Design is a job about problem-solving. As designers, we work diligently on solving issues like how a new service might function, how we might enable accessibility to reach a broader audience, or how to create a brand that folks love. But often, the same designers who can solve for their user-centric goals with ease have trouble solving for business goals, too.
And designers often aren’t to blame for this lack of knowledge — I’ve worked at organizations where it seems like draconian business goals are passed down from the top, only to destroy the user experience (Hello, dark patterns!). So it’s no wonder that some designers stay completely away from, or are even hostile toward, business topics until forced to take note. But that says more about your lack of understanding of the business than your good taste.
Business goals and user goals don’t have to be at odds. As designers, we have the opportunity to show how a good user experience can be good for business. The alignment between user interests and business priorities can be one of the most amazing things to ever happen to your designs — and your career. And frankly, knowing how to communicate the impact of design through a business-minded lens is increasingly more important for your design team. Get ahead of the curve and become a better designer by consistently incorporating business goals into your work.
Know the numbers
The first step toward taking the business plunge is to understand the numbers that matter most to your organization. It may sound basic, but you need to know exactly how your company pays its bills every month. It’s not uncommon for designers to be left out of financial conversations, so it wouldn’t shock me to find out that many don’t know enough about the businesses they operate in to be effective. But the less you know, the less impact you’ll have as a designer. So start asking questions with the goal of making better design decisions for your business. Sometimes, baseline sales data is enough to help you make a more informed design decision.
Here are some specific questions you should be asking your team leads and stakeholders:
- What feature/product gives us the highest return?
- What do we spend the most money on?
- If you work for a startup: Is our company profitable? How much do we gain/lose every month? What’s our monthly burn rate? (Put another way: How long do we have until we need more money?)
- What are our user acquisition channels? And how much do we spend to acquire 1 user in each one?
- How many product units or subscriptions do we need to sell in order to make money? Or how much usage do we need to see from a user before we make money?
- Are there parts of the business that lose money? Why? How long is that sustainable?
- What’s the most important metric to keep positive?
- What’s the most important metric we want to grow?
Finding the answers to these questions can be easier than you might think. Many organizations have dashboards, presentations, email updates, or entire teams dedicated to crunching these numbers and readily sharing data. At smaller or less transparent companies, you might have to dig. Book time with someone in a leadership role or who works in business development and make sure to bring a list of questions. Don’t be shy. In my experience, nobody has ever said no to telling me more about the business I’m being paid to help succeed.
Know your customers
It sounds like a simple idea: people are spending money on your product. Those people have wants and needs that are either met or not met by your current offering (also known as product/market fit). Getting their feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and mapping it through personas can be a guiding light when you’re faced with prioritizing your next project. Yes, making all your users happy is the ultimate goal. But realistically, resources are always finite. Focusing on specific user-types’ happiness helps ensure your company’s lights stay on. I recommend identifying these two types of users:
- The person who actually pays the bill (the decision maker)
For a consumer product, this is typically the user or the user’s close family. For example, Netflix needs to make sure that their user is happy in order to keep them paying each month. If you design for businesses like we do at Abstract, the answer can be more complicated. The primary user of the product may not be the only one responsible for making sure there is enough budget to pay for your service. For example, it may be the primary user’s manager, the admin for the organization, or even the CEO. Identify this key stakeholder as quickly as possible, and make sure they see as much value for your product as the day-to-day users.
- Your power users
Who spends the most time using your product? And who has the decision maker’s ear? Finding the answer to this and deconstructing the common user-cases that led to these “power users” can often give you the recipe to success. During my time at Instacart, we quickly realized that families were often our power users. While this seems obvious in retrospect, we’d often hear out product ideas or brand pitches that might be perfect for a single bachelor or bachelorette, but wouldn’t translate for households with hungry mouths to feed. To grow our userbase, we could have spent time going after a user segment that cooked at home less and had smaller order sizes. But making sure to cater to families was a much better business decision. It broadened our opportunity greatly.
Remove friction for important product moments
Business goals are typically created to improve a product’s revenue or usage. We’ve all attended the meeting when your team has to take a hard look at numbers and someone throws out an idea that may seem diametrically opposed to a good user experience. “We’ll place ads everywhere to save the business” or “We’ll introduce a mandatory modal to force users through an action” have been suggestions that have been brought up to me over the years. Those suggestions aren’t wrong. Those suggestions are aimed at driving revenue for the business: something we are all invested in. But those ideas are often slapping a band-aid over the underlying design problem: friction.
Is there an action that benefits your business? Make it easy to do. Inviting friends, finding people to follow, and suggesting related products are all ways to reduce friction for your end goal.
At Abstract, we know our product shines when your entire team is invited and collaborating. So making sure it’s as easy as possible to invite users into our platform is important to our business.
Use good design to save money on support
On paper, designers know that the products they work on every day can be improved. But often, projects with “softer” metrics associated with them never get approved. If you want to make a case for your project, sometimes all you need to know is the answer to one simple question: How much do we spend on support every month?
Poor information architecture, education, and overall ease of use of your products typically has a cost. And it’s high. It usually comes in the form of a Support team. Support teams are essential to great companies, but that cost might be scaling linearly alongside the number of customers. That’s bad for the business. If you can design for common support cases that come in, the support team may need to scale at a slower rate — leaving them to work on harder problems and save the company money over time.
If all else fails, use customer research
You should already be speaking to customers. But if your organization is still making choices that strictly benefit the business in the short term and devalue the user experience over the long-term, stress test your choices by going straight to your customers or users. Set up research sessions with people who interact with your product, or continue to cut the checks. Even better, find users who have declining usage or have stopped using your product altogether. Talk to them and find out why.
Do your research correctly. Make sure to speak with 5-7 people to get a good sample. Beware of asking leading questions. Have your customers run through the product with you and you’ll uncover what’s wrong. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot in the process beyond even the issues you might already know about.
The user experience is the business. At the end of the day, they will choose to use or leave your platform based on it. Bringing your customers and their thoughts to the table is a powerful way to shift the business.