The Business Value of Design

Throughout my career I have experienced various “philosophies” in planning and design of IT projects. Some choose the fire fighter philosophy, while others choose the “agile as an excuse for insufficient design”. On the other end of the scale I have found those that won’t move without every aspect of the system elaborated 6 different ways.

I tend to use the “design where ambiguity exists” philosophy. To be sure I have spent much of my career in design and strategy roles so I am a HUGE proponent of design. That said I always try to design with the business objectives in mind and document with a purpose.

For the purpose of this document I am using the word design in a very general sense. Design comes in various clothes like Business Process Design, Software Design, Software Architecture and Enterprise Architecture. Each of these aspects of design provide their own opportunities for returning value to the business.

There will be many different schools of thought here and opinions will abound this article presents mine.

Characteristics of a Good Design

So up to this point I have discussed the philosophy of design but how does design provide business value?  How can something that is seemingly just a cost return tangible value to the business?

Before we get to the business value of design we should understand the characteristics of a good design.

A Good Design is Clear
When designing a solution it is imperative that the resulting design is clear and unambiguous. The design should be described in the language of the consumer not necessarily the designer.

For example you have a software system design where the designer is a software architect or developer and the consumer is a line of business expert. A clear design would be written in the language of the business with as little techno gorp as possible.

The design should be easy to understand with the express purpose of clearing any ambiguity and elaborating on any areas of potential conflict. If there are various ways of executing on a specific feature, function, process or task the end state design should pick one and detail the selected option clearly.

A Good Design is Thoughtful
The primary job of a design is to consider a problem domain and present a solution that is a well reasoned. There are almost always many different ways to solve and design problem so the job of the designer is to weigh as many options as feasible and present a reasoned approach, the design.

The thoughtfulness of the design will be manifest in the care that the designer takes in considering the business needs, consumer’s viewpoint and the presentation.

The elaboration of the design should have both a clear directive tone supported by rationale of why the option was selected rather than one of the alternates. Don’t make your consumer wonder why.

A Good Design is Thorough
Thoroughness is the trademark of a good design. That does not mean that you necessarily have to consider every conceivable option, path or permutation but you should consider those that fit within the guiding principles that you have developed. Some alternatives deserve little more than a quick glance some require in-depth analysis. If you are going to do an in-depth analysis the amount of coverage you give it in the resulting design artifact should be related to the suitability of the alternative to your objective.

If you have multiple suitable alternatives that have been thoughtfully and thoroughly considered the rationale should be expressed in the design artifact so your consumer has enough support to understand why you selected the option you did. Don’t make your consumer do their own research.

A Good Design is Balanced
Balancing your design and the resulting artifact will be one of the toughest jobs for the designer. What goes in? what doesn’t? How much or how little detail to include? What tone to use? What biases are at play? are all questions that the designer must answer to present a balanced design.

Presenting a balanced design only comes through experience and doing the hard work of critical thinking and objectively looking at the design and resulting artifact. Don’t put your consumer off by an unbalanced design.

Business Value 1: A Clear Target

In giving the business a clear target for the problem domain presented in a thoughtful, thorough and balanced way you save the company money. The value of this aspect is often missed by the “fire fighter” mentality. They say it costs too much to spend time designing. I say if you can’t afford to design you can’t afford to do the project.

Clarity induces innovation. When the problem domain is clearly understood and the subject matter experts can see the whole picture innovation is just around the corner. I can’t tell you how many times as soon as I documented a process and started discussing it with the team how the innovation juices begin to flow. People literally get excited about the opportunity to make a difference.

An investment in the initial design will pay dividends for the life of the resulting artifact.

Business Value 2: Reduce waste

With a Clear Target the business reduces wasted effort, resources and time thus saving a tremendous amount of money and frustration. How many times have we started a project without a proper design and then paid for it every day of the project? How many dead ends have been explored at an expense to the business that could have been avoided? How many times have we had to live with a sub-optimal solution because, “we have already invested so much in this direction”?

I could go on endlessly here but the point is that you will pay something now or pay a lot more later but you will pay. Determine the budget for the design and execute on it. Design always pays dividends.

Business Value 3: Trust

Presenting a design as I am outlining in this article cultivates trust and respect from the business, peers and your consumer community. Each person that is part of the process can feel like they were heard and contributed to the overall bottom line of the business. The business value here is immeasurable.

This one is really a win-win in that both the design team and the business benefit through a stronger corporate community. Operating from a position of trust and respect based on experience geometrically accelerates the business values espoused in this article.

Business Value 4: Quality

A designed solution is generally a quality solution. The quality aspect of the designed artifact is lasting and pleasurable. The designed artifact just does what it is supposed to do the way it is supposed to do it. When change comes, and it always does, the designed artifact is easier to adapt due to the clarity exposed in the design.

A quality solution is generally less expensive to support, change and maintain.

I hope that I have presented a system and method of generating an adaptable design philosophy that you can use.

The resulting design should present the object of the design in a way that someone new to the project, with the business background, could understand it and contribute to a business discussion.

Sorry this article became longer than intended, sadly could have been much longer, but I hope that you enjoyed it and benefit from it.