Andy Wardleworth by Andy Wardleworth

9 out of 10 companies aren’t reaching their full design potential – here’s why

  • Design Culture
  • Design Leadership
  • Design Maturity

Think about it for a moment. Only 10% of companies are reaching their full design potential. That’s one of the stark findings from research by McKinsey. This sounds counter-intuitive. Doesn’t it?  Ask most businesses about their strategic priorities and digital transformation is top of the to-do list. More senior design roles are being created. Not all design is digital but there are big implications here. What’s going wrong? And more importantly, what can be done to put it right?

First, let’s dig a little deeper into what’s holding businesses back. When we look at the other findings in the report it becomes clear that the reason most businesses are struggling to reach their design potential boils down to three things: a lack of design leadership, clarity and ambition. 

Let’s get to back to McKinsey: 

On clarity 

  • Fewer than half of design leaders feel their CEOs understand their role
  • Only a third of CEOs and their senior team can confidently explain what their design team is accountable for

On ambition

  • Just 10% of CEOs say their head of design plays a meaningful role in strategy
  • Only 1 in 6 design leaders believe they are positioned to realise the company’s full design potential 

If you’re not one of the 10% of businesses that have cracked the code, then you’ll most likely need to roll up your sleeves and rethink your approach to design – and how design thinking is applied to your business to put the customer at the centre of everything you do.  

We don’t just mean tinkering around the edges. Design should infuse everything you do. In other words, your business becomes design-led. 

What do we mean by design-led?

Our industry can get quickly lost in plumes of lofty vision statements dreamt up on whiteboards. Being design-led isn’t one of them. 

Design-led simply means a taking a human-centred approach, focussing on user outcomes and helping them achieve their goals. It means staying relevant by listening to feedback, testing and prototyping and empowering teams to be innovative and agile. There is an intentionality about how design influences the business – and what is does next. 

Here’s the thing though. Most companies say they are customer-centred. But how many can say they are design-centred? (You can’t separate the two – poor design = poor experiences).

IBM ran some research on whether organisations embraced design as a core business value.  The results chime with McKinsey’s.

  • 39% said their organisation was design-driven
  • 61% said design was a “nice-to-have”
  • 45% said their CX design only moderately or minimally reflected their most important business values

Which side of the divide do you fall on? Here are a few questions to help you find some answers. 

Does your business have a design-focused leadership team?

A shift in strategy needs to come from the top to change your company culture – the way you do things. If your company uses design processes to influence culture at an organisational level you’re wired in a way which means the business is design-led. If your design focus is on aesthetics and functionality then there’s still significant work to do. If the focus is on connectivity and integration then you’re on the right path. 

Some businesses were created to be design-led. Some businesses need to re-wire themselves. Old habits die hard. Think about ways you can create a collaborative, innovative culture and break down silos. The first step? Create a top team and, if you haven’t done so already, elevate the role of your most senior design lead (obviously not all businesses have a chief design officer – yet).  

You’ll know from experience that company-wide changes take time. Choose an upcoming project to pilot changes. Put together a cross-functional team to deliver it so that everybody is invested in design excellence. 

Do you think about what you want to achieve before you think about what your customers want to get from your products? 

Design is more than a good-looking product. It’s a user experience. The best designers start with  users. The biggest reason products fail? Because no-one wants them or needs them. There’s probably some more rethinking to do here. The McKinsey research found that only about 50% companies it surveyed conducted user research before generating their first design ideas or specifications. 

Your business goal isn’t your customers goal

What stakeholders want to achieve might not be what users want to achieve. UX designers create products that customers care about and help them achieve their goals. 

What’s your edge?

What’s different about your design that makes you stand out on experience? How do help customers achieve their goals and make their lives easier?  Do we have the customer data we need to get to the insights we need to meet their needs, now and in the future? Do we need to plug any data gaps?

Get this right and all the good stuff happens, which stakeholders are invested in. There’s an uptick in conversions, repeat business, leads and product applications, website traffic, social media engagement etc.  

What’s the return on your design?

Your design team will have their own project delivery KPIs. But do you also track metrics that can be clearly linked to a positive outcome for the customer and quid pro quo – your business?  

Do you have the capabilities to change the way you approach design? 

The struggle to communicate, and unlock, the value of design is real. Changing your culture, thinking and behaviour takes time and effort. As discussed earlier, choose a project to pilot the changes and deliver the wins that galvanise support across the business for becoming design-led. 

Approach it all the wrong way around you could end up on the wrong side of your customers, driving up your costs, and draining your budget, time and resources.  Do you have the capabilities to get started? 

That’s plenty to get on with. 


What’s next? 

Curious about how to change the way you approach your design? Not sure if you’ve even got a problem? Worth a chat to find out more?