Not so long ago, design was viewed as aesthetics, a nice-to-have in the world of business. With the rise of Apple and other enormously successful design-centric organizations, design has claimed its rightful throne. Today, design is recognized as a powerful business differentiator. From customer satisfaction and loyalty to revenue, valuation, time to market and more, design has clear bottom-line benefits.
As the Director of Design Education at InVision, Leah Buley has a front-row seat to the business impacts of design. A self-described data nerd, Leah and the team at InVision have just released The New Design Frontier, the largest design maturity study to date. Spanning 2,200 companies across 24 industries and 77 countries, the report explores the five levels of design maturity, and how companies can create better business outcomes with design. Leah joins us to walk us through the report, share some “aha” moments and offer some insights to use at your own organization.
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Ready to level up your business? Download The New Design Frontier report by InVision.
Carl Smith: Hey everyone, and welcome back to the Bureau studios. Stopping by today, we've got someone who was instrumental in putting together an amazing research report, The New Design Frontier. I have to tell you, the effort that went into this, and I know the people listening, you run digital services, creative services, you may be a designer, you're gonna get a ton out of this and you need this report. Welcome to the studio, Leah Buley.
Leah Buley: Thank you. Thank you. Excited to be here.
Carl Smith: Now, Leah, you are the Director of Design Education at InVision. Tell everybody a little bit about your back story and how you ended up in this role today.
Leah Buley: Yeah. Okay. Well, my deep back story is I'm a kind of dyed in the wool designer. I spent years and years working as a practitioner in the user experience design field, honestly even since before it was called user experience. I was in-house. I was doing web stuff. I went agency side. I worked, for a time, at Adaptive Path, which is one of those pioneering user experience companies.
Carl Smith: What?
Leah Buley: I know. It was amazing. Over that journey, I actually wrote a book called The User Experience Team of One, which was kind of just documenting, for my own purposes, the practices that were most effective for use with a cross-functional team when you're doing design. Writing a book was brutal and painful, but also really rewarding and it got me thinking more deeply about the big questions that shape our field. That inspired me to do a little bit of a zag professionally and stop working as a design practitioner and start working as an analyst, looking at the field of design and its evolving importance to business.
Carl Smith: Wow.
Leah Buley: Yeah. It was cool. I moved over to a role at Forrester Research and worked there as an analyst, and then was independent as an analyst for a while. Then InVision approached me. My colleague, Aaron Walter, who's the VP of our design education team, sort of just got a conversation going and saying like, "Hey. Let's talk about some ways that we could work together." What became clear to me immediately was that, as a person who has been a practitioner in design, InVision's a company that cares deeply about helping practitioners. Then, as a person who's been an analyst in design, InVision's a company that's deeply interested in understanding what makes for great design practices and then sharing that information broadly with the whole field.
It was a little bit of an offer I couldn't refuse, to come in and bring those two perspectives that I have and put them together in one role, where, on our design education team, what we do is we basically just try to find and amplify the stories of how the world's best teams are doing great design. We try to share that information freely and broadly so that everyone can learn from it, so that the whole field can advance. That's kind of our modest contribution.
Carl Smith: Well, first of all, I can tell you, from personal experience, when Aaron Walters starts his siren song, you're-
Leah Buley: [crosstalk 00:03:05].
Carl Smith: Done.
Leah Buley: I know. It's so true.
Carl Smith: You're done.
Leah Buley: He's got that sweet southern twang. He's very persuasive. He's genuine. Yeah. He lures you over to the rocks without much effort, that's for sure.
Carl Smith: He's assembling quite the team over there. InVision overall is assembling quite the team. In full disclosure, InVision did not pay for this podcast, but they're huge supporters of The Bureau community. I just love everybody that I meet from there.
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Now, when you're talking about the stories and you're talking about reaching out, over two thousand designers ...
Leah Buley: Yep.
Carl Smith: 24 industries, 77 countries, you definitely went all out-
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: To find out who's doing what.
Leah Buley: Yeah. Yeah. This study was fun, super fun, and really near and dear to my heart because what I found when we came ... when I joined the team was that we've been doing a ton of really great, deep qualitative research about how to do great design practices. There was an opportunity to do some of the more kind of analyst-style research where we're looking at big batch quantitative studies around the practices in the field. What I can say is when I worked as an analyst, it was actually hard to get really good data from companies about how they were doing design, but when I came over to InVision, the reality is, we have a big database full of a lot of people who are doing of design and care about design. We said, "Let's use our access to that community, conduct a large study where we can actually do quantitative analysis on the behaviors and activities and resources that are most correlated with design driving big business impact." That's what this study was all about.
