Tesco and Vanquis design leaders share tips on navigating ROI pressures

In-house design experts say designers need to be braver when releasing products into the world, but maintain that ROI dialogue should not stifle creativity.

Having to justify design work in terms of return on investment (ROI) is a perennial problem for designers.

ROI conversations can be creatively constricting for a designer. Meanwhile whole design teams are often lambasted by the national press when they are perceived to have wasted time and money on a problem that didn’t need fixing. This is made more inflammatory if public money is involved.

Despite these issues Vanquis UX and digital design lead Andrew Larking says ROI is less creatively stifling than many people believe it to be. Moreover, he says most conversations on the topic shouldn’t be a designer’s problem at all.

“As designers, we do tend to enjoy some constraints”

Speaking at Figma webinar series Inside the Minds of Design Leaders, Larking said if a company has done everything right then all discussions around ROI should be settled in the brief.

“When a design team gets a brief, they’ll either sort it or they won’t,” explained Larking. He explained an effective brief will already have the justification for specific design work detailed in it. While designers can and should challenge a brief where needed, essentially the buck stops with the brief setter when it comes to ROI, Larking suggested.

With this in mind, he said ROI doesn’t have to be a creatively stifling element to consider throughout the design process. Instead, designers should use it as a kind of creative framework.

“As designers, we do tend to enjoy some constraints,” he said. “And I honestly don’t think ROI is a stifling problem we have to contend with.”

“Numbers and comparisons are a really powerful tool”

Speaking at the same event, Tesco UI design lead Diane Larsen offered a different opinion. She disagreed with Larking’s idea of ROI being a brief-setter’s problem rather than a designer’s, saying that designers should “take responsibility for the value they bring to a project”.

“Most designers will be familiar with attaching a billable hour to a project,” she said. And while design is hard to value because it rarely exists “as an isolated function” she explained there were still ways of doing so.

For the in-house team of a larger company, ROI information would come from data teams and analysts, she said. “These teams can help point out the smallest of design elements which can impact a bottom line,” Larsen said.

Of course, for smaller design teams or solo designers, data analysts aren’t available. In these circumstances, Larsen said designers should start by measuring “whatever you can”. “Numbers and comparisons are a really powerful tool,” she says.

“Design is a team sport”

While their views differed on the burden of responsibility both designers agreed on the red-alert circumstance of design work being picked apart by the tabloids. (Design Week covered a similar topic last year in regard to responding to criticism).

“Be brave,” said Larsen. “Visual design is subjective, and people hate change.” She added that designers should have faith in the work and research done before releasing a design product – crucially, she said that designers should believe in their team too. “Design is a team sport,” she said.

Meanwhile Larking gave the example of Airbnb, and the “noise” that surrounded its 2014 rebrand. While Larking says many designers and non-designers disliked DesignStudio’s “symbol of belonging” logo at launch, the platform remains one of the most influential in the world some seven years on and the identity has become memorable. “If you trust your team and work, you can pretty much ignore the noise,” he said.

“Perfection only ends up costing clients more money”

Indeed, Larking said he perceives an industry-wide fear of new work getting ridiculed. “This need for perfection only ends up costing clients more money,” he said. “Designing and redesigning a button 400 times does nothing for ROI.”

Reflecting on his own career, Larking added that as he progresses he becomes less preoccupied with “the veneer” and more concerned with “underlying design” and if this answers a customer need.

“I’d much prefer to build a minimal viable product, release it and then roll back to what doesn’t work later; we’re not artists, we’re designers tackling a problem,” he said.

What are you thoughts on the role of the designer in ROI conversations? Let us know in the comments below…

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