3 reasons why companies struggle with the design process and how to overcome it

Minna Kärhä Business Lead, Data Driven Business , Solita

Published 13 Sep 2023

Reading time 6 min

The CTO, sitting across the table, was clearly feeling uncomfortable and even a bit irritated when we asked “So what you have just described, how is this different from the project you already did two years ago?”

The CTOs answer was sadly not surprising. They spent a lot of money implementing a new solution (in this case a data analytics tool), in the hopes of providing their people with faster access to data and increased productivity.

Unfortunately, almost no one was using the tool. People continued to work the way they did before, and still complained about how difficult it was to analyse data and how much time they wasted on it.

Eventually the CTO was forced to cut costs and ramp down the licenses that were just adding cost and not providing any value. Still, the complexity and wasted time issue remained a problem to solve for the CTO.

This is a typical example of a project failing to deliver the anticipated value. Why? The company ignored the most critical element: design.

Why do companies struggle?

Designers know the best way to solve any problem is to start with the end user, what they want to achieve and why. When the focus is right, the result serves the purpose plus saves time, money and effort. Nevertheless, we repeatedly see companies ignoring the critical element of design – ending up in the typical example of a project failing to deliver value.

So why do so many projects fail to provide the correct value? Why do technology projects struggle to serve the users and help their lives become easier instead of making it more complex? If the design process works so well – why doesn’t everyone apply design thinking as part of their development initiatives?

We gathered our design minds together at Solita for a peer sparring session to share experiences and insights working on various projects, and this is what we came up with:

1. Misthinking the purpose of design is to make things pretty

In some organisations, they think the designer role is something to be utilised at the very last stage of the project “to make things pretty”. “We will first work on the data platform development and build the reports. We will include the designer in the project once we have requirements for the reports ready and the data available”.

Traditionally, design has focused on visuals and aesthetics, but design is actually more than that. It’s a way of solving complex problems in a user-centric and holistic way.

When people are asked about what they need, they will typically answer with what they want. When we observe people, we see that their behaviour does not necessarily match their wants. This is where a designer’s skills and competencies come into place. With empathy and by asking a lot of ‘whys’, designers can dig into the core problem and discover the real needs.

The purpose of design is to ensure value and make users’ lives easier. However, we see a lot of clients continuously running multi-million euro projects (e.g. ERP projects) that end up adding complexity and not necessarily helping people to do their work better. With the design process, we can ensure that not only we are doing things right, but also ensure that we’re doing the right thing. 

2. Organising the work into silos

In traditional organisations where business and IT are seen as two separate entities, it’s common to see that business makes requirements and orders solutions from IT who execute that request. Nowadays, many organisations form digital units that have a combination of both business and technical talent in the same team and work towards the same goals.

Organisations need to foster a culture that supports collaboration across different functions and embrace a diverse set of skills in a team, and make sure that the strategy is aligned with the design approach.

3. Measuring outputs instead of outcomes

Why do we select a solution before we know the real needs of the users? In some organisations, where success is measured on project metrics, there are expectations of delivering on time, according to scope and within budget. In these cases, design work without similar clarity will create a sense of being out of control rather than contributing to success.

“This project will deliver 5 dashboards for these user groups, and 7 data integrations from this system to the data platform”. These are concrete outputs that, can and will, be measured to follow the project’s success. But what if it turns out in the design process that the data integrations are not needed? What if the design finds out that the users need something else than a dashboard? Is the project failing when it is not delivering the predefined outputs?

When we work with design, we work outcome-driven with the goal of making an impact. The goal is to create value for the users who are going to use a product or service and for the business. It can be hard to measure the value of design and know what to report to leadership teams. Initially, it can also be hard to grasp what you’re actually paying for when you buy design work. But if we dare to trust the design process, we know value in any form will come out of the process.

What about the CTO?

So what could the CTO in the example have done to be more successful with their initiative?

When they first had the idea of the data analytics tool helping people in their organisation to get faster access to data and save time to do valuable tasks, they should have started with the design.

With design methods and tools, they would have been able to create insights into how the users work with data and what they actually need. They would then have been able to design the solution, which most likely would have included the data analytics tool as well as other capabilities to ensure the new solution adds value and does not increase complexity. Then people would actually use it.

As you can see, design is not about making the data analytics tool pretty. It’s about helping to pinpoint the core problem that needs to be solved to gain the desired value (in this case easier and faster access to data), and then solve it with the best fit-for-purpose solution.

Trusting the design process is essential for creating successful products, services and experiences. Companies that adopt a design approach with a diverse set of skills tend to outperform its competitors since they create products and services that customers want to use.

Read what we did with HSL and DigiFinland
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