20 Levers for Communicating the Business Impact of Design

After investing in multi-billion dollar companies across industries and advising hundreds of design leaders at Designer Fund, one of the biggest opportunities I've seen for designers to increase their influence is to demonstrate how their work aligns with the success of the business.

Often as designers, our natural tendency is to emphasize the importance of our craft, instead of focusing on the impact it has on the bottom line. For example, if you approach your manager and propose moving from a static style guide to a component based design system, that sounds expensive. It's not obvious to managers how a design system could save the business money in the long run.


Another common example could be that your company’s brand is starting to feel out of date, and there are inconsistencies all over the place that you want to fix. You ask to do a light brand refresh, but your manager doesn't see why it's necessary to prioritize since the product is functional. Like most managers, they don't understand how your brand impacts key metrics like sales.


Even when you take the approach of conducting research to evaluate your hypotheses and present the case for a new feature, your pitch still lands flat if it doesn't fit into the roadmap for the company. Often our innovative ideas are too late to affect the strategic direction of the business.


Making the business case for design

The examples mentioned above highlight how design is often times viewed as a cost center, rather than something that creates value for the business. This positions design with less power in making important decisions, which leads to fewer resources for designers to do great work.

So how do you effectively show the value of design to your business? The simplest solution is to show how you're helping your company make money (increase revenue) or save money (decrease expenses) through design.

There are a number of ways you could show how design makes money. Use design to:

  • Increase sales by redesigning an e-commerce flow to increase average order size
  • Drive conversion by increasing sign ups or reducing abandonment
  • Increase revenue by growing your customer base and increasing volume at the top of the funnel
  • Create entirely new sources of value, such as launching new products or further segmenting your audience
  • Improve brand perception through a brand campaign to drive new signups or up user engagement
  • Retain users and improve engagement through improved usability or new features

You can also use design to save your business money. Use design to:

  • Reduce support costs, like support tickets and training, by improving the usability of your product
  • Reduce design and development costs by using design to improve your process. For example, your new design system could make it cheaper for marketing and engineering to self-serve so they're not always asking design for expensive one-off projects
  • Prevent bugs and decrease maintenance by testing your assumptions before launching
  • Develop internal tools to speed up processes and increase efficiency across different teams
  • Improve your employer brand and attract qualified candidates

The 20 Levers Framework

This approach can be broken into a framework, the 20 Levers for Return on Design, that I'm developing at Designer Fund to help designers show the value of their work and be more strategic.

The quadrants are divided into saving money and making money on the top. Along the side, you'll see direct impact and indirect impact.

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With direct impact, there's a direct correlation, and even causation, between your work and money for your business. With indirect impact, it's often correlated or dependent on something else like an "if this, then that" statement. For example, if you improve your net promoter score and increase word of mouth, then that could lead to an increase in sales and reduce marketing costs.

Using this framework, we recently launched Design for Business Impact, a free library of business and design resources. It features case studies ranging from early-stage start-ups to multi-billion dollar companies, such as Airbnb, Slack, Pinterest, Dropbox, and Gusto. Each details how design cleared business hurdles and improved their company's performance.

Saving and making money through indirect impact: Airbnb

Even designing for things that are difficult to measure can lead to meaningful ROI—and using the 20 Levers framework can help designers articulate the value they’re creating.

For example, Benjamin Evans, design lead at Airbnb, took on the challenge of preventing discrimination as part of Airbnb's mission of helping anyone belong anywhere. Even though quantifying the value of anti-discrimination in terms of money was hard—measuring belonging is no straightforward metric—Benjamin could make the business case that his team’s work would:

  • Make money by engaging a new and growing market segment
  • Save money by reducing bad customer support experiences and lowering churn rates
  • Indirectly impact ROI by improving user satisfaction, usability, brand perception, and retention

Learn how Benjamin and his team designed for business impact and download a 20 Levers worksheet you can use with your team.

As designers, if we want our work to be valued and for it to solve the needs of our users, we need to bridge the gap between solutions we design and the needs of the business. - Benjamin Evans, Airbnb

A few things to keep in mind

Position your work in terms of impact

How you position your work impacts the response—and therefore, the power and the resources—you’ll receive. Approaching business partners within your organization can seem tricky or confusing, but it’s actually quite simple. Understand how the work you want to do impacts their key metrics and position it that way. For example, instead of saying, “I want to change our signup flow,” tell your finance teammate,. “I have an idea to increase our revenue.” By positioning the work you want to do in regards to the metrics they care about, you can communicate the value you’re creating more clearly.

Understanding your stakeholders and communicating the value of your work in their words is the first step. Once you’ve impacted the metrics they care about, package your story for everyone. By making sure everyone across the organization understands the impact of design, you become an evangelist for your team and a key business partner for many others; you move from being a cost center to an invaluable resource.

Start small

Not every design change will result in millions of dollars in added revenue or thousands new signups. When using our framework, I encourage designers to start small and then grow. Begin by asking “How can we change the least to achieve the most ROI?” By starting with low hanging fruit—a small button here, a simple alternate link there—you can demonstrate success quickly and at a low cost. With success under your belt, you can then ask for more resources to build on your previous work.

Cash isn’t the end goal

All of this isn’t to say that cash is the end goal of a designer’s work. Most of the time, we’re working to help achieve a greater goal, and cash is a means to an end of getting there.

By articulating the value of your work, you can secure more resources and buy-in from your organization and thus ship more work.

If you, or your team, are interested in contributing a case study to our library, let us know your ideas.

Learn the language, mindsets, and tools you need to communicate the business value of your work with our online workshop, Business Essentials for Designers. Apply now for our March 2020 session.