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The State

of Design

in 2021
It wasn’t that long ago when good product design meant something that simply looked cool. But how cool something looks doesn’t really matter as much anymore.

Design today is no longer just about the output — the artifact, the cool thing.

Design must deliver on business outcomes.

Recently we’ve surveyed over 1,000 designers and asked them how they work, what they value, and what kinds of challenges they’re facing. Here’s what we found:

1
Design teams are bigger and more complex than ever
3 out of 4 designers said they planned to add anywhere from 1-5 new designers to their team this year.
2
We need better ways to measure impact
1 out of 2 designers reported that their organization expects them to measure and report their teams’ outcomes.
3
The shift from outputs to outcomes
1 out of 2 designers said the ability to quantify impact would make design more valuable to business strategy.
4
Today’s biggest challenges
The pain points of design collaboration are sharing and tracking tasks, wrangling feedback, and visibility into the work.
5
What’s the next big thing for design?
Communicating the value of time spent through measurement and reporting is key to an overwhelming majority of designers.
Design teams

1. Design teams are bigger and more complex than ever.

As the nature and definition of design have changed, so, too, have design teams. Not only are they growing in size — [text-highlight]3 out of 4 designers said they plan to add up to 5 new people to their team this year[text-highlight] — they’re also increasing in complexity.

77
%
Expect to add 1-5 designers to their team this year
50
%
See integrating workflows with stakeholders as critical to success
47
%
Say integrating with tools used by other teams is important
42
%
Plan to develop more technical skills in the future

Andy Vitale, VP of Product Design and Content at Quicken Loans, says organizations have been slow to catch up to this complexity.

“Early in my career, people would ask, ‘What kind of designer are you? What do you design?’ As the industry matured, designers went from being generalists to specialists. That specialization drove what we now consider UX Design. Then, as our focus shifted from web pages and screens to digital projects, Silicon Valley began to call these more [text-pseudolink-ee-t]T-shaped[text-pseudolink-ee-t] designers with multiple specialities, Product Designers — and it caught on.”

The problem, Vitale adds, was that organizations didn’t understand the nuances between different disciplines.

“Even at my previous company, we had six core competencies within our UX design team,” he says. “There was information architecture, content strategy, interaction design, visual design, front-end development, and design research. All of these fell under the umbrella of product design, and having to communicate these competencies to other teams became just as important as their output.”

Our responsibility as design leaders is to move beyond thinking about our role as a core discipline, and evolve into being strategic partners.”
—Harrison Wheeler, Product Design Manager at LinkedIn
Harrison Wheeler

Today, perhaps more than ever, being a good design leader means working effectively with stakeholders from other teams. Harrison Wheeler, Product Design Manager at LinkedIn says, “Having a seat at the table is table stakes. Our responsibility as design leaders is to move beyond thinking about our role as a core discipline and evolve into being strategic partners. This means thinking about the impact, value, and consequences of our decisions on the business, and our users."

[text-highlight]One out of two designers said that integrating their workflow with these stakeholders was “critical” to their team’s success[text-highlight]. Another 1 out of 2 said this lack of inter-departmental integration was among their organizations’ most significant challenges.

And with more collaboration comes a need for more skills. You’re less likely to find team members who are only designers now. More than 60% of designers reported having development experience, and 42% said they plan to develop more technical skills in the future.

Measuring impact

2. We need better ways to measure impact

According to design leaders, [text-highlight]57% reported that their organization expects them to measure and report their team's outcomes.[text-highlight] Additionally, 58% of design leaders said the ability to measure and quantify the impact of their team’s work would make design more valuable at the organizational level, and 63% of design leaders said that measuring and reporting results is “very important” to communicating the value of time spent.

57
%
Must measure and report team outcomes to their organization
58
%
Know that measuring and quantifying impact would boost design's value
63
%
Agree that measuring and reporting help capture the value of time spent
61
%
Say that DesignOps tools are lacking most in reporting and analytics

It’s clear that [text-pseudolink-ee-ruler]measuring[text-pseudolink-ee-ruler] and reporting on the impact of design is important, and even necessary. What’s a little less clear is how teams can achieve this. When asked how they measured and reported outcomes and impact, there were as many different answers as there were designers. Overall, it seems that design teams do try to capture both data-based and qualitative feedback. But marrying these together to tell a compelling story is tricky, resulting in many answers like this:

“Analytics are collected, but customer reactions determine whether projects are considered successful or not. The analytics always show that updated and redesigned processes have improved but if customer feedback isn't positive, it doesn't matter.”

“Reporting is a combination of user data, how many new users started using the product, and user interviews.”

“[It’s not done] easily. I use a mix of quant-based data to show good design choices are being made, and qual data from user testing to show impact and desire. I'm trying to measure the DesignOps and workflow side as well, but that's a larger challenge.”

So it makes sense that [text-highlight]2 out of 3 designers said that the design operations tools they use are lacking most in reporting and analytics.[text-highlight] The [text-pseudolink-ee-apple]appetite[text-pseudolink-ee-apple] is there, but the functionality is not. Instead, leaders have to find their own ways to determine success.

The shift

3. The shift from outputs to outcomes

Sarah McIlwain, our Director of Product Design, says that in the early days of UX and digital design, there was a notion of “design” being the final layer of product development after the strategy had already been established.

“You’d give it to the designers at the end, and they’d make it look nice,” she says. “But as it matured — as research matured — the perspective shifted from ‘What can we make and ship?’ to ‘What is the impact that we want to have on a customer?’”

Design decisions need to ladder up to the things that are important: strategy, company goals, revenue targets. It can’t just be about making cool sh*t anymore.”
—Chi Thorsen, Brand Design Manager at Thumbtack
Chi Thorsen

Good design means something different now. “For our work to survive and evolve, it has to be plugged into the larger picture,” says Chi Thorsen, Brand Design Manager at Thumbtack.

