Good design is good business

Thomas Watson Jr, IBM CEO from 1952-1971 first coined this phrase back in 1973. While it sounds reasonable, is it actually true and how would we go about measuring it?

When you think of good design what comes up for you? Is it the sorbet in beautiful packaging you bought the other day? Your favourite social justice organization’s annual report? The pen that when held gives you a certain kind of feeling?

Design is not one thing. It is not just graphics on a page. Or the logo on an appliance. Or the appliance itself. But it’s these things too. Recently researchers at McKinsey Quarterly set out to determine the true value of design. They identified a 300 top performing, publicly listed companies and rated them on design.

They found that companies that invested in good design consistently outperform their competition in terms of profit. And not just by a little. At nearly twice the rate.

It held across all industries studied. It held for both products and services.

So why are we so reluctant to invest in good design?

And what is good design? According to McKinsey Quarterly’s researchers:

  • It’s analytical and can be measured

  • It’s cross-functional - everyone’s responsibility

  • It’s continuous iteration - not just a phase

  • It starts with the user experience - not just a product

And what does all of this mean for small businesses and freelancers who don’t have the luxury of an in-house design team?

It means starting with your user in mind. It means incorporating design thinking into your planning. It means involving your end user sooner and iterating quickly based on what you learn. It means thinking of design, not as a line item on a budget or as something you’ll invest in if you have money left over or if you do better next quarter.

What is marketing?

Try using marketing’ in a sentence.

‘I have trouble marketing my business.’

‘I don’t need marketing for my business because I already have enough clients.’

‘I think distributing a catalogue with all my products to potential customers it the best marketing strategy for my business.’

Do you view what you do and why you do it from the inside out or from the outside in? That is, do you think of what your customers can do for your business or what your business can do for your customers?

Marketing is both. And other things too.

Marketing is why you do what you do. Marketing is what you do. Marketing is how you do it.

If you believe you don’t know the best way to market your business, then what is it that you really believe?

Perhaps you aren’t sure if what you do truly matters to your target audience.

Or perhaps you don’t know if you’re charging the right price.

Or perhaps, when people ask you what you do, you don’t know what to tell them. Or that when you tell them, you lose them.

Finding answers to all of these questions is marketing.

So what?

A wise person once told me she often doesn’t know how she feels about a subject until she writes about it. It takes patience to sit with something long enough, to write about it in enough depth that you see it through to its logical conclusion.

You’ve spent countless hours developing a product or service that works for your clients. You are steeped in knowledge about your chosen field. You have set your price strategically and you have added features to make it easier for your clients to work with you. And so why is it so hard to encapsulate the true benefit of working with you? What’s the key thing your audience takes away from your process that they won’t get anywhere else?

When we’re asked how our audience really benefits from all of those features, often we come up short.

Translating features into benefits is so often overlooked. That’s why getting into the habit of seeing your product or service from the benefits end can really set you apart from your competitors.

Start by listing out your features, then for each one, write its benefit. Usually, this first benefit is just the starting point. When you think you have landed on a benefit, ask yourself so what? Then write your answer. Ask yourself ‘so what?’ again and again, until you run out of answers.

Only then will you know that you’ve landed on a real benefit.

Tit for Tat

In game theory, there’s a strategy known as tit for tat or in Nicky Case’s Evolution of Trust game, as the copycat strategy.

It holds that in a game of trust where over a series of moves, two players are given the choice of cheating or cooperating, the copycat will always cooperate unless the other player cheats. Once cheated on, the copycat will retaliate. If their opponent reverts to cooperating, the copycat will do the same.

Of course there are other strategies to winning a game of trust. You can choose to always cooperate, regardless of your opponents moves, you can always cheat, you can choose to retaliate more or less harshly when your opponent cheats or you can randomize your moves completely.

Over many games, adopting a copycat strategy has been shown to be more successful than any other strategy.

In other words, sticking to your principles and only cheating defensively, will ensure you win over time. It also builds trust.

If you don’t believe it, try Nicky’s game for yourself.

Using gravity to your advantage

I’m not the person who will tell you to leap head first into starting a new business full-time with no financial safety net. I’m all for maintaining a part-time gig to maintain some stability while your passion project gains momentum.

This balance can be hard. Running a business means there is always work to be done, a deadline approaching, an urgent client need. Working part-time means there are times when I am simply unavailable to my clients. There’s also the small problem of finding the time to actually work on my business, set goals and figure out how I’m going to get there.

In permaculture, there is a principle known as to catch and store energy. Yields harvested during times of high productivity help to get us through the lean times. In food production, this could mean using rocks on a south facing wall to trap heat from the sun during the day to be released during the cooler night when plants need to be kept warm. Or a gravity fed irrigation system.

On days when I wake up wondering how I’m going to fit everything in, I reframe my job as a means to catch and store cash to draw on later. But it also helps me to focus on energy flows in my business.

Which projects give me energy rather than forcing me to draw on my on reserves? What trends are occurring that I could jump on and benefit from the existing momentum? Rather than trying to push everything up hill.

Are you using your current situation to catch and store energy to use later? How can you use gravity to get you to where you want to go?

What do your clients really need?

What do your clients really need?

As a small business owner, I bet you spend countless hours thinking about the service you provide - what to name it, how to improve it, how to price it, how to promote it. All good and noble questions. 

Now consider how much time you spend thinking about your clients' problems. Like, really thinking about them. 

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