Design as a Service: Done Right
The need for good design manifests itself variably in the minds of business owners. Some want their products to look beautiful because their consumers display an evolved taste. Some want higher conversion numbers in their online shop. Others want to finally move their offline business to an online one and are unsure how to go about it. In the end, one way or another, every owner wants to measure the business value of design. It is, however, a non-trivial task to gauge the impact design has on a firm. That, however, is a problem that you have the luxury of solving only after you have set up a team that delivers design as a service for your firm.
In a country with around 36m MSMEs (and hence far more companies in total) and an ever-increasing number of online consumers, the sheer lack of good designers to hire is a massive setback for the industry. It’s not just hard for employers to hire designers because they lack the ability to judge them. It’s also because there are not a lot of them around.
The need for Design as a service
The abundance of design debt in companies multiplied by the lack of experienced designers in the market simply amps the need for an agency of change that can fit in and scale with demands, with a regulator on costs. The ship has sailed by the time you solve your design debt. Design debt proliferates without notice and often manifests as customer experience or business failures a little too late in the year. For instance, one might start building a product without a definitive roll-out strategy for features and modules. Within the course of a few releases, the team shall find a bulky application with too many offerings and multiple convoluted pathways of task fulfillment within the product. In hindsight, that team will see they have been piling MVPs on top of MVPs, every release. They didn’t keep a track of how the information architecture of the product built out through the past few months
While setting up a Design team internally to run the show as it should is ideal, most companies end up going with what they have in the interest of moving fast. It’s difficult to hire, set expectations, bring people on board and train them towards building cohesive systems that function well at scale. Further, the effort crumbles the moment a team member leaves, and you start with the cycle again.
Design as a service quickly ramps up design as an entity in a firm. It ramps up faster than building an in-house team that you want and that too, more effectively. Design as a service provides a company with all the angles that Design as a unit should fulfill within a company. It takes care of the whole offering from ideation to collaboration, to build, to research and innovation. All that while solving the intrinsic people problems which can become major impediments to any such effort.
Design as a service done right
What should Design as a Service promise? Ideally, everything that firms need from a Design team but only more. Beyond design work (hard skill sets), beyond being an agency, it’s about being an agent of change and progress in a product pipeline.
1) Delivery is not the only requirement
Often the client-agency dynamic is supported on the fulcrum of the deliverable. This becomes tricky when the purpose is setting up a versatile design team for the business. The agency needs to proactively talk to the business about opening itself up for interviews, conversations and build a general-purpose co-working dynamic instead of a transactional one. Only when the two parties work together towards solving a problem will the insecurity of alienation from the agency’s design processes and client business agendas be erased. There is a massive gap between healthy boundaries and sheer design delivery which is bridged by active collaboration between the two parties. Without this collaboration, the purpose of providing Design as a Service is not achievable. Agencies need to put a foot ahead and proactively include the business in the processes and businesses need to open doors to the agency and ask to be included in the process, as they rightfully should. It’s imperative for an effective Design team to talk to business and that cannot happen by setting up a Chinese wall between the parties. The agency should advocate why it is important for them to talk to all relevant business functions.
2) Design with Clients instead of For them
Design teams working as extensions of internal teams should have integrated processes with their clients. Designers often feel iterations on design can be unnecessary. This, however, might not be true. Firstly, designers often overlook certain aspects of the end result which are pointed out by a third party, and that’s very natural to happen. Iterations are healthy when done sensibly. Secondly, not being able to collaborate with Clients creates a sense of insecurity amongst clients because they feel left out of the very process of building their own product which they shall live with and the agency shall move on from. The two sides should move synchronously. Being a part of the process is vital for the business because they bring in customer insights, business knowledge, limitations, domain expertise and eventual ownership.
There are various stages of collaboration between business and design such as research, brand workshops, customer and stakeholder interviews, figuring out the solution space etc.
For an agency that promises design as a service, it's important to make sure that they provide the clients with the ability to collaborate on design. Clients that collaborate with agencies in the design processes truly understand the business value of design and are become advocates rather than critiques.