[text-highlight]“Design decisions need to ladder up to the things that are important: strategy, company goals, revenue targets. It can’t just be about making cool sh*t anymore.”[text-highlight]

“Any designer who's uncomfortable being held accountable for their design choices — whether that's fiscally or performance-wise — should be comfortable giving up their ability to own design decisions,” says Melissa Cullens, former CXO of Ellevest and founder and CEO of Charette. “You have to be willing to see it all the way through. If your performance rubric is not tied to the outcome, and somebody else’s is, then you have to ask yourself, ‘What are we actually asking designers to do?’”

The potential value that good design can bring to a business has increasingly become a topic of conversation. In other words, the [text-pseudolink-ee-road]road[text-pseudolink-ee-road] to connecting design and outcomes is long, and not all teams are there yet — but the potential to get there is on the horizon.

Any designer who’s not comfortable being held accountable for their design choices should be comfortable giving up their ability to own design decisions.”
—Melissa Cullens, Founder and CEO of Charette
Melissa Cullens

“As designers, we know that design can drive business strategy, we have seen all of the supporting research,” says Vitale. “We have to realize that design isn't seen as the center of the corporate universe, especially in large enterprises. So we have to build relationships and find partners that we can collaborate with. When we show how design can improve outcomes, that’s how we become seen as strategic partners.”

Today's challenges

4. Today’s biggest challenges: collaboration, people, and data

If organizations want to connect design to business outcomes, they must enable collaboration and focus on streamlining communication. When we asked designers what the most critical aspects of collaborating with other designers were, they listed the following:

70
%
Rank sharing and managing design work high among pain points
68
%
Say that managing feedback and conversations is overwhelming
67
%
Report that bringing visibility to their team’s work is challenging

Each of these priorities points to a separate challenge within the design process, so let’s look at each individually.

Challenge #1:
Too much “work around the work”

There are more design tools than ever, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to greater productivity. A majority of our respondents said they used some combination of tools and platforms to complete their work. Collaborating across a glut of tools requires constant coordination and multitasking to get through the day-to-day work. Abstract CEO Kelly Watkins says this cuts down on the amount of time that designers spend on actual design work.

“The high-effort, low-impact tasks that designers must do to make forward progress is so time consuming,” she says. “Not only does someone have to remember what’s in JIRA or Slack, but they also have to manually update people on their work. When a designer can get into a focused [text-pseudolink-ee-flow]flow state[text-pseudolink-ee-flow], they can produce better solutions, but that mindset is very challenged right now because there is so much work around the work.”

Challenge #2:
Feedback is disorganized

The second challenge is the sheer volume and fragmented nature of feedback that design teams have to metabolize every day. With an increase in responsibility and a closer tie to business strategy, teams have to contend with a staggering amount of feedback — and it’s almost never unanimous.

In some instances, this feedback is coming down from the leadership team, which can be tricky. “When a culture lacks a practice of productive critique and clear decision owners, the working team can walk away trying to interpret and balance the opinions of executives instead of implementing changes that would benefit the business. It can lead to in-fighting where office politics becomes the method for making decisions, even when it’s not in the company or the team’s best interest,” says Cullens.

Of course, design teams need clear feedback to move forward. The issue is trying to consolidate and capture this feedback in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Challenge #3:
How do you show progress?

It has always been a challenge for design leaders to make their team’s work visible to the right [text-pseudolink-ee-steak]stakeholders[text-pseudolink-ee-steak]. This is crucial. If you can show the customer research that drives your decision-making, it’s much easier to get buy-in from the rest of the organization.

Learning how to document design decisions enables rationale to become the tiebreaker.”
— Sarah McIlwain, Director of Product Design at Abstract
Sarah McIlwain

McIlwain says the key is showing the rationale behind a design. [text-highlight]“Learning how to document design decisions enables rationale to become the tiebreaker,”[text-highlight] she says. “If you can share the rationale behind your decisions, then you take opinion off the table. Opinion no longer becomes the deciding factor in what goes out the door.”

As it stands now, it takes a fair amount of [text-pseudolink-ee-drumstick]legwork[text-pseudolink-ee-drumstick] to both communicate and protect design decisions. It begs the question, if we are better able to document processes along the way, could it be easier to allow design decisions to stand on their own?

The next big thing

5. What’s the next big thing for design?

95
%
Believe measuring and expressing the value of time spent is important
46
%
Report that DesignOps tools and platforms lack documentation
61
%
Say DesignOps tools and platforms lack reporting and analytics

While the challenges may be complicated, there is a way forward — [text-highlight]95% of designers said that finding a way to communicate the value of time spent through measurement and reporting is important.[text-highlight]

“The easiest way to communicate the value we bring is to involve people [throughout the organization] in our process,” says Vitale. “[text-highlight]When they see how we work and see the outcomes that we achieve, that starts to  spread through the organization.[text-highlight] We can take any metric that the business has and figure out how to try to improve that.”

When they see how we work and see the outcomes that we achieve, that starts to spread through the organization.”
— Andy Vitale, VP of Product Design and Content at Quicken Loans
Andy Vitale

Our respondents agree: 46% believe DesignOps tools and platforms are most lacking in documentation, while 61% believe reporting and analytics are the features most lacking.

The answer seems clear: design teams need the kinds of tools that allow them to measure and document work so they can continue to scale and contribute to [text-pseudolink-ee-money]business outcomes[text-pseudolink-ee-money] in a more meaningful way.

[text-highlight]The more decisions we can make using data, the more we can use our designers’ talent and creativity where it counts.[text-highlight]