Convincing companies to invest in design

Why it’s hard for some teams to see the impact of great design

Published 6 min read

A few weeks ago, in my private newsletter, I talked about the idea of an MBP (Minimum Beautiful Product) which is an MVP that you’ve taken an extra few hours to polish, just so you make a good first impression to your leads. I received a great question in reply to the idea:

“Love the concept of the MBP, but any advice on getting the engineers to put in the extra hours to polish? Designers are always keen. It’s the engineers who aren’t always as excited.”

Johnny Le

It got me thinking — why is it easier for designers to see the value of a great design over engineers, founders or marketers? I think the answer to that question is the same reason designers have a hard time convincing their companies to start design teams or invest in design.

If you’re keen on changing the way your company views the importance of design, here’s a couple of talking points that have worked for me in the past.

It’s never too late to start

From experience, convincing an early-stage company to hire more designers is hard enough. Convincing them to put a design team together is almost impossible. Early-stage startups only see tangible value in a small handful of activities — namely Operations, Technology and Growth / Marketing — because they have a simple, measurable ROI (return on investment).

“The impact of design is notoriously difficult to measure. We know intuitively that great design leads to great products, and understand that it can influence business success in a multitude of ways, from strategy to market expansion to brand expression.”

Designer Fund

It makes sense — if you’re just starting out, your company’s goal is to stay alive until such time when they’re sustainable enough to diversify their operations. At some point though, their customers are going to expect an amazing product and to do that, they’ll need to grow the product team.

But even if your company does hire more designers, they’re simply putting them to work on solving the current problems. In the long-term, you might just end up being a less sexy version of a competitor who invested in design from the start. The best modern startups invest in everything from the start.

“Today, much less capital is required for entrepreneurs to create a product and start a company, leading to an influx of products on the market. Design then becomes the differentiator for these products and companies.”

— O’Reilly on Design in VC

It’s never too late to start creating a culture of design in your company. Not just in product and engineering either — every department in your company should reflect the values and identity your brand team have figured out.

Think in terms of objectives

“Design without purpose is meaningless”. This applies to design teams as well. Design becomes incredibly important at scale — one of the primary reasons great companies start producing bad content is due to the lack of diligence around design and consistency of quality.

I once worked for a company with over 300 employees that outsourced their branding to a design agency to get started, then put all their resources into other departments like Sales and Engineering. It definitely helped them get to market quicker but if you take a look at them today, it becomes very clear that they value closing leads and hitting KPIs over producing quality work.

This company has an internal style guide but nobody follows it, since it’s 10 years old and the Web UI section is comprised of a few demo screenshots. Their lack of procedure and empathy has resulted in a subpar design. Their designers are discouraged from improving the brand under the pretence of consistency, causing many designers to produce work they’re not proud of.

“Design is core to what we do. It determines the directions we take, the features we build, and the ways we communicate with our customers. It’s our hope that the carefully-crafted Robinhood experience will inspire more and more people to start investing.”

— Robinhood

If this sounds like your company, it’s not a lost cause. Companies just have different priorities and in order to push change, you just need to employ some empathy and stakeholder management. Try turning the abstract concept of a rebranding project into some measurable outcomes, such as:

  1. Creating the human experience around interacting with all our products
  2. Ensuring consistent execution of our brand identity through all platforms
  3. Vetting other team’s material for design in a compliance-like process
  4. Increasing throughput of other teams through shared branding resources
  5. Publishing content that promotes our brand as a thought leader in design

Defensibility through differentiation

To become a company that’s valued like Dropbox, Google or Facebook, your company can’t comprise anywhere on quality. Take Slack as an example — their core product was built to rival giants like Skype, Hipchat and Yammer.

But Slack didn’t just make team productivity viral… they made enterprise software sexy. The reason people flocked to them is because they care about everything equally — the way Slack runs their marketing, engineering, operations and design departments are what every startup aspires to.

“Over the past couple months, their competitors have caught on. They’ve all started using casual copy and trying to bone up on design, but it’s a little like your uncle trying to do the macarena. It’s too little too late. Everyone has picked their robot sidekick. Slack has stolen the show.”

Andrew Wilkinson on Slack

The reason Slack is defensible is its attention to detail. While the product itself is relatively simple, the design aesthetic, brand and user experience is unparalleled. You just can’t clone that.

Draw attention to success stories

The number one thing that attracts companies into backing an idea is seeing it work for others historically. Here are some other examples of successful standalone, enterprise design teams that are incredibly successful:

Dropbox

Dropbox’s focus on minimalist design is one of the keys to its success while they were coming up against Google Drive and Box — ease of use is the reason for their customer loyalty. Dropbox gets press coverage purely based on how great their design is and, love it or hate it, their recent Warhol-style rebranding project is stirring up discussion all over the internet.

Many Dropbox Design alumni are world-famous designers, such as Ryan Putnam, which led the public to view Dropbox as an industry leader in design. Their Design team was previously led by a highly-respected designer — Soleio — which helped them attract top talent for their creative teams.

Facebook

While Facebook are far from a industry leader in design for their primary product, their Design team has been making waves recently by creating content for the design community. Julie Zhuo, the VP of Design at Facebook, has become a thought leader in Design for her blog which discusses the designer mentality, making a very good impression for Facebook.

Facebook have also started gaining design-related publicity based on their UX research. They’ve realised that having a standalone team dedicated to design — brand, microinteractions and accessible interfaces — attributes to what makes customers stick.

Intercom

Intercom’s bold blog design created a statement and has made them one of the most well-known design / startup / marketing blogs on the internet, as well as making them a non-stop content marketing machine. The Design team run their own Design Blog with articles that get thousands of recommends every month, increasing lead generation and making them a thought leader.

Intercom’s Design team is very public on Dribbble, maintaining a design network of 3000 people and getting tens of thousands of views on their content.

Helping engineering teams work faster

Having a standalone Design team is incredibly valuable to any company, particular disruptive technology startups. Your product is everything however, as time is likely your most important factor to operate on, tasks like ensuring design consistency and reusable components are often backlogged.

What do Slideshare, Pinterest, Airbnb, Behance, Posterous, Flickr, Etsy, Instagram, and Tumblr have in common? Well, they are all successful design-(co)-founded businesses. Their ‘design’ way of thinking transformed their startups into top companies with millions in revenue.

— Design for Founders

Rewriting or copy/pasting the same components across our platforms will become commonplace and eventually lead to scaling and efficiency issues. Engineering leads are typically well aware of the effects of non-modular development but their deadlines prevent us from context switching to something that isn’t “mission-critical” for launching a new product.

In order to mitigate, consider putting a team together to create and maintain a cross-platform code-based styleguide that houses the common components for all your products. At Palantir, it’s called Blueprint. Atlassian has AtlasKit, Salesforce has Lightning. Basically this means that engineers on any product are able to construct the majority of new products like Lego blocks.

Conclusion

The return on investment for a brilliant, thoughtful design isn’t as clear to founders or engineers as a growth campaign or an API update. The impact of design is hard to measure which leads many engineers to doubt its value. But, with the rise of companies like Apple, Slack and Stripe that are design-led, we’re starting to understand the long-term benefits.

It’s all about perception and justification. If you can do a bit of research and some questioning, I’m sure you can find some solid reasons to convince your engineering team to be a little more flexible with their schedule. Make sure they understand that the few extra hours to polish are worth the effort, as they’ll result in a whole list of benefits.

Convincing companies to invest in design
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