We conducted a large survey last fall. We had over 22 hundred companies participating. What people did is they basically kind of ... through this survey they constructed a profile of what design looks like inside their organizations, what the practices are that they're doing, what are the roles that they're hiring for design, how are executives supporting and engaging with design, how does design work with key partners in project management and engineering, and so on and so on. Once we had all of that, all those responses, all those profiles, we then used advanced statistical methods to figure out really is there a way to identify the companies that are the most mature in terms of driving more business benefits through design and seeing more adoption of design, and then look at how they differ from companies that are less mature on those dimensions. That's what we did. This big study is a ... the fruit of that labor. It gives a view of what maturity looks like, and then it gives a deep dive into all the behaviors and activities that correlate with it.
Carl Smith: I have to say, the report itself, it's meaty.
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: There's a lot there. Unsurprisingly, it's so well designed that it kind of pulls you through. Even when you're sitting there going ... it's almost like something with the visuals. It wakes you up sometimes when some of the stuff's starting to ... your mind-
Leah Buley: Right.
Carl Smith: Is kind of gripping it. When you go out and address this group, what were some of the surprises that you found in the responses that came back? Was there anything that just made you kinda go, "Wow. We didn't expect that."
Leah Buley: So much. Yeah. So much. The first question that we had about this data and that everybody has when we tell them we did this report is like, "Oh. Okay. What's the right org structure for design? What's the right reporting structure for design? What's the right ratio, like designer to engineer ratio for good design? What does our design leader, what level does that person need to be at?" They wanna know what the organizational solution is for better design maturity. The big surprise for me was that there's not a silver bullet there, at least not according to our data. There wasn't strong correlation between, say, org structure and design maturity, or even reporting lines and design maturity.
Surprisingly, designer-to-engineer ratios are pretty good across the board, better than they were years ago. That's true in immature companies as well as mature companies. The first surprise for me was that the answer is not found in your org chart. In fact, what we saw is that there are a lot of teams that are getting low business benefits from design and low broad adoption of design who are nevertheless very large teams. In our lowest level of maturity, the average team size is 30 designers. That's a big team with a lot of head count.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Leah Buley: That's a good line item for the organization. They're not necessarily seeing all the benefits that they could from design. Realizing that just having a big team and putting it in the right spot is not necessarily gonna solve it for you. That was my first big, "Aha."
Carl Smith: What do you think is going on there? Is it kind of a checklist mentality of, "We know that design's important and we see what other companies are doing so we're gonna put this together and put it in the right place and see what happens."
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Is that part of it?
Leah Buley: I don't know. I wouldn't characterize it as a checklist mentality, so much as a narrow definition of what design is.
Carl Smith: Okay.
Leah Buley: What I mean by that is in the lowest maturity companies, what we saw is they really do all the right stuff you're supposed to do to make a screen. They make wireframes and they make visual design comps and they might even prototype that. They might even do a little bit of usability testing, but it's all very much about that moment when you fire up the screen design tool and you push the pixels around. That's sort of where it starts and stops. They don't necessarily do foundational user research. They don't necessarily-
Carl Smith: Oh.
Leah Buley: Do a lot of experimentation, hypothesis based or testing using the design process. They don't necessarily think about systems for scaling design, like design systems. They don't necessarily apply the design process to things beyond the screen, like service design or identifying new opportunities in the market. It's sort of like they have just a narrow definition of what design is. They're making better looking screens, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're doing the human-centered design process to get there. Versus the more mature companies, we start to see that they do add on those behaviors of foundational customer understanding to inform screen design. They use the hypothesis driven test and learn process that design enables, where you don't just come up with one solution, you come up with five and then you prototype them and then you test them and then you see which ones perform best. They use those kinds of techniques. They fundamentally kind of apply them to more basic questions about where could we play in the market, what could we bring to the market that would be differentiating. They just have a more sophisticated conceptualization of what design is.
Carl Smith: Now that you're getting into it and explaining it so that my theater major brain is going, "Okay, so that's immature," or no, that sounded like something my wife would say. No, but that the immature design companies, it's just where they are in the experience, where they are in their knowledge, that they're ... they have this opportunity to obviously mature.
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Those mature companies have these other practices that they're going through. In the report, what do you find the results of being a more mature design company are?
