can warn you to leave early for your next appointment because of traffic, and your house knows when you’ll be home and therefore when to turn on the heat. The boundaries between products and services are merging into integrated experiences.
In practice, this often means mapping a customer journey (pain points and potential sources of delight) rather than starting with “copy and paste” technical specs from the last product. This design approach requires solid customer insights gathered firsthand by observing and—more importantly—understanding the underlying needs of potential users in their own environments. These insights must be championed at every meeting. Yet only around 50 % of the companies we surveyed conducted user research before generating their first design ideas or specifications.
Combining physical products, digital tools, and “pure” services provides new opportunities for companies to capture this range of experience. A hotel, for example, might do more than just focus on the time between check-in and check-out (the service element) by promoting early engagement through social media or its own apps (the digital dimension) and providing physical mementos aimed at encouraging customers to rebook. The reception team of one big hotel chain we know gives departing guests a rubber duck adorned with an image of their host city (such as clogs and tulips for Amsterdam). The team includes a note suggesting that guests might like to keep the duck at home as a reminder of their stay and could build a collection by visiting the group’s other properties. This small touch led to a 3 % improvement in retention over time.