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How did you first become interested in experience design and learn the necessary skills? I worked as a front-end developer building websites, where I had the opportunity to work with designers. I was jealous of their roles as key decision-makers, so I ended up going back to school in the early 2000s for my master’s degree in library and information science, with an emphasis on information architecture. Although the field was still new at the time, my degree allowed me to move into roles as an information architect and an interaction designer.

Still, learning on the ground was the best education for me—I found that half of the work is the craft and the hard skills, and the other half is soft skills. After fifteen years as an applied practitioner—and writing a book along the way—I transitioned into a new role as an analyst looking at the evolving importance of design in business. Today, I bring my blended perspective as a practitioner and an analyst to the work I do at InVision on the Design Education team.

How has your experience as an analyst informed your work as a designer? As a designer, I connected with the product team and midlevel sponsors on the hook for design-specific projects. As an analyst, I worked with the C-suite—people who were accountable for a completely different set of deliverables and key performance indicators (KPIs), who had a fair amount of skepticism for the next new fad. Working as an analyst allowed me to see the types of questions nondesigners have about design, enabling me to better understand how to address those questions.

InVision recently released a report surveying more than 2,200 companies in order to explore how design impacts business. What does it mean for a business to advance its design maturity today? We look at design maturity as business benefits that are driven by design multiplied by adoption of design at the organization. We look at these two factors specifically because:

  • There’s a gap in the preexisting analyses and models of the types of business outcomes you should expect design to drive.

  • While many organizations have isolated design-impact stories, more broad-based adoption indicates that the organization is using design repeatedly and sustainably to drive business value.

When we say a business is expanding its design maturity, we’re really saying: these are the organizations getting more benefits, most broadly. Advancing the design maturity of a business means fine-tuning its processes in a way that enables it to increase key business goals.

Design has a seat at many tables, beyond just the boardroom.”
How can a company measure “good design,” versus “bad design”? That’s a tough but fundamental question. Companies are already widely measuring “good design” versus “bad design”—most of the companies within our design maturity study reported seeing product usability improvements, as well as increased customer satisfaction, as a result of their design work. But the more sophisticated organizations also have practices of defining project-specific design measures. At the outset of an initiative, they’ll identify specific human-centered objectives, along with business-focused KPIs. Then they actually follow through on testing and measuring whether the initiative achieved those goals.

Measurements aside, I’ve also seen that design-focused companies foster a culture where everyone is encouraged to listen to their instincts and express high standards for what great design looks like. In companies like that, “good design” isn’t just a KPI on a scorecard—it’s a continuous conversation and a personal litmus test for every team member.

Does the report prove that design has a seat at the table? It proves design has a seat at many tables, beyond just the boardroom. One of the most important tables designers should sit at is with their product manager and their engineer. The nature of this partnership is actually the biggest lever of business impact, so the conversations here are necessary in driving design’s business value.

Why do you think design thinking has caught on like it has? Design thinking is fun—you get to brainstorm and make stuff, and you receive real feedback throughout the testing process. It’s totally different than the way we’ve traditionally worked—it’s a breath of fresh air. Design thinking also illuminates how linear and reductive most business decision-making is, and it’s exciting to think that you can make better, more data-informed decisions by opening up the possibilities. While the design community has driven a lot of buzz around design thinking—for better or for worse—the design maturity report really drives home the concrete business value of implementing design thinking. It also illustrates that treating design thinking as an afternoon workshop brings some business value, but embedding the core principles of design thinking into the day-to-day work of the design team has outsized business impact.

How would you update your book, The User Experience Team of One, for the next few years? The book was published in 2013, so it could be rewritten to look at design through the lens of a leaner, more agile world. I would also tweak the tone of the book. When I wrote it, I strongly emphasized the need for designers to act as facilitators of an inclusive design process that cross-functional colleagues could be a part of. And I still believe that. But the stakes have changed since the book was written. Organizations facing digital disruption don’t need “friendly design facilitators.” They need designers with high standards who will drive a robust design process. So if I were to rewrite it today, I would encourage designers to be less conciliatory, and more assertive about doing the full design process the right way.

What must tomorrow’s designers know about business? Tomorrow’s designers need to learn the key principles of business—including the basic levers of business profitability—in order to better understand how integral design is for improving a business’s bottom line.

What tips do you have for a designer on communicating the value of her work to clients? Always anchor your work within the concrete goals the project aims to deliver. When you’re communicating what the work is about, be sure you understand exactly how the design choices support those specific goals.

Leah Buley is the director of design education at InVision. She’s a veteran of the experience design industry and is also the author of the book The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide. In her work at InVision, she researches, analyzes and shares what makes design teams successful.


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