Leah Buley: Yeah. Well, so the good news for everybody, actually, is you will get benefits from the design process even if you're doing that kind of narrower version of it. If you're a company that's really doing primarily screen based design, what we saw in the data is that those companies, by and large, are reporting that they're improving usability through design. You'll get a more usable product, even if you're just doing ... improving your screens. As companies move up in maturity and bring on some of those additional practices, they start to report that they're driving a greater variety of business impact, and honestly more fundamental business impact.
The level three companies, they're more likely to report that design is having a direct impact on revenue, because they're better able to design systems that really accomplish user goals but also accomplish business goals. When you get up to levels four and five, level four is a really interesting one. It's like a watershed moment. All of a sudden there's a ton of additional business benefits that come along, including things like cost savings, employee productivity, time to market. Then, level five, which is really characterized by applying design to core business strategy problems, at that level they're more likely to report that they're producing design related patents and intellectual property and they ... and designs having sort of a connection to their valuation, or their share price, which is ... I always think of that as like the Apple effect. Everyone wants that. You wanna have defensible IP and you want to be able to lead the market because everyone knows you're great at design. That's what-
Carl Smith: Absolutely.
Leah Buley: Level five looks like. Yeah.
Carl Smith: When you're looking at the levels, at what point do you see ... it's so funny. At our events we'll have somebody say, "Well, design gets a seat at the table." Then somebody else is like, "Well, what are you gonna do with it when you get it?"
Leah Buley: Right.
Carl Smith: At which of these levels do you start to see design as a C-level role?
Leah Buley: Yeah. It's more likely at the higher levels, but again, the solution isn't ... there isn't a strong correlation-
Carl Smith: Right.
Leah Buley: About design at that level. Actually, I think that what this data shows that's interesting is that the seat at the table is ... it comes earlier than we think. Around level two you start to see that. Executives are giving a lot of lip service to design. They're trying to involve design leaders in important decisions. Rank-and-file employees are starting to wanna kind of participate in the design process and talking about the importance of customers. That actually comes earlier than you might think. The more important table, in a way, is actually the table where designers sit with product managers and engineers. They do the work shoulder to shoulder, to jointly scope out what the experience should be and to have those hard conversations about when you make the trade offs that you make for making the experience better versus doing the more technical investment, or maybe making the ... making some shortcuts in the experience because that makes it easier to get out the door.
Working through those difficult conversations in a structure where there's clarity about the roles that each party brings to that conversation, and there are clear structures for how they collaborate, and they have clear goals that they're jointly accountable for at the end, that working relationship, which becomes more common at around level three seems to be more predictive of teams actually being able to get products out the door that drive business impact. Tables matter, but let's talk about being at some different ones, because the seat at the table seems to imply that designers get to come into the board room and do some hand waving magic like [inaudible 00:14:33] and then everyone suddenly believes. The reality is, if you wanna have impact, you gotta have good working relationships in that core sphere of influence with your key partners.
Carl Smith: That makes perfect sense. If you're not part of the formula that's making the product-
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: It doesn't matter who you get to talk to.
Leah Buley: Yeah. Yeah. One interesting tidbit about the data, we saw that even at low levels of maturity, companies are reporting that design is well integrated into the product development process, but it's only at higher levels of maturity that people reported the opposite, that core partners are well integrated into the design process. There's something about just really looking closely at how collaboration happens fundamentally and having some of those tricky conversations with your key engineering partner or your key product partner about like, "Okay. Are we working well together now? If not, why not? What could we do about that?" Those are very, very valuable conversations to have, or data seems to indicate.
Carl Smith: I have no doubt. Now, I'm curious, what kind of response have you heard from the community overall since the report's come out?
Leah Buley: Yeah. The community's been super enthusiastic. It's been so rewarding. I get so nervous when we're about to publish this kind of research, because-
Carl Smith: I'm sure.
Leah Buley: I'm sort of a data nerd and I love it. I'm like, "Oh my gosh. Is it gonna be too boring? Is it gonna be too dry? Is it gonna be too shallow? What are they gonna think?" It's been so helpful and rewarding to see people saying, "This is the data that we needed." I've heard a few people say, "Me searching endlessly for good data to back up our decisions. InVision, you delivered it. Thank you. Check." That makes me very happy. Of course, it just raises more questions. Now we wanna know, okay, what's the industry specific cut on this? What do you need to do if you're in this field or that field or that field? We also are interested in doing deeper analysis on the data that we have about how this correlates to market performance and things like that.