3) Design Management as opposed to Account Management
This is something that ties into the first point. Design teams aren’t represented by account managers without a view of processes, or design nuance. The point of Contact for a Design team should be the person in charge of the team, the Design manager. The value added by a design team weighs heavier on the side of design as opposed to project management as a skill set. When clients speak with the manager, their concerns are often around design feedback or business problems that need design solutions. Clients then need someone that can talk the talk and present resolutions and solutions if possible. The representative is a design expert in the mind of the client since she represents the design team. When a design manager speaks for your team the client respects the opinion much more because it comes from a position of knowledge. Feedback and expectations from the design team to business is then taken with merit because the client is confident that the person knows what she is talking about. The dynamic is non-transactional and is in perfect alignment with how business teams work with design teams as opposed to how a client should work with an agency. This instills a great value to the team dynamic as the client then has an experienced designer who acts as a consultant on design problems with the client while her team is at work on the product at hand. The ear that listens to the client’s feedback/brief is one that gets to solve the problem.
4) User learnings, not client happiness quotients
It’s important to be clear that the job of design is being done for the end-user rather than the client. The client might often know who the user is, but very often is not the user. The client is the party that often commercially benefits from this engagement.
It’s a difficult line to tow especially given that the client assumes the agency to be an outsider and the user isn’t as important to them as to the client. The client feels she knows the user better than the agency since outside design they don’t have the incentive to know the user.
The only way to offset this notion is to make the client a part of the process of designing for change and impact. If the agency puts in the hours to talk to client function groups, it is easier to get their buy-in because then they know the agency isn’t coming with incomplete information. The agency is armoured with information that the client passed on. The client then has the confidence that the agency is just as adept at devising business solutions as the client is.
5) Having the breadth and diversity in expertise
Having a healthy and consultative relationship with clients means you get to educate them on what a well functioning design team needs. Often clients do not come from product or design backgrounds, which is why they don’t know what they shall need in a team. A design team to build a digital product, for instance, shall need specialties in UX, UI, Content Strategy, Copywriting and perhaps Illustration as well. The breadth of such expertise is often the judgment of the Design manager assigned to lead the team.
6) Documentation: Knowledge Transferability
Keeping a meticulous record of everything is a virtue that bears fruit in due time. It allows for tracking, fault monitoring, projection of timelines and most importantly transferability of knowledge. While the client has access to one repository of all design needs, together you amass knowledge about the product and the business that wouldn't have been otherwise possible with limited inhouse resources and time. Documentation is created during briefing, research, workshops, actual designing, development and market deployment. All such knowledge needs a safe place for record-keeping. If not done well, months down the line there are no learnings and no reasonings behind why decisions were taken the way they were. Newer entities joining don’t know where to start and existing team members have the nagging sense of constantly winging it.
7) Technical Expertise: Product Reproducibility of Design
The design team assigned for the business should have the technical expertise and know-how to realize the technical implications of the designs they work on. “Should designers code?”, is a question many have been asking for the last few years and increasingly the majority is leaning towards at least a basic understanding of tech and the tech ramifications of design. The Service team should be able to talk to the tech team assigned to the product, discuss ideas and help in executing them via designs that respect the tech team’s timelines, depth of expertise and even the actual achievability of design prototypes.
Having technical capabilities shows the business that the team is willing to go the last mile to make sure what was intended is actually shipped and not just designed as a delivery. After all the result of a design sprint in the hands of the user is literally what comes out of the other end of a build process.
8) Working with Decision-makers
The power to influence comes with a breadth of knowledge, execution capabilities and experience. However knowing which blocks to move is critical in making design decisions that amplify results. This might be taken as an unpopular opinion but being situated with those who call the shots has a higher chance of an external team’s success. Besides the obvious advantage of having an ear of decision-makers in an organization, it turns out that people who can take calls in organizations are also often the ones with the most business understanding and have a long term view of the firm. Design as a Service should always have access to the actual decision-makers of a business and the ones who know the business best.
There are also time dependencies locked with the influential decision-makers have. Presenting design decisions at the end of a sprint to the final decision maker has the same effect as presenting your work to the client at the very end of the design process. Nobody likes surprises and when at that stage designs get rejected, it results in a lot of lost time and essentially reflects poor planning. Having decision-makers at the table from the get-go.
The act of associating with external parties is supposed to have mutual benefits whether it is Design as a service or tech as a skillset. While healthy boundaries should be established between parties to serve each other’s interests, true collaboration only exists in the presence of harmony and teamwork. It’s imperative for clients to understand that Design as a service can benefit their firm only if they truly understand the business value of design. Similarly, a good team to promise Design as a service needs to operate heavily in the interests of the client and function as a natural extension of the business they serve.