Design as a Discipline
How taking a deliberate approach to design may help CIOs build a culture of innovation in IT.
Design looms large in the IT vocabulary: Functional design. Detail design. User interface (UI) design. Technical architecture design. And, more recently, user experience (UX) design—an increasingly hot area, driven by users demanding the same technology experiences in the workplace that they enjoy at home.
Throughout its history, however, design has generally remained a discrete set of deliverables or project phases, completed by specialized teams at distinct points during a project’s lifecycle. Individual facets of design have reflected little understanding of other related project activities, much less the broader context of the business vision and expected outcomes.
Meanwhile, usability, intuitiveness, and simplicity have moved from aspiration to mandate. The business side now has ways of getting the tools and systems it wants, by directly procuring cloud services, digital solutions, and mobile apps that are “good enough” to meet their needs. In this open marketplace for IT services, business relevance and user engagement are competitive currency. Many CIOs find their organizations lack the skills and craft to provide the tools and experiences many users expect.
What these organizations may be missing is a commitment to design as a business discipline, a commitment that begins taking shape when CIOs ask: What benefits would we gain if design were a pervasive and persistent aspect of each part of the enterprise? This kind of thinking elevates design from just another software development lifecycle phase to an integral part of the IT environment. It shifts the focus from “How do I meet the requirements?” to “Why is this important in the first place?” and “How could we innovate to improve it?” Enterprises can realize this vision, but it often takes a deliberate approach, intentionally applied, by a new mix of talent. The CIO is positioned to make it happen.
Pockets of disciplined design are emerging, but they rarely extend beyond the front-end interface. UI is important to be sure, but design shouldn’t stop there. Front-end design is only as good as its foundational architecture—and only as valuable as the resulting user engagement. Poorly designed transactional services, data feeds, social platforms, and underlying infrastructure can derail the most elegant user interface. Utility and ergonomics are important, but not in the absence of reliability, security, scalability, and maintainability, particularly in a hyper-hybrid cloud environment.¹
A New Way of Thinking
A mind shift may help kick-start the process. Think “system” as in systemic, not as in software. Focus on designing experiences, not just user interfaces. Zoom above the development lifecycle and look at design as a cross-cutting discipline. It’s not an "IT thing" or a “marketing thing" or a “product engineering thing.” It’s an “enterprise thing.”
New skills, capabilities, tools, and methods will help sustain the journey. Multidisciplinary teams should practice concurrent design in a highly collaborative model, blending creative, UX, engineering, and functional knowledge to encourage the cross-breeding of ideas. Borrow ideas from the fields of architecture and industrial design, or from the application of anthropology and behavioral psychology, at every stage of the process. Transparency—where the UI is invisible and things just work—is the ultimate design objective. Consider the banana, a nearly perfect design. It fits nicely in the user’s hand. No manuals are required to understand or use it. The packaging is non-slip, easy-to-open, and bio-degradable. And it dynamically communicates status information—a green peel means it is too early for consumption, brown too late, and yellow just right. An unconventional example? Perhaps, but it illustrates the point, and sets a standard that is likely to challenge and humble technology designers.
IT can create a new niche for itself by cornering the market on design. On the front-end and the back-end, and with creative, user experience, applications, services, data, and infrastructure. Design weaponized as a repeatable, deliberate approach. Design as a discipline.