How to measure design without killing it
Measuring the success of design can feel like two radically different, but not mutually exclusive, experiences. On one hand, it can feel a bit like sorcery: mysterious, risky and totally unpredictable. At the same time, it can feel like a widget assembly line: calculated, dull and safe, often with little reward. In many organizations, this cycle can hinder breakthrough thinking and innovation.
To make effective decisions, we need to balance the chaos with the predictable by finding ways to inspire great work and mitigate risk. So how do we harness and measure the power of design, without snuffing out the “magic” that makes breakthrough ideas take hold? How do we effectively lead innovation into the future, without taking a blind leap?
Building in Confidence: Lead and Lag Thinking
The answer lies in the balance of leading and lagging indicators, and in knowing what each can do to unleash more powerful design solutions. Weaving the right balance of inspiration, intelligence and validation into the design process creates outcomes that are efficient and prolific.
Leading indicators help us understand the consumer, category and culture. This kind of insight work acts as a compass—it enables design teams to navigate the challenge and keeps them pointed true north. If we are missing meaningful, timely and actionable insights in any of these areas, we need to examine how our business strategy can be realized with an incomplete picture. Brands can’t thrive in a vacuum of consumer, category or cultural context, and design starved of meaningful inspiration will, more often than not, fall flat.
Lagging indicators help us to validate the well-informed hypotheses we have asserted in our design work. If the leading indicators are robust, this validation is a pleasure to experience, because the work hits both strategic and executional bullseyes. Learning can then be focused on optimization of what we already know, instead of holding our breath to find out things we should have known before we began.
Leading Indicators: Identify and Focus the Challenge
Consumers can’t tell us what the future looks like, but they can tell us what their lives look like, and how we fit into it (or don’t). Early ethnography or other qualitative insights work goes beyond demographic realities: Their unique worldview creates a powerful lens through which we can inspire and motivate. It helps us understand and tap into their ever-evolving needs and barriers more meaningfully. If you haven’t refreshed your segmentation or consumer target intelligence in 18-24 months, you’re overdue to hear from them. Consumer insight work doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming—neither is it a zero-sum game. If budget is tight, scaling your insights approach can target gaps in your intelligence without derailing the job to be done or overspending.
Leading Indicators: Accurately Inspire Effective Work
Category and cultural intelligence is equally important. Without understanding the trends that drive category evolution, the future is difficult to see. Without understanding the emergent visual language that fuels these trends, we won’t be speaking in a language that inspires or responds to consumer needs and desires.
Design semiotics is a powerful way to uncover this fertile ground, building relevance and longevity into your brand expression. Though the term “semiotics” sounds complex and expensive, it’s actually quite simple. Think of it as a competitive audit of newness. What niche brands are tipping into popular culture? What design trends are they instigating? In regions driving the most innovation, what emergent design language is manifesting? What new meaning spaces can we tap into?
Lagging Indicators: Validate Your Early Decisions
Quantitative or hybrid methodologies can be a great way to validate design decisions, if the work has been informed in a relevant way. When leading intelligence is strong, design strategies become inspired, prolific and inevitable. Testing them quantitatively can feel like a win, and even produce multiple “winners.” The key to great quantitative outcomes is to focus learning objectives on the business strategy that drove the change. Ensure focus on the meaningful and actionable, avoiding subjective “Do you like it?” lines of inquiry or data collection.
Loyal consumers who observe the change with a little confusion or discomfort is inevitable—the meaningful inquiry lies in what the change means to them, despite their discomfort. If the design resonates with new growth targets and doesn’t cue a tangible negative change with loyals, we have created a successful solution.
Lagging Indicators Can Focus Optimization Quickly
Smart, effective design testing allows for easy optimization of design solutions, because the strategic guardrails on the visual landscape have already been established. With this confidence, feedback from quantitative research becomes highly actionable and clear.
For example, if we:
- Know how important immersive sensory language is to our new target (consumer);
- Understand what the emergent sensory language—the semiotics—looks like (category);
- Educate ourselves in the sociocultural trends that drive this category shift (culture); and
- Design the quantitative test to measure sensory immersion attributes (focus),
then we will know definitively what levers to push or pull to take a design from good to great. Whatever your business strategies are trying to achieve, ensure that you’re customizing your research for success against those specific, focused objectives. If design testing is directing you to go back to the drawing board, you simply haven’t informed the work with enough leading indicators.
Leading: Informing and Inspiring Your Design
- Do learn from consumers early, qualitatively, to create a more nuanced, robust and holistic understanding of how your product, service or brand fits into their lives.
- Do look at the emergent future of your category, especially through the lens of visual language (or semiotics), including areas like visual whitespace opportunities.
- Don’t react to broad generational insights as a replacement for speaking with consumers.
Lagging: Validating and Optimizing Your Design
- Do test with new consumers who don’t currently use your product or brand, whether new to the category or loyal to the competition—these consumers will provide you the best read on receptivity, traction and growth into the future.
- Do meticulously focus your learning objectives on the business strategy, particularly in customizing quant frameworks. This allows you to jump over the speed bump of “difference” (see above) as a metric and focus on actionable optimization.
- Don’t test exclusively with your loyal fans. There are myriad reasons for this, but primary among them is familiarity—change is uncomfortable. This information isn’t relevant (change was the point), it’s not actionable in-and-of-itself, and most importantly it sows the emotional seeds of fear and risk.
Benefits of Balance
A robust intelligence phase that informs key consumer, category and cultural insight is crucial, and provides the guardrails for effective and inspirational design solutions. It also allows quantitative validation to perform optimally, doing the right job at the right phase in the process. If we allow our teams to solve design problems with all the intelligence they need, with a full and well-rounded toolbox, validation becomes more valuable and more meaningful. It creates a playbook for designers to execute with excellence, early and proactively, instead of reacting to unexpected research results late in the game.
Working this way builds confidence, consensus and rich intelligence along the way—but most importantly, it creates prolific design outcomes that win.