Then, there's an interesting question about this is very much in the language of design, but it speaks to practices that blended cross functional teams need to do together, so what would it mean to turn this report kind of ... turn it around and tell it from the story of a product manager's perspective or an engineer's perspective? There's a lot of things we're talking about and thinking about. It's been really encouraging, so far at least with what the community's had to say about it.
Carl Smith: Well, when I read it and I was talking with some people on my team about it, I was like, "It doesn't feel like a report so much as it feels like a platform." It feels like an opportunity to educate yourself, educate people you're working with, an accelerator. It's this opportunity-
Leah Buley: Yeah.
Carl Smith: To accelerate the importance of design and get it in non-designer's hands, get it in business people's hands.
Leah Buley: That's so great to hear you say that 'cause that was definitely one of our hopes for it, that it's not just a report but it's a tool to think with and to-
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Leah Buley: Talk with to help people just have richer conversations about the kind of design they wanna be practicing. Yeah. That, and then also my personal favorite part of the report is the appendix, which is this massive set of data tables showing actually all the specific activities that become prevalent at different levels of maturity. My hope is that that appendix can sort of serve as a checklist and a menu for teams to kind of say, "Okay. This is what we're doing right now, but obviously if we wanna get to that next level we need to start focusing on these activities," and to bring that data to the key folks they need to talk to to get more ammo just to advance their practices in the ways that are necessary.
Carl Smith: See, I think that's a great way to look at it because it's almost like giving you that opportunity, almost like an internal review, but now you know you're not just going based on a blog post-
Leah Buley: Right.
Carl Smith: Or what you saw somebody else do. You've got this real data. Now, I'm curious, for non-industry type companies, like for creative services or digital services or, hell, even architectural firms maybe, it's ... how should they look at this data? How can they use this data?
Leah Buley: Yeah. Well, in two ways actually. One thing I will say is, at a high level, one of the surprising things from the data, for me, was that the professional services firms have a very similar distribution across the maturity curve to, say, enterprise businesses.
Carl Smith: Wow.
Leah Buley: I kind of expected that the professional services firms would just know how to do the design practice the right way. It turns out there are a lot of them out there who are also doing a very screen-defined view of design and then a smaller subset who are doing a more strategic version of design. I think, actually, professional services firms can use it in the same way that an enterprise could, which is to assess their own practices and say, "Okay. What version of design are we doing and selling?" That applies both in ... as they look at their own internal work and then also how they sell to clients. I think, actually, one interesting potential use of this report is actually for professional services firms to kind of have a conversation with a potential client and do a mental checklist and say, "Oh yeah. It feels like that client's at level two. That means that maybe we can help them think about getting to level three by focusing on these practices as well."
Carl Smith That makes a tremendous amount of sense. It's almost not a report card so much as a placement tool.
Leah Buley: Yeah. Exactly. You could think of it as your white label customer assessment tool if you'd like to.
Carl Smith: That sounds awesome. What's the easiest way for somebody to get a copy of the full report?
Leah Buley: Yes. Go to designbetter.co and right there in the top nav is a link for design maturity model. Click that and you can download our report right there.
Carl Smith: Okay. Great. We'll make sure and put that in the show notes. I gotta ask, and you hinted at it a little bit, but I would hope you get a breather unless you don't want one, but what are you charging at next? What's the next thing?
Leah Buley: Well, so this ... just as you've said, actually, this report is kind of a platform for our own thinking about design maturity at InVision. We're having a lot of conversations internally about what we wanna do with this knowledge as well. Does it influence more of a material that we should be publishing in the design education team? Yeah. Definitely. Does it maybe have some implications for even our product platform? Possibly. How can we use it to help to support InVision's clients as they advance in their own design maturity? We're having a lot of those conversations. We'll be at it, publishing more good stuff, doing more analysis and more good stuff to come soon.
Carl Smith: Well, I have no doubt you will. On behalf of designers and design centric organizations, thank you.
Leah Buley: Thank you. Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat about it. I hope folks enjoy reading it.
Carl Smith: No worries at all. Everybody listening, thank you so much. Make sure you get a copy of the report. It is intense, but it's a great read. It's so good. We will talk to you next week. All the best.
Leah Buley: Bye.
Carl Smith: Now I just gotta find the stop recording button. There it is. It's way over here.
Image via InVision