What job is design hired to do?

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Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School famously asked “What job did the customer hire this [thing] to do?” in his Jobs To Be Done framework. It’s a way to explore a person’s underlying goals.

Instead of analysing the customer’s actions or reactions to something and then digging backwards to find their goals, he encourages us to focus first on goals. If you’re not familiar with it, there’s a great 5-minute video on it here.

As designers, this is nothing new.

Concepts such as user-centered design and goal-directed design have for a long time challenged us to anchor our design efforts to customer/user goals that we have worked hard to understand intimately. And that we do.

We go to enormous lengths to understand and tell stories about our users, to adopt their stories as our own and live them as our own as we explore ideas that will hopefully shape an incredible user experience.

But when was the last time we turned that same question on ourselves, or more specifically, the organisations who employ us: What job does your organization hire design to do?

That’s not the same as asking What can design do for the organisation? or What job do you think you have? It shifts the perspective to ask: What was the organisation’s underlying goal when they chose to invest in design?

What job is design being hired to do here?

This is a question on every savvy designer and design manager’s mind. Because as design continues its ascent inside the organizations who employ it, the answer to the question keeps changing.

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Design was once hired simply as a translator

That was the job design was hired to do. To translate ideas into visual blueprints for code.

Design teams sat between engineering teams and everyone else, absorbing requirements and converting them into pictures everyone could understand. Designers were prized for the ability to refactor ideas into pictures and to buffer the engineers from the business. Speed, craft and ability to translate well was what they were judged on, and the basis of how they were rewarded. A designer who understood complex requirements, could produce designs that were well polished, and could operate at pace, was the top of the heap.

That was, and continues to be, important but is the lowest form of value an organisation can extract from design. Yet it’s also the context in which many of us started our careers.

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Then design was hired as a way to reduce product failure

In time, most organisations identified that the designers they’d hired as translators had ideas of their own as well as practices and perspectives that reduced the risk of products being unusable or unwanted. They started hiring design not only to provide translation services, but also to reduce the chances of failure. For design, this meant more investment in people, wider involvement in the early stages of product management and producing a wider range of design deliverables.

Design as a tactic to control risk is still clever for those who employ it. Hiring people with a genuine interest in the end-user and their experiences and strong translation skills, and letting them facilitate the requirements gathering process proved so successful that organisations nearly everywhere embraced it. Designers, and design teams, who are as strong in research and exploration as they are in crafting and translation became extremely valuable.

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Now design is hired to create an unfair competitive advantage

Today we’re seeing a new shift. As legendary creative director Bill Bernbach said: “Creativity will become the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors”. Design is now often employed as a way to put distance between competitors. Making usable products is no longer enough. Reducing the chances of delivery failure isn’t enough. For organisations who want to build commercially dominant products, remarkable design is table stakes.

Design teams are being expanded, along with their their roles and responsibilities, but design itself has become too important to be left to designers alone. Design is now a journey the entire product team must make together. The smartest designers are supercharging their skills in translation and exploration, adopting the role of creative facilitators to extract and shape the best ideas of the whole product team.

Are you in the wrong room?

Product Designers and design teams who are pursuing the best ideas know the critical importance of pushing early ideas hard before jumping to production. They’re masters of collaboration, focus and timing. For them, tools get chosen for the job (not the person), people get chosen for their ability to facilitate (not to be rockstars), and workflow is built around maximizing impact (not efficiency).

If you’ve outgrown your team, or the organisation who hires you hasn’t kept pace, then try and renegotiate how they see design, or look for somewhere that gets it. As the saying goes, if you think you’re smartest person in the room — you’re probably in the wrong room.

Designers and product teams who work out how to keep the best of their translation, craft, research and exploration ideas, while embracing a new role as creative facilitators will become the most valuable designers in their profession.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: write a response or note on this post over on Medium, or hit me up on Twitter. You can find out more about Atomic on our website or by following Atomic on Twitter.

Posted 7 February 2016

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