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Diagram of customer ecommerce journey

Making Design a Business Process

The good thing about Boulder Startup Week is that it always makes me think.

Sometimes repetition and routine stifle my creativity. Whenever this happens, I find that that getting out and reaching out are imperative to re-energize. This year, Boulder Startup Week came at a perfect time.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a session called Designing for Business Goals, led by the partners at Emerson Stone, a creative agency located in Boulder, Colorado.

Before I dive into this, I will first say, I am not a designer. I work with some brilliant designers at Bluespark, but I believe that design is not only their responsibility. Design is a business process and it’s important for everyone from developers to marketers to understand how design impacts strategy, process, and execution.

I seem to have stumbled into the right room, because Andy Stone and Brett Wagner from Emerson Stone were talking about just that. “It’s not just the design people see, it’s the experience people have,” Andy stated at one point.

In other words, design is far more than choosing fonts, colors, and layouts. And designers are more than the individuals who create those items. Design is about building systems, improving experience, and growing influence. And this is a whole-company responsibility. 

For instance, marketers have an important design role. So do customer service agents. And CEOs. The entire customer journey is influenced by design.

Let's say a potential customer is on an outdoor apparel website and is looking for mountain biking shorts. Every touchpoint or interaction that potential customer has is influenced by design. Here are some examples:  

  • Photographs: The images a customers sees can influence their purchasing decision.
  • Sizes and Colors: Customers like to have options.
  • Page Speed: Let's be honest - no one wants to wait around for a page to load. That customer will likely just find another place to shop if things take too long.
  • Customer Service: If the customer has a question, how easy it is to get an answer is critical.
  • Content: Can the person find the right information? Are the stories there to help support their purchase?
  • Pricing: If prices aren't competitive, there should be an understandable reason.
  • Shipping Options: It doesn't have to be free two-day shipping, but customers today expect choices, including how they receive their product. 
  • Guarantees: Guarantees build trust. 

Those individual moments are all connected. It’s a system. It’s a process. And as a coordinated journey, it can be remarkably influential.

But that system does require both commitment and collaboration.

Brad Frost, who wrote Atomic Design, created a design system that requires thinking about interfaces simultaneously. His system can vastly improve design efficiency but requires close collaboration.

“You can have all the right technologies in place, use the latest and greatest tools, and even have extraordinarily talented individuals on board, but if everyone involved isn’t actually cooperating and communicating with one another then you’re not going to create great work,” writes Frost.  

Getting the right people organized around a good system can make a huge difference in any business. Understanding that design is part of that system – not just a single step on a project management platform – will make a difference.

It’s why, I think, the partners from Emerson Stone talked about understanding the entire business and subsequently, the entire problem, when working on a design project.

Design is not a strike of lightening. Design is an interactive process,” Brett said to the audience.

That interactive process, they suggested, should be customer-led, because we utimately want to design solutions. And those solutions come from understanding what the customer and the customer's customer wants or needs. 

Rather than confining design into a department or a role, it might be beneficial to consider a "whole body" (or in this case, "whole company") design approach — a process that exists to help everyone ask better questions, build better systems, and develop better solutions.   


Boulder Startup Week is a free week-long community event held each spring in Boulder, Colorado. Startup Weeks are held by cities and communities around the world. Boulder was the original.

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