November 29, 2021

The ROI of Great Design

Great design has a huge business impact

Great design matters. That’s apparent in the brands we purchase to the platforms we binge. Design has a remarkable presence in our lives, with the power to influence a myriad of decisions. But despite its inherent value, defining design’s impact to stakeholders—in a language that resonates—isn’t always easy. So, how can you measure the value of design?

Speaking different languages: Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Only the best work is going to stand out in our frenetic consumer landscape. That reality means design is increasingly important to business viability. It should be easier than ever to make the case for prioritizing design. But, while creative teams understand its importance, many companies still struggle with determining how to resource it.

According to McKinsey & Company, “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.”

Perhaps designers are partly to blame. They’re more often visual people than numbers people. This means they’re likely to employ qualitative, instead of quantitative frameworks when defending work, or justifying budget expenditures.

design and data belong at the same table

Presenting design work can feel frustrating if designers and stakeholders aren’t speaking the same language.

Designers may expound the virtues of an aesthetic or laud a high level of user experience, but less often do they do their business caps by citing metrics to support arguments.

Without a way to quantify impact, it can be difficult for design teams to articulate ROI in a way that compels stakeholders to embrace design initiatives. It can feel like everyone is speaking a different language. 

Making a better case for design’s business value

In a 2018 report, McKinsey & Company outlined the results of a landmark study which examined the internal design practices of 300 publicly listed companies. Overwhelmingly, it highlighted strong correlations between companies which incorporate design thinking and increases in revenue. That’s a great piece of evidence that design can quantitatively impact businesses. 

The companies that were thriving were doing a lot of things right — four themes emerged which comprised the McKinsey Design Index (MDI): 

Analytical Leadership

When companies inspire management-level curiosity on design metrics, leadership will base decisions more on objective data than subjective preferences. 

User Experience

These companies developed a clearer understanding of their end users by using broader, cross-platform models to assess the customer journey. Having this kind of insight helps designers create stronger user experiences. 

Cross-functional Talent

Designers at high performing companies are encouraged to work across functions. Leadership incentivizes growth through investments in new tools and opportunities. By establishing deeper collaboration between design and other teams, functional silos diminish. 

Continuous Iteration

The best companies advocate a culture of testing and learning. Combining qualitative and quantitative research will yield stronger concepts. Through continual iteration, teams can stay nimble in their pursuit of ideal solutions.

refining design keeps it relevant

To keep design vital to business, observe how users react and be ready to iterate if necessary.

Design adds value — so talk like it does

Amongst all of the takeaways from McKinsey & Company’s study, the most evident is: give design a bigger seat at the business table, and fabulous things can happen

Designers should be encouraged to wield metrics which illustrate the impact of their work on revenue and conversions. The result? Stakeholders will be more likely to listen, and everyone will see the results. 

Forrester indicated an ROI of 85% or greater for companies which employ design thinking, noting, “The key to developing a successful and compelling business case for design thinking is rooted in finding and socializing metrics that stakeholders care about and that set the team up for success.” 

Leading companies also had a firm grasp on the process behind making their own brand stand out. They understand the strong correlation between design and business — and adapt their processes to reflect it. They help everyone to speak the same language.

presenting design with a data focused approach

When it comes time to communicate design decisions with the rest of the team, use data to make a business case.

Arm Yourselves! (With data.)

As creative professionals, we make the case for great design every day. We can augment our efforts with defensible data and better communication protocols. As a result, best-in-class design work is increasingly recognized as instrumental in helping businesses rise to the top.

Let’s get the word out. Companies should encourage design thinking to more effectively align goals across teams, learning from the themes outlined in the MDI. As designers, the more we can use the language of business to communicate ROI—defending decisions pragmatically through metrics which demonstrate measurable returns—the more successful we’ll be in proving what we’ve known all along: great design is a sound investment.