Why designers should speak the language of business

Can you speak to the business decision-makers in their own words?

All ye designers and designers in the making out there! Do you know how your design contributions and inputs bring money to your company? Can you speak to the business decision-makers in their own words?

Communicating ‘intangible’ value

Designers create value, and value is what is monetised, be it through building trust, or getting a greater market share. Value determines how much a customer is willing to pay for a product or service. According to Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, Economic Value to Customer (EVC) = Tangible Value + Intangible Value the product provides.

Tangible value is easy to quantify and thus define, but this is not the case with intangible value. One way to uncover intangible value is through user research.

How you may ask? User research is a way to get feedback on our assumptions, see if the product/ service we seek to launch actually has a place in the lives of the users, and also find out their hidden needs. Tapping into these hidden needs creates intangible value.

Designers, businessmen and engineers, have the same end goal in mind – to build a great product and improve the life of the end user in some way or the other. It’s hard to get a buy in from internal stakeholders if the workflows and suggestions one makes as a designer are not backed by the reason for the same.

A foundation in design is critical – be it learnt by self initiative or by taking classes formally at school. But as designers, if we make an effort to understand the business goals and engineering prowess of our team, it will help us to collaborate better, and thus be a better team player. Now who doesn’t want that?

For example…

Suppose you are designing the sharing workflow inside a mobile app, and assume that the web version of it is already up and running. In all probability, users of the website would also start using the mobile app.

Thus the decision one would make as a designer, keeping in mind business and engineering considerations, would be: preserve the mental model of the user and keep the mobile workflow very similar to that of the web, use inbuilt iOS/material design sharing action sheets since the code for that is defined and already exists and adhere to link sharing settings, etc.

Business goals would be met when users can transition without any hiccups between the web and mobile.

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The right language for the right audience

When I first started out in a job straight out of design school, I used to talk about the intricacies of design details in meetings with the PMs. This is something that designers on my team could relate to and give feedback about, but the PMs were more focused on how we are better fulfilling the customer ask and providing a solution to the user story.

A well wisher, to whom I cannot be thankful enough, gave me some constructive feedback about communicating with the right context to the PMs. Going forth into the subsequent meetings, I tried to focus on the user story, backed up with user research/contextual reasoning, and thus felt the meetings becoming more productive for both the parties involved.

The people who represent the business aspect of an organisation are as close to the user as designers are, but with a slightly different focus.

  • Designers have the ability to build prototypes and rapidly test with the end user, thus validating or disproving hypothesis and also saving developer time by rejecting or improving workflows and interactions that do not work.
  • Individuals in the business arm of a team are (generally) interested in hitting quarterly and yearly goals such as increasing the subscribers by 47%, onboarding 15 new clients to their SaaS platform, increasing site traffic by 50%, etc, which can also be called key results.

To build a great product, an alignment of design, business and engineering is ideal. Basically, it’s time to be best friends with your product manager.

Tips for learning the language of your business

So how can you become acquainted with business prowess and terminology?

  • Meet with your PM often to discuss and be aligned on the overall strategy. If this is not the case now, ask to be involved in meetings in which decisions about prioritisation of features and specs are being discussed.
  • Make a note of business related terms when they pop up in discussions and read up on it afterwards: for e.g. KPI, OKRs etc. (see below)
  • Online courses and books: Coursera Course: https://www.coursera.org/learn/design-strategy, Book: Harvard Business Review: On Strategy
  • When taking part in hackathons, be sure to include business roadmaps, what your offering aims to achieve as milestones etc. Making mini business proposals would help you to think from the business side of things, and also increase your chances of buy in since hackathon judging panels are bound to have some investors/ business units of the sponsor company etc.
  • Pay attention in all-hands meetings. Many companies have monthly/ quarterly share outs, or all-hands meetings which are typically conducted by the CEO or the team manager. These meetings are highly likely to have information about quarterly business goals such as what was achieved, what is in the pipeline etc. It is easy to not pay too much attention to such meetings, but if you do make a conscious effort to listen, make notes and follow up with the relevant people about things that interested you or made you feel confused; slowly, it will start to make sense.
  • Watch Shark Tank

A lot of companies are embracing design thinking nowadays. You as a designer are sure to be acquainted and even be a pro in the innovation processes and brainstorming techniques that are a part of it. It is a good idea to orchestrate workshops with the business and engineering folks on your team. This will also help you to understand what their approach is towards problem solving.

Please note: names of companies whose examples I have quoted have not been mentioned.


Design thinking as a word has been used and abused by many, but stripping it down to the basics, it is a set of methods to help one think from the point of view of the users they are designing for, at the same time considering each small interaction that the user might have with their product or service.

KPI: Key Performance Indicators measure how effectively a company is achieving its defined business objectives.

OKR: Objective and Key Results: An Objective is a goal, and a Key Result is a numerical measure of that goal. (as defined by Data Science for Managers, Lesson 1, Datacamp)

More in-depth information can be found here: a guide to UX metrics and KPIs

Further reading:

Some articles for reference:

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