As the chief creative of argodesign and for many years the CCO of frogdesign, I have worked with executives from every industry, and I have found most of them have a hard time communicating with designers. Yet today, getting the support of strong design talent to drive innovation is critical. So I have a few pointers to help you talk to those "creative types" you now face.
3 Frames for Critical Evaluation
Communication - how to frame what you need - is a big part of effectively getting what you want from designers. As executives, you are not a single breed of people. You come to the discussion with a particular way of looking at what you need. Knowing this and directing your creative team with that context is key.
This framework can help you explicitly frame your conversations with designers
You may see your problem as a narrative, a set of needs or challenges that are part of a larger sequence or situation - often a customer process, or a day-in-the-life scenario for your user. Illustrate for the designers your goals for this narrative.
Let's say, for example, you need to improve a shopping checkout process or a customer registration process. In either case, you may have a strong sense of where the broken touch points are. You should definitely share those insights, but keep the problem defined at the task level. Designers can work wonders with this greater scope, often introducing improvements to the overall task that work around the problem areas.
I often encounter executives from engineering or financial backgrounds who like to speak in parametric terms. If you're one of those, make it known.
We're now working with a client who needs his product to move from a 5% subscriber uptake to at least 6%. He knows that even a 1% uplift will mean a lot to the business. And sharing this perspective has entrusted us with an authentic sense of his goals. Don't be afraid to be goal centric.
Most of the executives I have encountered fall into this camp: they'll know it when they see it. As an executive, you may lack time, patience, or technical intimacy with the product. And like many executives, you may be in your position because of an innate sense of what makes a great product.
In that case, make sure you ask (and budget) for the designers to create detailed prototypes of the product. Ask to see the prototype alone, in the same context as the customer. Take time to look at it, use it, reflect on it. Reflecting on something in front of you is often much easier than trying to describe it before it has been created.
And designers are great at sampling. That is, producing ideas and artifacts from a range of possibilities. Sampling can be a powerful tool to alight on the right design.
Ultimately, the design artifact itself must tell its own story. It's about how you, the client, experience the qualities through your own eyes at your own pace. For this reason, I often tell my designers: hand the model to the client and then shut up.
Know your lens
As executives, you are likely using one of these lenses, and it is critical to be aware of which one, in order to be as clear with your design team as possible. With this you can tell a much better story and get the most from your investment.
A design team can deliver a world-class Narrative of a new product design to an executive only to learn later that what you really wanted was a 3% uptick in customer retention. One may equal the other in the end, but the disconnect in framing will likely lead to frustration - or even failure - in the design process.
Final advice: getting the most from your design team
In many intangible ways, what you are buying from a designer is a singular point of view. That alone is incredibly valuable. In a world where more and more products are built upon commoditized foundations and sold within highly contested markets, the design of a thing is a precious asset. As such, your relationship with the designer, your ability to encourage and collaborate to create a singular thing of beauty, can be a great competitive advantage.
Years ago, I was working with Hasso Plattner, then CEO of SAP, to redesign their flagship product, R/3. As we sat together, I presented a series of color choices for the new interface. Suddenly Hasso began pounding on the table and angrily shouting at me in his broken German-English, "Why do you bring me these choices? You are the designer. I trust you to make this decision! Make it!" Hasso had made that great leap in his own unique way. He had realized the value of placing trust in the design talent working with him. That trust translated into great success.
Designers often need only to be given the permission to create great things. Give it to them. Learn the code of speaking with designers. You will make the most of your investment, and get the best shot at the innovation you seek.