What every designer should know about business

What every designer should know about business

Design is a competitive field that has been evolving at a staggering pace. It’s a particularly great time for designers who also have business skills and knowledge; their opinions are gaining more weight, design thinking is spreading far and wide, and an increasing number of businesses are choosing to become design-centric.

But what if you don’t have business skills?

That’s where this article comes in. It’ll help you to see what you’re missing and work on those areas, so you’ll soon know all of the business lingo and be able to present your ideas to your company or clients.

Let’s get down to business… skills. 😉

Become a willing researcher

A lot of design concepts are not industry-specific. If you’re curious and willing to do some research into why interesting and successful products work, you’ll end up with more ideas and examples when it comes to your own design.

This “informal” pursuit of knowledge is crucial for when you need to solve problems in your business. Having different concepts in mind, knowing why they work and being able to provide use cases that you’ve found can all make a world of difference when talking to your executives or clients.

I’d suggest that you try to understand one thing, product or service per day. Try to break it down and explore why it functions so well. That’ll set you on a path of discovery and over time, you’ll learn how to efficiently find the answers to your questions.

There’s also the “formal” kind of research that is directly connected to your work.

First of all, you must understand your users. You can find my in-depth user research guide HERE. The topic is too extensive to cover in this article.

You also need to know the specific field in which you’re working. Which brings us to…

Understand your market and industry

Understand your market and industry

Understanding market dynamics, competitive forces and industry specifics is essential if you want to create meaningful design. You’ll be able to connect your design to the bigger picture and explain its value in terms that your clients or executives will understand immediately.

In order to do this, you need to understand several things about your market:

 

Demographic trends

Demographic trends

  • Who are your customers?
  • What are their values?
  • Are there any patterns in age and gender?

 

Technology trends

Technology trends

  • What are the most common solutions and limitations in your industry?
  • What trends might impact your business, both positively or negatively?
  • Are any upcoming technologies presenting an opportunity?

 

Rules

Rules and regulations

  • What are the current rules and regulations?
  • Are there any upcoming ones that might affect your market?
  • Are there any economical factors that might impact your industry?

 

Competition

Competition

  • Who are the most relevant players in your market? What are their value propositions?
  • Are there any unexpected or rising success stories? What/who is behind them?
  • What are your business’s strengths and weaknesses compared to your main competitors’?

 

satisfaction

Customer needs

  • What high-level needs exist in your market?
  • How satisfactory are the most common solutions?
  • Are your customers’ needs changing alongside demographic, technology or other global trends?

 

Uncertainties

Uncertainties

  • Being aware of specific uncertainties can lead to opportunities when new trends emerge, or when you stumble upon a cross-industrial connection.

Spotify is a great example of understanding the broader industry and turning that knowledge into a product. Spotify realized that there was a connection between:

  • Cloud technology trends
  • The customers’ desire to listen to a wide selection of music and not necessarily own it
  • A changing regulatory environment that Apple helped to create
  • An economic environment where record labels were actively seeing new revenue streams

They applied this wider knowledge to their own business model, which is also what our next chapter is about.

Business model

Study your company’s business model

Understanding the industry and then exploring how your company plans to fulfill its goals may seem like a lot of work… and not much designing. However, if you strive to produce the best possible work in the given context and create solutions with added value for your business, it’s the way to go.

Here are a few basic questions to kick off your business model research:

  • What are your company’s goals?
  • What are the current and potential new areas of business?
  • How does the company create value and for whom?
  • What is the cost structure and where does the margin come from?
  • What are the company’s unique assets and how can they be exploited?
  • What are the constraints that your company is facing?

Once you acquire a better understanding of how your business operates, you’ll be able to align your design solutions with its goals, assets, market position and constraints.

You’ll also be able to improve your understanding of other departments and their priorities, which will simplify the cross-functional integration of your ideas.

Having a clear idea of the business model will make it easier to choose the metrics that will best demonstrate design value and ROI to your executives. You can read how to measure design value here. Making sure that it’s in line with your company’s goals is a must.

All of this goes a long way when you need to gain internal buy-in or want to convince a manager to invest in a certain feature. You’ll establish yourself as someone who solves business problems through design, rather than someone who creates “pretty pixels” all day.

Now that you know how your solution aligns with your business, it’s time to communicate.

Clear and focused communication

Being a designer requires effective communication from start to finish, and this often involves dealing with many different (opinionated) stakeholders. The goal of communication is to get all of the necessary information across without wasting time or causing frustration. That holds true for freelancers, as well as corporate designers.

It starts with the design brief. Know exactly what you need to deliver and when by creating a scope document that outlines feedback milestones, due dates, and any other relevant specifications.

Listen first, but don’t be afraid to communicate your own opinion or requirements. If anything remains unclear, it will surely haunt you later – that’s just Murphy’s law.

Also, if you understand the market and the business model, then you might notice something that your company or client has missed. Communicate it, back it up and you might end up looking very professional!

Maintain clear communication throughout every meeting, email or call. Ensure that you always know what the design’s end users need, as well as what the stakeholders want. That way, you’ll avoid unnecessary revisions and agitated clients or bosses.

Here are some questions that will help you to clarify expectations and keep you and your client or employer on the same page. The questions are aimed towards freelancers, but most work for design teams or departments too, if you adapt them a little.

  • What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve?
  • What will success look like to you? How do you see design contributing to this?
  • What does your target audience want?
  • What does your business want to be known for?
  • What metrics would you use to measure success in this role?
  • Is there an example you’ve seen that you like?
  • Are there any challenges that would prevent the project from being successful?
  • How will you share feedback and who will be involved?
  • How quickly can you provide feedback?
  • How collaboratively would you like to work?
  • What do you value the most in your relationship with freelancers/designers?

Simply asking these questions will show your client or employer that you mean business and could elevate your working relationship from the get-go.

You might expect some questions in return, especially regarding the value and impact of the proposed design. This is the point at which you have to “sell” your design, but it’s often nothing more complex than knowing what kind of results the client can expect, framing it in a way that aligns with the business goals, then communicating it clearly.

Most designers give fairly vague answers, so being as specific as possible and incorporating what we’ve talked about so far (research, industry knowledge and understanding of the business model) will really propel you towards your goal. My article about design ROI will certainly help you to craft a convincing argument.

Congratulations, you’ve built your business “bridge”!

If you combine and use everything covered in this article, you’ll be able to understand the business you are working for and connect its objectives with the target audience and company goals… all through design.

This will transform you from ‘just another designer’ to an individual who is able to add value, and it will set you on your journey to becoming a design consultant, strategist, or even a manager if you so desire.

PS: If you’re unsure how to communicate with business executives and use their lingo, look out for my next article, which will cover business and design. It will decypher some of the common business terms and concepts and connect them to design. 😉

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Oh hey, I’m Romina Kavcic, Design strategist

I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 14+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.

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