Edge Practices: How Do You Measure Value?

Peter JonesDesign for Practice, Service Design, Social Systems Design, Strategic Innovation

Every design discipline (even industrial design) has had to develop its best rationale for the question “why should we keep/hire/use you guys?” If they keep asking, “what is it you do again?” you may have more work to do more on strategic communication.

Emerging practices will always be considered marginal at first, within an organization. Practices (not processes) are formed from collective agreement, and are often tacitly formed.  When an organization first develops a core process, such as project management, it starts as a practice. Outcomes are uncertain, its value to cost is assessed. When a practice, such as user experience, becomes vital to every project, it becomes formalized as a process.

You can tell practices because they have small in-groups, communities of practice that may form to develop methods, ensure quality, share learning, as in nearly all user experience groups in the past.  (I can speak as having been the “first one” and developed UX capacity in several organizations).

This agreement of practice requires enrollment of participants over a period of time. You don’t “pitch” your own organization to accept your practice, usually, as the resulting win may be brittle. Marginal, edge practices have to win over internal clients by demonstrating value, extraordinary value.

I think its significant that most large organizations have no formalized design processes, they have – at best – practices in different locations. Yes, the major product companies have UX teams, but I’d remind (anyone) that Google had a very marginal design practice until only recently.

Systemic design is marginal as a discipline, as there’s no global practice community, no professional societies, no standards for method, no canon or agreed body of knowledge. This keeps things fun and lively, and as we’re holding the third symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design this coming week in Oslo, it reminds me of the early days of CHI (I was at the second conference, and it was about the number of people we have attending now).

RSD is an annual symposium of academics, students and advanced practitioners that embraces the discipline at the convergence of systemics and design thinking. We have a strong service design contingent, but it is not the same thing and we don’t leverage UX and service design methods as you might expect. Systemic design is a hybrid of design disciplines that draw on systems thinking – and as it matures its becoming its own practice.

Systemic Design in the Organization

In the years when we built custom information systems and software, we developed something of a systems design discipline that produced models for system structure, custom interface design, distribution, custom networking, even custom workstations. There were (and still are) system engineers. But system designers went away as the micro revolution put a PC, then a laptop on every desk. And while we all trained in systems analysis and design (for systems and software), only a rare few worked with system dynamics (operations research), soft systems, or system sketches.  These were used in government, labs and IBM, only a few advanced firms.  Now we mean something different by system design.

However, we have to train organizations to recognize this function as core to their business, and for the most part, its not recognizable to corporations.  But then, neither are ethnographers, and there is a thriving corporate ethnographic practice community.

So as with all design practices and a lot of research – job titles may vary. It can take time for the business case of a new competency to be valued, even if you develop a good rationale. And since we espouse team collaboration, when our leadership is successful our (internal) customers will believe they did the work themselves. What’s good for Lao Tze (who defined that as the essence of leadership 2500 years ago) it’s not going to actually help what we called in AT&T Bell Labs your “body count.”* You need metrics and measures (these ARE different, and you will need both).

*(Our manager was a wry Vietnam vet who reminded us that our internal metrics came from the same mentality that presented body counts in the 1970’s TV news to show how America was “winning” the war).

The Evolution of Edge Practices

With an edge practice you have to discover what your sponsors value and deliver “body counts” – numbers or values – that help them make their business case to their sponsors. Find out what your customers have to deliver on, and help them deliver on that promise. If you cannot find that fit, then you might have to find new customers.

Every design and creative discipline has this problem at first. My career followed that developmental arc of value creation. I started as a human factors MA, moved into software design, systems engineering design, and then web product design, combining research and design in each role. Much of this was delivering what the organization required, boring specifications and CASE systems analysis by the sheaf. Real design work was always vulnerable, as software was (and still is mostly) all about the engineering and shipping. While I always found ways to conduct user research, even if guerilla street testing, user engagement value didn’t count as much as you’d think – not until the Web 2.0 networked era and real-time analytics.

Human factors – with an experimental and evidence-based approach to system design – took a good decade to prove its value in US firms, and we had the ready metrics and measures to prove value. That’s what we did back then, hard-core behaviorist-style observational testing. (And even then, with its formidable research rigor, usability testing was exotic …  based on a failed internal project of mine to build a usability lab at a former employer, my company’s CEO wrote a million dollar check to his (and my) alma mater, University of Dayton, for a world-class usability lab. For a while, it was probably the best in the world, and so was the very definition of exotic – nobody really knew how to use its full capability. This was in 1991, while I was still in human factors grad school.) Within three years, I had built a competent lab for $20K. By the time we started building web products in 1995, we were already doing field usability instead. That’s a pretty rapid depreciation curve.

So this question will keep coming up in systemic design. When value is delivered by creating collaborative engagements across stakeholders, we have to understand how they value and measure collaboration. Are the outcomes better projects and programs, better strategies and planning, faster time to delivery, making the right decisions earlier? There are ways to show these values, but we can’t measure everything. You want to measure what sponsors value most, and demonstrate how your practices delivered that value.

(For a case study on the causes and recovery from total market failure, get We Tried to Warn You, there in the left column)