Why Designers Need To Speak Business

November 4, 2019 in Product design

One of the most rewarding things with having a newsletter is getting insight into your subscribers every day lives. People will reply to my onboarding email and tell me why they signed up - and usually a bit about what they're hoping to get out of it. Occasionally, some will also email me questions about how to tackle something in their professional life. Similar to going to places like Hyper Island to talk about user experiences and choosing professional path, I love getting questions from subscribers regarding situations they've encountered in their professional lives.

Getting insight into other's daily lives makes it obvious to me that, one way or another, most of us actually share the same kind of problems. Sharing these experiences, makes tackling the situations easier. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to be said about using forums like design twitter, it's also important to remember that a lot of value comes from simple conversations with others. I consider it a privilege to be able to help and I can't thank the people that have helped me along the way enough.

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Johan (published with his consent):

Hi Anton,

Thanks for another great straight forward e-mail! I really like your writing style and all the subjects you share.

What I would love to know more about is probably the UX design <>business aspect. Today I experienced something where it would be nice to have an example on or a person like you on my side. So here it goes:

I just started (3 weeks and counting) working as a UX Designer in a new automotive e-commerce focussed company. Although I was first focussed on visual design I like to develop myself more into UX design. So I'm still learning, but what I mostly fail at is the business part. Today my opinion was asked on a search element on a new landing page. It was not clear, not user-friendly and designed by someone with zero design skills. The visual designer asked me what would work better. First of all I had no briefing at all and dropped in, so I asked what is the target group and why the desktop (full of icons) were different from mobile (dropdown). And why they didn't choose simple (what people who buy cars / rent cars are used to) but choose something 'fancy'. Even though I had strong arguments, they didn't followed my opinion because still, the manager of the department, liked the fancy part more. Unfortunately AB testing is something I have to set up, so I couldn't say "let's run a test..." but here I feel like failing, even though they hired me for this job.

Hopefully you can help!

Many thanks in advanced and keep your emails coming, although I'm not always replying doesn't mean I don't read them ;)

Kind regards,


The bad news

I already answered a shorter reply of this post, but I also felt it was important to discuss the topic on a more general level before diving in deeper.

So Johan and the rest of you, first the bad stuff... Unfortunately, we live in world that values shiny, fancy things over useful things. One could even argue that most designers actively help in creating this mindset. While it's certainly not as bad as it used to be, we are still an industry that's very much focused on how things look rather than how they work - or even if they work! If they have to choose between something that could work that looks nice and another that will work without all the fancy stuff, they'll pick the option that appears to have less risk. Who knows, maybe the fancy version also works!

If you're arguing against the fancy options, you need to come prepared with strong arguments. Not having all of the context and background information to design choices is a battle you'll have to be ready to fight as a designer within any organization.

Understanding stakeholders

Fortunately for Johan and the rest of us, there's hope! You see, arguing for design choices isn't really a battle, it's strategy. Rather than fighting option A against option B, what if you could have a strategy that trumps every fancy drop shadow?

The key to getting your message across goes beyond understanding your customers and ends up with having a strong understanding of those allowing you to do the work that actually reaches your customers. Knowing what drives your manager and stakeholders is vital. Without them on your side, you'll end up working on things that may never see the light. So if your manager loves financial results or any other KPI, once you possess that knowledge, you'll have a better understanding on what you need to pay attention to in order to successfully navigate within your organization. The best way to understanding and reaching managers? Learn how to speak business.

Why designers need to speak business

I've argued that designers need to write and one of the main reasons why is actually to come across as clearly and thoughtfully as possible to - you guessed it - managers and stakeholders.

Business and design are separate planets, and this needs to change. We have a translation problem.Erika Hall

Design is still a young industry and it's limited to certain areas. Whereas business and financials, they are literally everywhere. It's obvious that if we as designers want a change, we'll need to understand this other way of thinking rather than demanding that they should listen to - and understand - us. We'll go on about white space, jam stacks and design systems, but... They. Don't. Care.

The user experience design community is a wonderful place, full of very clever people, but as a discipline, it’s fair to say is still not fully matured. The fact we’re still rabidly debating how we describe ourselves is a sign of how far we have to go.Your designers should learn to speak business

Speaking business 101

Unfortunately you can't just pull out that beautifully designed Duolingo app and take a crash course in speaking business - it's not even an option in Google Translate. While I personally saw value in actually taking business classes, you don't really need to go that far. There's a couple of much easier things you can do to get started!

Literally use business terminology.

Our industry loves coining terms. Just try talking about design in the way you do to colleagues with your parents and chances are they won't even know what language you're speaking. So while it might seem obvious to use more common words when talking to someone outside of the field, many designers will use design terminology in meetings to highlight the fact that they work with design.

If your organisation is revenue driven try using phrases replacing phrases like ‘inconsistencies’ with ‘design debt’ to describe the situation. People in revenue hate debt.

Or if your company is fixated with improving operations and efficiency, why not try switching terms like ‘rubbish copy’ with ‘content overhead’. Nobody working in operations wants to be that person who increased overheads.

Understand their true end goal

The end goal is to going to be to sell products, be it cars, SaaS subscriptions, or anything else that your company produces. But sometimes, combined with sales, stakeholders will look at creating measurable subsets - recurring revenue products, newsletter signups, or brand awareness and likability. Whatever their goal is, it's your job as a designer to understand it fully and adapt your design to it. A design that only can do one thing is not dynamic enough to age gracefully.

Instead of asking what users prefer in terms of the location of the search bar for instance, discuss the financial impacts of moving it. This requires more knowledge and a deeper understanding of the problem, but it's also what will help you get their attention. While both you and I know that what users prefer and financial impacts may not be closely related, it's all about the framing and talking about it from their perspective.

Being the outsider is cool for short bursts of energy, but deeper changes come from connecting to the heart of an organisation.Your designers should learn to speak business

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