How To Save A Good Design From Its Imminent Death

Intuit design leader Kaaren Hanson believes good design is under-appreciated too often, especially in a no-nonsense business world. Here's how to show designers some love.

I once worked for a CEO (not my current one) who said that he was very pro-design. He backed up his words with lucrative offers to bring leading designers into the company. But when one of those designers eventually presented some aspirational designs to him, we were unceremoniously told to get that #$%& out of his office.

I’m sure other designers can relate to this story.

Today’s designers are heavily recruited, have a pick of offers, and are often told design is a priority, only to later see their work fall on deaf ears. Too often the boardroom is the place that good design goes to die.

The truth is that most executives don’t get design. They say they do, they put resources behind it, they hire top-notch designers—but in their guts they don’t get it.

It’s up to you to hack them.

Intuit, where I work, was one of those companies—dedicated to being more design-driven, but with many of its leaders initially unwilling or unable to support design initiatives.

Today, though, the company has embraced design, and integrating designers and their work into the core of the business has contributed to better products, increased net promoter scores, and an all-time high stock price.

Yet getting to where we are today has not been easy. I have learned the hard way—and I have the scars to prove it—that there are a few key things designers can do to train their execs to ”get” design.

Create Immersive Experiences

Design in an emotional experience. It is something we experience, both good and bad. Therefore, it is impossible to describe or explain to an executive in words or slides; they have to feel it for themselves.

At Intuit, we've asked executives to share product experiences that delight them. They enjoyed telling the stories—and hearing what others loved. And as they told the stories, key elements of great design always came out.

Then we took it a step farther and ran a scavenger hunt on the streets of San Francisco to help execs better understand the importance of mobile design. They had to go to four different stops around the city using a variety of mobile apps to find the clues. One stop involved going into a fortune cookie shop and using Google translator to ask for a special cookie in Chinese. With their competitive juices flowing, the execs quickly realized the pros and cons of different mobile apps designs.

Execs may not ever love design, but once they experience it firsthand, they will understand good design and why it matters.

Give Them a Job

Be warned, once executives get design they are going to want to help; most are action-oriented and will want to be involved. So make sure you have a job for them and thoughtfully channel their energy.

Often times the best job you can give an exec is to keep others from getting in your way. Of course, executives do have a tendency to go rogue. But getting them involved early and explicitly sharing your POV about what the project needs from them creates a common point of reference and gives you, as the designer, a place to push back from if they start to cause trouble.

Lean Into Numbers

Design is an emotional experience, but business is numbers-driven game. It is your job as a designer to find a way to connect the two.

Executives love measurements. So find a way to integrate numbers in your work. For example, I realized that Intuit didn’t have enough designers, and when designers are spread thin, they cannot do great work.

Despite many impassioned conversations, nothing changed. It wasn’t until I pulled together the ratios of designers to developers at companies that produced great experiences and showed that Intuit was behind by 50% were we able to significantly improve our designer ratios.

Similarly, once we were able to quantify delight and predict it, the company’s focus on emotions took off. We look at three measures: whether a benefit the customer cares about was delivered, whether it was easy to accomplish a task. and if the experience evoked a positive emotion. We know that when we nail all three, our conversion rates and net promoter scores go up substantially.

These are just a few of the steps we have taken at Intuit to help bridge the chasm between executives and designers. While we’re still on our journey, we’ve seen great progress—both in execs getting design, and just as importantly, designers getting execs.

Today, designers are core members of all new product and strategy teams from the beginning. We invest in their skills and expect them to deliver emotionally engaging experiences that help move the needle.

At some point, all designers are going to run up against this age-old chasm. Hopefully some of the lessons we learned the hard way can help you when it’s your turn to try and cross the great design divide.

Kaaren Hanson is the Vice President of Design Innovation at Intuit. Find her on Twitter: @kaarenhanson

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Malone]

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2 Comments

  • Jeffrey Bryan Mahacek

    I've been looking for similar numbers re: the ratio of designers to developers and have had difficulty. What were you able to find?

  • Milt Hess

    Great.

    Then why does Quicken 2014 take so long to do a simple Done command during One-Step Update? And when I Enter a scheduled transaction in Calendar why does it take so long and why doesn't it clear the entry until I click again?

    Not sure if these count as design issues, but they sure have an effect on my perception of the product as a whole. They knock Quicken down on all three of the delight measures.

    Getting executives engaged and excited about design is great, but the fact that you needed to do that explains a lot about why Quicken has stagnated for a number of years. I bet people who worked for Steve Jobs or who work now for Elon Musk didn't/don't have that problem. They had/have leaders at the top, not 'executives'. Big difference.