The business value of design

Interesting article on the increasing importance of design and its impact on value creation. Easier said than done, what are the keys? The extensive McKinsey Survey helps to understand the drivers to become a design performer. The full article published in McKinsey quarterly 2018

How do the best design performers increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts?

We all know examples of bad product and service design. The USB plug (always lucky on the third try). The experience of rushing to make your connecting flight at many airports. The exhaust port on the Death Star in Star Wars.

We also all know iconic designs, such as the Swiss Army Knife, the humble Google home page, or the Disneyland visitor experience. All of these are constant reminders of the way strong design can be at the heart of both disruptive and sustained commercial success in physical, service, and digital settings.

Despite the obvious commercial benefits of designing great products and services, consistently realizing this goal is notoriously hard—and getting harder. Only the very best designs now stand out from the crowd, given the rapid rise in consumer expectations driven by the likes of Amazon; instant access to global information and reviews; and the blurring of lines between hardware, software, and services. Companies need stronger design capabilities than ever before.

So how do companies deliver exceptional designs, launch after launch? What is design worth? To answer these questions, we have conducted what we believe to be (at the time of writing) the most extensive and rigorous research undertaken anywhere to study the design actions that leaders can make to unlock business value. Our intent was to build upon, and strengthen, previous studies and indices, such as those from the Design Management Institute.

The top-quartile companies in the McKinsey Design Index outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two to one.

Lean start-ups have demonstrated how to make better decisions through prototyping and iterative learning. Vast repositories of user data and the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) have created powerful new sources of insights and unlocked the door for new techniques, such as computational design and analytics to value. Fast access to real customers is readily available through multiple channels, notably social media and smart devices. All of these developments should place the user at the heart of business decisions in a way that design leaders have long craved.

What our research demonstrates, however, is that many companies have been slow to catch up. Over 40 percent of the companies surveyed still aren’t talking to their end users during development. Just over 50 percent admitted that they have no objective way to assess or set targets for the output of their design teams. With no clear way to link design to business health, senior leaders are often reluctant to divert scarce resources to design functions. That is problematic because many of the key drivers of the strong and consistent design environment identified in our research call for company-level decisions and investments. While many designers are acutely aware of some or all of the four MDI themes , these typically can’t be tackled by designers alone and often take years of leadership commitment to establish.

Value of Design

Top-quartile companies in design—and leading financial performers—excelled in all four areas. What’s more, leaders appear to have an implicit understanding of the MDI themes. When senior executives were asked to name their organizations’ single greatest design weakness, 98 percent of the responses mapped to the four themes of the MDI.

More than a feeling: It’s analytical leadership

The companies in our index that performed best financially understood that design is a top-management issue, and assessed their design performance with the same rigor they used to track revenues and costs. In many other businesses, though, design leaders say they are treated as second-class citizens.

Design issues remain stuck in middle management, rarely rising to the C-suite. When they do, senior executives make decisions on gut feel rather than concrete evidence.

Designers themselves have been partly to blame in the past: they have not always embraced design metrics or actively shown management how their designs tie to meeting business goals. What our survey unambiguously shows, however, is that the companies with the best financial returns have combined design and business leadership through a bold, design-centric vision clearly embedded in the deliberations of their top teams.

A strong vision that explicitly commits organizations to design for the sake of the customer acts as a constant reminder to the top team. The CEO of T-Mobile, for example, has a personal motto: “shut up and listen.” IKEA works “to create a better everyday life for the many people.” And as Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull told readers in a McKinsey Quarterly interview, to “wow” movie-goers continually, his company encourages its teams to take risks in their new projects: Pixar considers repeating the formulas of its past commercial successes a much greater threat to its long-term survival than the occasional commercial disappointment.

