How to Communicate the ROI of Design

The impact of design is notoriously difficult to measure. We know intuitively that great design leads to great products, and understand that it can influence business success in a multitude of ways, from strategy to market expansion to brand expression. For many of us, this alone can be strong justification to invest in the discipline even in the absence of success metrics.

“Most of us as design leaders have come up practicing craft. We idolize well-designed products and form opinions about what makes a good experience,” said Brian Beaver, Eventbrite’s VP of Design. “If you think about the genesis of design, I’d be hard pressed to say that it was entirely about making an investment with the expectation of a return. Most products are born out of a passion for solving a problem. We can be pragmatic and post-rationalize design ROI in our conversations with C-level executives, but it’s probably not what grinds away at the pit of our stomachs in the pursuit of an elegant solution.”

We can be pragmatic and post-rationalize design ROI in our conversations with C-level executives, but it’s probably not what grinds away at the pit of our stomachs in the pursuit of an elegant solution.

Day-to-day, however, design teams must compete for their company’s headcount, budget, and cross-functional buy-in. This is the reality even in pro-design and design-differentiated organizations. The problem is that design is difficult to isolate as a function and the numbers proving its ROI don’t linger close to the surface.

In some companies, designers also need to overcome executives’ perceptions that “good design” is subjective, as well as contend with a long delay between pre-launch design investments and their payoffs. Other functions deal with extended ROI cycles as well, but design is particularly subject to this effect. For example, contrast a designer’s time spent perfecting a user flow before product launch with a trackable, short-cycle investment such as a Google AdWords campaign after launch.

“If you were to give an executive $100,000 and ask them to use their business acumen to invest in one function that yields the largest return, design might not be their first choice,” said Brian. “This is why design leaders need to find pragmatic, objective rationales to help them win the argument.”

Designers in our community consistently cite the need for a toolbox to help measure and communicate design ROI. The ability to champion the discipline and establish its value lets them build trust with executives, win resources, make the right speed over quality tradeoffs, and decide how design gets involved in processes.

To learn more, we spoke with Brian about how Eventbrite approaches investment decisions for individual design projects and heard from Susan Dybbs, Head of Design at Collective Health, about how they tie design to important company metrics tracked on an ongoing basis.


How Eventbrite approaches larger design investments

Eventbrite’s culture is design friendly, and from ICs to the C-level, its employees understand the value of delightful products that make customers happy. But resources are finite. So when Brian’s team requires headcount and finances for a large new project, they make a direct business case to justify the investment.

Use an ROI model to justify a new project

Eventbrite’s design team wanted to rework their entire product into an atomic design system. This approach to product design breaks it into the smallest possible units and interaction patterns, so when designers need to build a new feature, they can snap together predefined pieces instead of starting from scratch. For example, a headline, form field, and submit button are all individual “atoms” that create a search field “molecule.”

This system takes a bit of upfront time and effort to set up, but pays dividends down the line by making product design and engineering more efficient and consistent.

Additional reading: Brad Frost’s “Atomic Design”

Creating an atomic design system at Eventbrite would require very real tradeoffs, taking design resources away from features in the product pipeline. So the team looked for a way to calculate its value and started by listing all of the potential benefits, such as “higher product quality” and “more brand consistency.” These two were difficult to quantify, so they focused on “efficiency.”

To quantify efficiency savings, design teamed up with marketing and finance to create an ROI model. They started by estimating how long it takes design to complete a typical project, all the way through wireframes and hi-fi mocks before reaching the build and test phase. Then they made some assumptions about how much faster a project could be completed if designers had an atomic design system.

They also looked at efficiency gains for the engineering team, which would be able to assemble pre-built pieces, as well as the QA savings from an estimated reduction in bugs and defects.

“Don’t limit yourself to the confines of the design organization,” said Brian. “Think holistically about the business functions that interact with you, such as marketing, customer acquisition, customer retention, and then extrapolate. It’s like a multiplier effect to help quantify your impact.”

Once they had estimated the team’s time savings, it translated them into dollar savings.  The ROI model ultimately got organizational buy-in and the atomic redesign project was approved.

“Make alliances with finance partners. They were instrumental in helping us understand and put together the financial models that would translate design objectives from subjective perceptions into dollars and cents,” Brian advised.


Align an initiative with new company goals

Before the atomic design system, the team wanted to do a visual refresh of the Eventbrite brand. At the time, the business was undergoing a company-wide exercise to redefine its core values and new strategic direction. The design team felt this was an opportune moment to refresh their visual system, including logo, typography, color palette, and approach to photography.

But it would pull designers away from other projects in Eventbrite’s production pipeline, so they worked with marketing (which was heavily involved in rethinking the brand) to tie design’s visual refresh initiative to new company goals.

