Activating the Design Capable Company

More so than ever before, Fortune 500 corporations are building design capabilities. As traditional competitive advantages are eroded, and emerging technologies unlock new levers of value, leaders in every industry have recognized the need to improve their customer experience and create better digital products.

Yet with these new foundations comes a myriad of new challenges. Now that designers have a seat at the table, how should design scale across the organization? What are the implications of non-designers learning design thinking?  And how should companies balance customer experience, user experience, and data analytics?

To answer these questions and more, we recently hosted a Smart Salon at our New York studio. Bringing together design, business, and technology leaders from a variety of design-forward industries, the event fostered an active discussion about the emerging challenges of corporate organizations. Richard Whitehall, Partner at Smart Design, moderated a diverse panel of design leaders:

During the course of the morning, several interesting themes and insights emerged:

1. In creating a culture that supports design, seeing is believing for senior leadership

A number of the panelists spoke about the importance of having executive leadership serve as activators in the change management process towards a design-oriented culture. In describing Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s passion for design, Albert Shum spoke about one of their first collaborations together: a connected beacons project that allows London subway travelers with guide dogs to navigate by sound. The project was the first clear manifestation of Nadella’s emphasis to employees about the need to humanize technology, not just to create more tech.

Reflecting upon IBM’s design transformation, Jack Mason also pointed out, “Our Design Camp started with product and service teams coming together for 4-day sessions. But one of the first findings was that our executives need this. So the next phase was a 1-day program for executives because all the teams were saying, ‘If our leaders don’t understand what we’re talking about and how we’re working in this new way, we won’t get there.’”

2. Narrow metrics must be balanced with an understanding of the end-to-end experience

With design investment at an all-time high, the need to measure and evaluate design impact has become more important than ever before. At the same time, design has never been easy to measure, and the orientation toward narrowly defined metrics can actually degrade the customer experience. In considering this challenge, Cliff Kuang of Fast Company summarizes, “The product manager might say, ‘Look, people click 2% more.’ But stepping back to ask ‘why did someone go to that page, what are they doing after, what impression do we want to leave them with?’ If you don’t ask these questions that are beyond the page, then you get stuck in metrics that force you down a narrow path toward optimization.”

Capital One’s Heather Winkle added, “My team spent the past year building a UX measurement system that would be a way for us to communicate with our partners and look at every level of zoom.  We quickly realized that there was a lot of NPS measurement, and then singular completion or engagement measurements. But how do you gauge what’s in between? How do you measure something that is not a single click or task but the greater journey someone experiences with your product line? We’ve been looking at a set of measures that show our business partners how the work actually ladders up to their outcome in a lot of different ways.”

3. Co-ownership is the right ownership for the overall customer journey

As cross-functional teams work together on products, a natural tension emerges about which function ultimately owns and makes the tough decisions on the end-to-end customer journey, especially as the impact of individual products ultimately needs to create one meaningful experience. Heather Winkle noted, “At Capital One, we’re still sharing the responsibility. We have design, experience, line of business; we have very separate pockets, so it’s actually about the relationships. I’m not sure who will come out as the owner, but I’m not sure there can be a world where it isn’t shared.”

“The customer decides,” says Albert Shum of Microsoft. “Design, engineering, business: everyone has accountabilities that contribute toward the experience. I use the journey as a vehicle to show everyone’s accountabilities, as opposed to someone individually owning the journey; you have to go and make that.”

4. Role of design firms has shifted, but client companies still need eco-system partners

As Fortune 500 companies build embedded design teams, and design firm M&A activity only continues to intensify, the traditional relationship between client companies and design agencies has evolved beyond traditional outsourcing relationships.

We’ve loved working with firms, and we discovered pretty quickly that it had to be in partnership. A really key component is the interpreter; we always have folks from my team working with these external firms to make sure there are no language barriers.

Heather Winkle
Vice President of Design, IBM

Providing a more holistic perspective, Microsoft’s Albert Shum commented, “The work I do is platform, so it’s not our job to design everything. It’s actually working with partners to create the eco-system. We want to work with [banks] to make amazing things. We want to work with an agency to figure out what to do with HoloLens; try it out, and create something wonderful.”

5. New technologies create a need for design hybridization, not design specialization

Although most designers built their craft around one specific type of design, such as interaction or motion design, the future portends a world where design will shift toward being a generalist craft. Albert Shum of Microsoft notes, “If you actually talk to students coming of school, they don’t look at it like I’m an interaction, visual, or graphic designer, they just want to make things. We’re trying to cultivate more of that, so we have less of these siloed disciplines of design; especially as we work on new areas like AR/VR where is there is no grid, and type doesn’t exist.”

Cliff Kuang of Fast Company points out, “I think that with a lot of technologies you’re seeing today–AR, VR, conversational commerce–the interface means less and less to the design product; which means the design gesture is moving more and more toward the content itself and away from the interface affordances. In 20 years, the design team at Capital One won’t be thinking about should this screen follow this screen, but what should the character of our digital assistant behave like.”