It’s not enough, of course, to have fine words stapled to the C-suite walls. Companies that performed best in this area of our survey maintain a baseline level of customer understanding among all executives. These companies also have a leadership-level curiosity about what users need, as opposed to what they say they want. One top team we know invites customers to its regular monthly meeting solely to discuss the merits of its products and services. The CEO of one of the world’s largest banks spends a day a month with the bank’s clients and encourages all members of the C-suite to do the same. Through personal exposure or constant engagement with researchers, executives can act as role models for their businesses and learn firsthand what most frustrates and excites customers.

Many companies, though, acknowledge a worrying gap in understanding at the top of their organizations.

More than a product: It’s user experience

Top-quartile companies embrace the full user experience; they break down internal barriers among physical, digital, and service design. The importance of user-centricity, demands a broad-based view of where design can make a difference. We live in a world where your smartphone can warn you to leave early for your next appointment because of traffic, and your house knows when you’ll be home and therefore when to turn on the heat. The boundaries between products and services are merging into integrated experiences.

In practice, this often means mapping a customer journey (pain points and potential sources of delight) rather than starting with “copy and paste” technical specs from the last product. This design approach requires solid customer insights gathered firsthand by observing and—more importantly—understanding the underlying needs of potential users in their own environments. These insights must be championed at every meeting. Yet only around 50 percent of the companies we surveyed conducted user research before generating their first design ideas or specifications.

Combining physical products, digital tools, and “pure” services provides new opportunities for companies to capture this range of experience.

More than a department: It’s cross-functional talent

Top-quartile companies make user-centric design everyone’s responsibility, not a siloed function. In the tired caricature of traditional design departments, a group of tattooed and aloof people operate under the radar, cut off from the rest of the organization. Considered renegades or mavericks by their colleagues, these employees (in the caricature) guard access to their ideas, complaining that they have too often been burned by narrow-minded engineering or marketing heads unwilling to (or incapable of) realizing the designers’ grand visions.

We are not suggesting that this stereotype is still common—or that other functions are necessarily to blame—but it can be surprisingly resilient. One company we know, for example, unveiled a new flagship design studio to much jubilation from the design community. Before long, all the designers had moved their desks inside the studio, and had deactivated door access for the marketing, engineering, and quality teams. These moves drastically reduced the level of cooperative work and undermined the performance of the business as a whole.

More than a phase: It’s continuous iteration

Design flourishes best in environments that encourage learning, testing, and iterating with users—practices that boost the odds of creating breakthrough products and services while simultaneously reducing the risk of big, costly misses. That approach stands in contrast to the prevailing norms in many companies, which still emphasize discrete and irreversible design phases in product development. Compartmentalization of this sort increases the risk of losing the voice of the consumer or of relying too heavily on one iteration of that voice.

The best results come from constantly blending user research—quantitative (such as conjoint analysis) and qualitative (such as ethnographic interviews). This information should be combined with reports from the market-analytics group on the actions of competitors, patent scans to monitor emerging technologies, business concerns flagged by the finance team, and the like. Without these tensions and interactions, development functions may end up in a vacuum, producing otherwise excellent work that never sees the light of day or delights customers.

The McKinsey Design Index highlights four key areas of action companies must take to join the top quartile of design performers. First, at the top of the organization, adopt an analytical approach to design by measuring and leading your company’s performance in this area with the same rigor the company devotes to revenues and costs. Second, put the user experience front and center in the company’s culture by softening internal boundaries (between physical products, services, and digital interactions, for example) that don’t exist for customers. Third, nurture your top design people and empower them in cross-functional teams that take collective accountability for improving the user experience while retaining the functional connections of their members. Finally, iterate, test, and learn rapidly, incorporating user insights from the first idea until long after the final launch.

Companies that tackle these four priorities boost their odds of becoming more creative organizations that consistently design great products and services. For companies that make it into the top quartile of MDI scorers, the prizes are as rich as doubling their revenue growth and shareholder returns over those of their industry counterparts.

Authors 

Benedict Sheppard is a partner in McKinsey’s London office, where Garen Kouyoumjian is a consultant; Hugo Sarrazin is a senior partner in the Silicon Valley office; and Fabricio Dore is an associate partner in the São Paulo office.


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