How Design and UX Create Sustainable Competitive Advantage

If you’re anything like me you spend a lot of time wondering things like: “Why did they put the ‘Accept’ button on the left side of that thing when it clearly makes more sense on the right?” This is the curse of someone who works alongside some of the most talented user experience designers in the industry.

Great design and user experience can form a powerful combination in the battle to differentiate and compete in your markets. The Design Management Institute (DMI) studied the S&P companies over a 10 year period of time and found that design-led organizations outperformed their peers by 228%, a truly staggering figure. It’s not enough for your products and services to be useful, they must now also be holistic, connected, and pleasing to use.

Many companies have invested in building user experience and design teams but do not achieve this kind of return, despite some being quite mature. So how are these outstanding companies using design and user experience to propel them so far ahead of their competition. And, how are they keeping that competitive edge over the long term?

Let’s first look at a few reasons why UX and design give organizations this boost:

  1. Improves the Market Fit of Offerings – products and services that have been conceptualized through user research, ethnographic study, and design-thinking have a much tighter market fit making them more resilient to switching or disruption. This level of fit will make products and applications feel purpose built for the user.
  2. Promotes a Bias Towards Innovation – organizations that invest in great design and experiences have a tendency to be more innovative and more readily throw out the old playbook to push forward with new ways of thinking and providing value. This regular reinvention keeps value propositions from stagnating and propels the organization forward without falling into the sunk cost mindset.
  3. Creates Systems of Experience, Not Products – teams that look at systems as a whole rather than products or services in isolation tend to see patterns and inconsistencies that others don’t. This leads to tighter integration of end-to-end experiences that become much harder to disrupt and provide move overall value.
  4. Resonates Emotionally With Customers – users (whether they be customers or employees) come to digital tools to complete a task, but they stay engaged by how these tools make them feel. Intuitive, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing interfaces always attract and retain better than those that are dated and utilitarian, even if they are more capable.

These are just a few of the ways that design and UX help an organization compete. But achieving this level of maturity is challenging both in execution and cultural support. Let’s take a look at some of the ways an organization can position itself to make design and UX a core part of their strategy.

Invest in Building A User Research Capability

Having an organization-wide understanding of customers is absolutely essential to becoming a more design and user-centric organization. Investing in building out a user or customer research capability can really move the needle here. It’s important that these individuals not be the only touchpoint with customers though and everyone (from executives down) has some exposure to real customer pain points and experiences. In our work we see user research teams leading the charge both in executing this work and in spreading it throughout an organization.

Executive Representation for Design and Customers

One of the key factors that we see in the overall success of integrating design into organizations is sponsorship at the executive level. In many cases this kind of sponsorship functions both as a signal to the organization as well as a way to clear a path and create alignment. It’s important that this sponsorship be representing both design and customers, for example a Chief Digital Officer or a Chief Customer Officer. It doesn’t have to be those titles necessarily but it’s key that these positions be high enough in the organization to be vision-setting and have real decision authority.

Reduce the Personal Cost of Curiosity and Experimentation

Innovation, as an outcome of design, will die on the vine if there isn’t a safe environment in which it can flourish. Individuals and teams that do not feel safe to experiment (and possibly fail) will avoid doing so. Creating a culture where exploration is not only safe but encouraged is a key prerequisite to building a strong design-focused organization. Making experiments visible and giving them appropriate investment will help signal to the organization that failure is sometimes necessary to learn and ultimately find success.

Embed Designers and Design-Thinkers Across the Organization

Many organizations completely fail to take full advantage of their investment in design by creating mini design agencies within their organizations. This tends to result in design being an afterthought and functioning as a service to other parts of the organization rather than a driving force. Spreading your design and design-thinking talent throughout the company and embedding them in cross-functional teams will have a striking effect on how teams think, prioritize, operate, and deliver.

JC is the founder and CEO of DevMynd and leads the company’s human-centered strategy practice.