It’s no secret that embracing design is a valuable investment for just about any company.
And if you needed more proof that design thinking is going mainstream, see the online graphic design platform Canva, which is focused on democratizing design tools and skills for companies and individuals. Two years after its launch in 2013, Canva has garnered 5 million users and just raised a $15 million round that included investments from the actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson.
But design wasn’t always on the radar of business leaders. Kate Aronowitz has seen the focus on design evolve rapidly in the past 15 years, working at places like eBay and Facebook. Earlier this year, she took on a totally different kind of design job: VP of design at Wealthfront, the online investment-management company.
“When I started at eBay in 2001, it was just amazing that you could buy something online. You would find something that you were craving, you’d bid on it, and it would hopefully show up a couple days later,” Aronowitz told Fast Company. “Frankly, I didn’t really think about trying to make it look nice; it didn’t really occur to us. It was all about the interaction and trying to facilitate user experience.”
But now, she says, online experiences have to be more than functional–they need to be beautiful.
“The interaction has to be snappy and rich. The notifications have to be just right when they ping you on your phone, because everyone’s time is very limited,” she says. “You have to think about the phone, you have to think about the desktop, you have to think about identity, you have to think about network effects. Design has gotten really, really complicated. So it’s no wonder that so many companies are now putting such a focus on it.”
But from functionality to branding, Aronowitz says the key to implementing good design starts with knowing your users and your company through and through. Here’s what she’s learned:
Just as each company is unique, so are the formulas for a strong design team. At Facebook in 2009, Aronowitz’s early team of 20 had a directive to grow fast.
“Because of the nature of the product, we were trying to literally reach everyone in the world. We had to build very quickly because there were lots of competitors. We were also in a highly engaging product that people were using more and more each day, so the pressure to launch new features was pretty great. I very quickly had to build a huge team. The focus was to build the biggest and best team that we possibly could in tech. And I grew that team to almost 200,” Aronowitz says.
At Wealthfront, her objectives are totally different.
“When you think about Wealthfront, we’re focused on an area of someone’s life that isn’t about network effect. It’s not about connecting with your friends. It’s about money, it’s about long-term security, and it’s dealing with something that’s highly rational because it has to do with numbers, but it’s also really emotional because it’s your money. We’re about long-term investing, so we’re building a brand and experience that needs to be successful for the next 20 years. It’s not about getting somebody to log in tomorrow morning. It’s about getting them to trust us and work with us over the next 10, 15 years.”
So through researching the Wealthfront user, it became clear to Aronowitz that a culture of transparency and personable features (and lots of interactive charts) were what the customer wanted, so she adjusted accordingly. Her design team is heavily geared towards research, and boasts chops in data visualization and other information-wrangling tools for a user base that has turned out to be highly analytical, Aronowitz says.
“At Facebook, we very much wanted the interface to recede, and the user-generated content to come to the forefront. So we talked about design being very invisible there,” Aronowitz says. “If you feel upset or angry, it should come from your friends’ news, not from being frustrated with Facebook. When you come to Wealthfront, it’s different. We’re thinking a lot more about education. We not only want to show you what’s going on in a way that’s really clear, but we want you to understand it. We’re always thinking about how to put information really close to the surface.”
To build the trust so necessary to Wealthfront’s success with its users, Aronowitz and her team of seven people have made an effort to partner with the company’s research team to understand the user and how they feel about the product.
Instead of constantly rolling out new bell-and-whistle features like she was used to doing at Facebook, the Wealthfront team tests new interface updates in focus groups. That’s how she found out that instead of having their financial information broken down into bite-sized pieces across a user profile, users preferred to have all of their financial information together on their Wealthfront home pages to sift through themselves using the platform’s analytical tools.
“If you’re showing them their data, they want to be able to play with it and see themselves in it,” says Aronowitz, who has noticed an increased appetite for information density in users, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. “They’re so used to consumer information at a pretty fast clip. People have a much higher tolerance than you think.”
And as Aronowitz learned early at eBay, a design team is only as strong as its connection to other teams inside the company, like research, product, and engineering. So she makes sure the Wealthfront design team fits snugly into the ecosystem of all three.
“It’s having a product team that understands the business, understands the target market, and sets really great goals and strategies for the company; an engineering team that deeply understands the technology and how that can enable what we’re doing and wants to build something really innovative and interesting as well; and then your design team that brings in the usability aspect, the utility aspect, and delight and joy and smoothness on top of that,” Aronowitz says.
Aronowitz says both fledgling and established companies can boost their design prowess at any time, and both stages come with their own advantages.
Larger companies have more resources to throw at design. At a startup, designers have the ability to establish a culture of design at the ground level.
But before a company even thinks about building up its design culture, Aronowitz says a few major things need to be in place.
“The first thing a company needs even before design is product-market fit. Do you have something that’s valuable to a group of people, and can you prove that out?” she says. “It was much more important for Wealthfront to get the technology in place and the product in place before really elegant design came along. Really phenomenally designed charts or a beautiful interface would not have worked had the product not been good.”
Aronowitz suggests company leaders look internally and ask one thing:
“How focused are you on your users and your clients? I think the more deeply you understand them and the more focused you are on them, the more you want them to enjoy using what you’re presenting to them. And design can certainly do that. It could be enjoyment. It could be understanding. Design can promote all of that.”
An earlier version of this article stated that Aronowitz quit Facebook earlier this year. It has been amended to say that she started Wealthfront earlier this year.