Strategically, Eventbrite planned to continue to serve its audience of event planners, and also aimed to develop into a consumer destination and marketplace for local happenings. Meanwhile, the company was evolving into a distributed team model and placed their first designer in their Argentina office.

Ultimately, the design team was able to get the resources they needed for a visual refresh by positioning it as crucial support for the new company direction. It would elevate the brand to squarely target Eventbrite’s “consumer hub” goal, and make sure sure that remote teams were empowered to continue that work with a well-defined style guide, clear guidelines, and a consistent voice and feel.

“Design Debt”

Brian uses the term “design debt” in conversations with colleagues to communicate the tradeoffs of design-related investments.

“I have the benefit of working closely with other functional heads at Eventbrite, such as finance, engineering, and product, so I look at how these teams quantify their activities. Engineering makes decisions based on ‘product debt’ or ‘engineering debt.’ The underlying philosophy is this: if they invest in building a product right the first time, they won’t outgrow it as quickly and need to go back and build it again.

We co-opted this language and use the term ‘design debt.’ When I say this in a meeting, people instantly get it because the organization is already familiar with the premise. We found that it unlocks conversations about putting more resources into design thinking and prototyping to create comprehensive, scalable solutions instead of short-term solutions that only fulfill immediate objectives.”


How Collective Health measures ongoing design impact

At the start of every new project, the design team at Collective Health identifies its high-level business goals, experience goals, and the product metrics it hopes to shift, such as “increase user engagement time” or “lower support call volume.”

Design also co-owns high-level key metrics that are very close to core company objectives: NPS (Net Promoter Score), CSAT (Customer Satisfaction), and perception metrics. Collective Health landed on these metrics as a company by identifying the most important changes they wanted to see in their market and figuring out how to measure them.

Their key goals were to improve customer experience and cultivate trust in health benefits. “It was a cross-discipline effort to determine our core tenets and decide how to measure our performance,” said Susan. “Collective Health is in business to create a better experience with health benefits. This is why getting the voice of the user and actually hearing their perceptions is incredibly important. We try to collect and share this data to cultivate empathy throughout the organization.”

These metrics track much more than just design ROI. They are a reflection of design, product, customer support, marketing, market forces, and many other functions. After all, it’s difficult to isolate design and measure its ROI directly. So, Collective Health’s design team co-owns these metrics to root their activities in trackable, quantitative measures as much as possible and make sure they are aligned with broader company objectives.

Track and own NPS and CSAT

NPS (Net Promoter Score) and CSAT (Customer Satisfaction) are two common measures of consumer sentiment. CSAT targets direct satisfaction with the question “Overall, I was satisfied with [product/service],” while NPS measures loyalty and promotion with the question “How likely are you to recommend our [product/service] to your friends and colleagues?”

Additional reading: “Measuring happiness: What’s the difference between CSAT and NPS?

Collective Health regularly measures NPS and captures satisfaction sentiments on their customer service channel. For example, after a customer calls for support, they can answer a quick survey. (There is a similar pop-up survey in the Collective Health mobile app.)

Develop your company’s unique perception metrics

Perception metrics provide more color about how customers think and feel about your product or service. They are championed by Kerry Bodine, author of Outside In and previous vice president of Forrester Research’s customer experience practice.

Additional reading:Kerry Bodine’s “Measurement: How to Quantify the Quality of Your Customer Experience”

Kerry Bodine’s “A Deep Dive into Customer Experience”

Collective Health worked directly with Bodine to develop their own perception metrics. They aligned them with their goals to improve understanding in the healthcare industry, create ease with their service, and fix a large, broken system by renewing trust in health benefits. Every quarter, they send an email survey to a random sample of their users to rate their level of agreement with 3 statements:

  1. “Collective Health helps me understand my health benefits.”
  2. “Collective Health makes it easy to manage my health.”
  3. “I trust Collective Health.”

They are currently in their third quarter of issuing perception metrics surveys, so it’s still early, but over time they hope to find out how quickly they’re improving clarity and trust.

Share ongoing impact

Every two weeks, Collective Health shares these key metrics and some customer quotes in a companywide email. “We like to pair quantitative data with qualitative color,” said Susan. “This email goes to the leadership team so that we’re looking at the numbers and what’s driving them at the executive level.”


Final thoughts

“Design needs the language of business in order to succeed,” said Susan. The ability to justify support for a design team paves the way for new initiatives and gives design a key role in the ongoing pursuit of organizational objectives.

We’ve learned a few strategies to measure and communicate design’s impact:

  • To justify a new project, list all the benefits and find the quantifiable ones, such as human capital efficiencies. Work closely with marketing and finance to create ROI models that translate gains into dollars and cents.
  • Time design projects so they coincide with and directly support new changes in business strategy.
  • Let design own or co-own key metrics that are in line with fundamental company goals. Measure and share them on a regular schedule.
  • Communicate design impact with numbers and qualitative color, like customer quotes and videos.