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The Secret Weapon: Design

Good design obviously relates to products, but the concept also applies to the services a business offers
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Have you ever looked at a hotel shower with multiple shower heads and have no idea how to get a steady stream of hot water out of the one you want to use? Ever been dumbfounded trying to operate a microwave, washing machine or other appliance? It took me weeks to figure out how to open the back hatch of my SUV from inside the vehicle. These are all examples of bad design that reflect poorly on both the product and company offering it.

This will come as a surprise to most leaders, but design may be the most important function in your business, and it impacts every part of your operation. There may be nothing that drives profitability as much as how you design products and services. However, few leaders really understand the full impacts of design on their businesses.

In his excellent book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman writes about the concept of human-centered design. To develop great solutions, HCD considers how humans interact with a product or service. If a design results in a product that is intuitive or easy to use or, even better, results in a visceral positive reaction, it’s a great design.

Design of a company’s products, services and marketing collateral have a direct impact not only on how customers perceive the brand, but also sales. The best designs result in a positive, visceral reaction when people see them; this makes people both want to associate with the brand and buy the product. And it is also likely a human-centered design. HCD drives sales.

Great design also drives margin. This is because in addition to driving unit sales and supporting sustainable pricing, it also results in products that are easier to produce. This seems counterintuitive to some leaders because many people believe great designs are inherently more difficult to produce; however, that is not true. Sure, it takes more creativity, but the best designs are not only viscerally appealing, which increases unit sales and supports pricing, but are also easier to make.

Design for manufacturing and assembly is a lean manufacturing principle stating that production efficiency should be built into the design process. It is a critically important concept that is not well understood by most leaders. If you get the DFMA right at your organization, almost everything else becomes easier.

DFMA not only increases margins by making products easier to build, but it also reduces an organization’s costs. Warranty costs are directly reduced by DFMA because products are easier to build right the first time. Good design also makes products more desirable, which reduces sales and marketing costs. Are you starting to get a sense of the impact of design?

More desirable and higher quality products, produced at a higher margin, with lower warranty, marketing and sales costs, and higher customer satisfaction are all results of great design thinking and DFMA. What organization doesn’t want that? If you are a leader and you aren’t familiar with DFMA, make learning about it your top priority. Implementing it at your business will have a huge impact on results. And don’t get trapped into thinking that the products customers desire must be more difficult to produce; that is a false notion. It could also put you out of business.

There are a lot of different views of design. A few years ago, I joined some of our team at a Design Thinking course offered by Stanford University, in California. While not directly focused on DFMA, the Stanford course helped us better understand an effective design process. We learned about the importance of several things, including creating clarity around the problem that is being solved by design, having empathy for a product or service user, obtaining different and seemingly unconnected perspectives during the design process, and rapid prototyping. Leaders who want to improve the design function at their organizations can benefit from learning more about Design Thinking.

What if yours is a service company — is design important to you? Absolutely. Great design goes much deeper than just products. It clearly impacts the services we offer, too. Are your services intuitive, easy to use? What about your organization’s processes — do they help employees operate efficiently? Design impacts every area of our businesses.

Having spoken at hundreds of events around the globe, I am often asked for the one secret to business success. I always sense that leaders are looking for either a quick fix or a silver bullet, and I hesitate to answer because it’s rarely that simple. But when I do answer, my recommendation is usually to be a “learner.”

While being a learner is important and will continue to be my top recommendation, it is not a business function. And while all business functions are important, sort of like needing both your heart and lungs, there is one function that may have more impact on an organization’s results than any other: design. 

Bill Yeargin is president and CEO of Correct Craft and author of the best-selling book Education of a CEO.

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.

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