Design is a Risk Management Strategy

Design leaders need to advocate for their teams and their practice on a near-constant basis.

My perspective on accomplishing this has really shifted in the last couple years. For a long time, I’ve talked about how close we are to our customers, push for aspirational levels of design quality, and execute a robust process. I never felt like that landed with business stakeholders and I was burning myself out trying to convince them.

More recently, in the last year especially, I’ve stopped framing it that way. I now argue that the business is facing significant risks:

  • Product failure in market: people can’t use the app/site the way they need to
  • Service failure in market: people can use the app/site, but it doesn’t deliver what people need
  • Product misuse in market: people use the app/site in unexpected and unfavorable ways
  • Failure to differentiate: the experience of the app/site/service fails to differentiate, from competitors driving the value of the company’s strategy down

A strong product design practice is essential to reducing these risks as part of the company’s overall risk management strategy. Any one of these risk areas can result in loss of market share, litigation, brand equity loss, and decline of company performance. Design methods for identifying customer needs, testing ideas, prototyping concepts, and validating experiences are some ways to provide rich feedback into the team’s impact in to reducing these risks in a controlled environment before incurring risk in the market.

Teams that launch products without establishing a strong design practice–also putting valuable feedback loops in place for refining the product pre- and post-launch–will be taking on risk that could tank the company. The design team’s contribution to this is how we win as a team. This risk-taking is overly lauded in the startup hustle culture, saturating many corners of the business world to, I believe, a greater detriment.

When I explain this approach to business stakeholders, they get it. They can visualize the impact of reducing risk. We can have more productive conversations about trade-offs in moving forward with effective refinement in the design process. It’s also my job to understand the pressures to deliver and how I can modify the design process to achieve the speed to market we need. These adjustments to process are better understood by other stakeholders when the trade-offs in managing risk can, at a minimum, be discussed. Rarely does this risk need to be quantified, but it can be if needed.

On an individual level, I highlight when any individual contributes to this, embodies company values, or just does something rad. This has to be fine-tuned to accommodate the ways that individuals and team cultures respond to praise, attention, and individuation, but the positive feedback has to happen somehow.