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Design Quality is Coupled with the Business Model

We see every company approaching design differently. Some are able to pull off very polished design consistently, and most other companies seem to linger in the doldrums with their subpar products.

A couple of observations:

  • Many companies that start out with a good product experience eventually end up dwindling out into mediocrity

  • If the product starts out with a subpar experience, very rarely would the company turn things around later

So why is it that most companies start out with a mediocre product experience, or most likely end up with one?

The way design shapes up as a function in a company depends largely on the structure of the business.

Does speed of shipping reward business? Does quality of product reward business? Does shipping more often reward business?

When design works in the service of business, it shouldn’t be surprising that the nature of business ends up driving how design works.

Why most products end up a mess

Why most products end up a negligent mess is because the way their business is structured, it doesn’t leave them much time, bandwidth and need to get the details right. Such companies end up converging on what their version of ‘optimum design’ looks like. Amazon is a great example — for their business to do well, they need to run a lot of experiments around size & shape of banners, buttons, position of key UI elements and so on. You’d notice extremely experimental UI in their app often with multiple UI inconsistencies across pages and user flows. Maintaining UI / design System consistency not only becomes a secondary or tertiary objective, but often a moot one.

Need to continuously keep launching new products to stay alive? In the absence of templatisation and standardisation, your design quality will suffer and dwindle out.

Need to keep testing out new business models because the one you have currently isn’t rock solid? You’ll continue shipping MVPs (with reduced scopes and reduced attention to detail) until you figure out your actual business.

Building features with no direct primary connection to business outcomes? You’d continue having to fight for time & resources to keep polishing those, against the pushy business team that has objectives to meet.

Design & business models

Business models for digital products usually fall under these 3 categories:

Business model How it works State of design
✅ Product-led Your business is the product you sell. There wouldn't be a company if you take out the product. Good design will be table-stakes, and design innovation will be encouraged.
🟡 Product-enabled You're selling a commodity or a service that your product enables you to sell. But beyond that enablement, there's not much additional value that the product adds to the business. But if you take the product out, you'd not be able to run your business. Good design helps, but it will get standardised.
⛔️ Product-supported The product helps your business run marginally better but doesn't add more value than that. If you take the product out, you'd still be able to run the business as a service. Design will converge to low quality, and will struggle in perpetuity.

Companies like Apple & Airbnb – they are spectacular product-led businesses. What they make is exactly what they sell. They charge top dollar and a premium for their product. In return, they take their own time to refine and perfect their experience to a very singular sense of taste and refinement. They’re able to do this because their business allows them to ship slowly and intentionally. They make loud and spectacular announcements around their product launches because their business allows them to, and benefits if they do so. That’s a great setup.

One place that is ripe for disruption with the right alignment of how the business operates and how great products can be designed is Enterprise SaaS — you can take your own time, solve a problem really really well and charge top dollar for the product that you sell. Design can have the necessary time and breathing room to do an amazing job because of this business <> design alignment. There are many examples too: Shopify, Linear, GitHub, Asana and so on.

In the best case: Good design is good business. When this correlation is not true, executing exceptional design will generally be at odds (or decoupled) with building a good business and that friction will continue to manifest in very clear impediments to design.