What Design Chiefs Care About and Why

It’s a common refrain among design leaders today: Design finally has buy-in. After years of being ignored, designers are getting the recognition and investment they craved, whether they’re working for a tech giant, a healthcare startup, or a white-shoe firm. But with acceptance come new challenges. To find out how design priorities have evolved and will continue to evolve in 2018 and beyond, we talked to design chiefs from some of the most innovative companies and recognized brands, including IBM, Microsoft, Uber, and Visa.

What emerged was a snapshot of how deeply design has integrated into the landscape of corporate America. As Joanna Peña-Bickley, head of design for Amazon AWS Internet of Things, puts it: “If you have design in the C-suite you are more likely to be the disruptor, not the disrupted.” But design also has far to go if it’s going to achieve what the profession’s idealists have always sought to achieve and change the world for the better. Here are the key design priorities at seven companies, which are shaping the future of everything from finance to retail to healthcare.

Uber: Designing trust into a company that desperately needs it

With a new CEO at the helm, changes to its executive board, and a renewed focus on profitability, Uber is trying to right its ship after a tumultuous 2017. The role of design in that transition, according to vice president of design Michael Gough, is to introduce a more empathic and considered approach to the company and the product. The rapid expansion model that helped Uber scale is no longer sufficient for a company that on the surface may be running an app but in the process is creating new economies. “If we got a button wrong at Adobe, people complained,” shares Gough, who prior to Uber led design teams at Microsoft and Adobe. “If we get a button wrong at Uber, entire economies get disrupted. You have to think about all these repercussions, because little mistakes can have incredible downstream consequences.”

Gough likens design at Uber to working on a vast global networked system. The company not only touches millions of people through its apps, but is also a source of income for as many as two million drivers, and has introduced new business models and services all over the world. Designers need to be thinking as much about individual interactions as about broader economic, cultural, and social issues. That awareness is in stark contrast with Uber’s historic treatment of drivers, when the dark arts of UX design were used to manipulate them to drive more. Today, top of mind for Uber’s design teams are questions like what constitutes meaningful work, how to enable upward mobility, and how to design the service in a way that is culturally appropriate and relevant in markets with different social norms.

On the responsibility of design to minimize unintended consequences, Gough is direct. “Uber has to be acutely aware of its impact because we are global, we are at a ridiculous scale, and we are so core to people’s essential needs.” He acknowledges that evaluating unintended consequences and making the necessary trade-offs gets complicated fast, but unless you are constantly searching, you can’t hit intended consequences either. This more mindful approach might be the key to Uber’s ultimate new goal: getting the love back.

Hopelab: Using design and technology to improve, not deteriorate, mental health

In 2018, Chris McCarthy hopes to see design make a greater impact on the healthcare industry. McCarthy is vice president of innovation and strategy of Hopelab, a nonprofit that uses design and technology to improve the well-being of teens and young adults, and, in his telling, healthcare is “on an incremental journey of acceptance” with design, especially as it intersects with technology.

And for good reason. Nothing is more intimate than our health. Mental health, in particular, underscores the caution with which our technological overlords must proceed. On one hand, experiments with chatbots and digital modules that nudge patients toward a better frame of mind show promising results. On the other, research links excessive smartphone use to a range of psychological and behavioral issues. Yet given the overburdened mental healthcare system, smartphones remain a key channel to reach youth effectively and at scale. “How will we provide the most benefit via technologies and minimize the negative impact of those technologies?” McCarthy asks. He believes design holds the key.

IBM: Designing transparent systems that listen and adapt to feedback

Phil Gilbert, general manager, design at IBM, points to transparency as one of the three guiding principles for IBM’s work in AI. That means that designers must be responsible for giving people information about the systems they are interacting with. It also translates into the need for constant seeking and listening to diverse points of view from users as well as other IBM teams. “Hubris exists in the world, we can’t solve that problem,” Gilbert says. “But we should demand that modern digital platforms not fall prey to hubris, and we can do that by designing in new approaches for feedback and listening.”

Microsoft: Inclusion and diversity as a business goal

The top priority of Tim Allen, design partner at Microsoft, is to evolve Microsoft’s existing design skills, methods, and tools to meet the needs of “people interacting with technology in immensely diverse ways.” Inclusivity is not only a philanthropic imperative, but a business one. “[W]e know that customers and employees prefer companies that design in ways that are inclusive, cohesive, and sustainable for all human beings,” he says. Inclusive design for Allen doesn’t mean creating one thing for all people; rather it is creating many different ways for many different kinds of people to participate in an experience. In an ideal world, the result is technology that fits each person and creates a sense of belonging regardless of physical ability, cognitive ability, and social context.

This approach extends to Microsoft’s AI initiatives. Allen cites Microsoft Seeing AI app as an example of Microsoft’s ambition to positively impact society. Designed for people with low vision, the app reads text, signs, counts cash, and even narrates the world around the user. “Ethics, inclusion, and AI go hand in hand,” Allen says.

VISA, ReachNow, and Nordstrom: Mastering the digital and physical confluence

Combining digital, virtual, and physical worlds into a single customer experience–and creating the services to support that–is a major priority for the design chiefs at Visa, Nordstrom, and ReachNow (a car-sharing service and BMW spin-off).

According to Kevin Lee, vice president of design, Visa is preparing to shift aggressively toward cash-free services like mobile and digital payments. Design has become deeply integrated within Visa products as well as other internal organizations such as client relations, customer service, technology support, marketing, and branding–even HR will have a critical role in helping envision and enable this shift.

Nordstrom, which has a stellar reputation for customer service, uses design to help enhance every aspect of the customer experience. “What started as a small team focused on design execution, has grown to be a strategic component of solving customer problems and best serving them,” says Jyoti Shukla, vice president of UX. Her team is responsible for data-driven innovations like digital style boards that allow salespeople to create personalized style recommendations and share them with clients.

Just over 18 months old, and with operations in Seattle, Portland, and Brooklyn, ReachNow is vying for a slice of the car-sharing market. Its parent company, BMW Group, has a long history of prioritizing design in the development of new cars. However, having a daily relationship with a customer is new territory for the 100-year-old automaker. That’s the role of design at ReachNow, according to chief customer officer, Simon Brösamle. With plans to add ride sharing and long-term rentals services to its car-sharing app, ReachNow is focused on creating an experience that is not fragmented by different apps. “The design challenge is not to force the member to know what service to use when they open the app, but rather to present options based on route, price, or ETA . . . and make using any of our 1,300 BMWs and Minis easier than using your own car.”

Looking farther ahead

As relative newcomers to the C-suite, designers, with their fresh voice and perspective, have an opportunity to shape the direction not only of products and experiences but of leadership thinking overall. The ambition of the design leaders above reflects increased confidence in design’s ability to do that. The ambition is strong and the sense of responsibility seems sincere. But if the design industry wants to solve larger social issues, it needs a more concrete and coordinated offensive than what a single leader or company can mount. If I dare paraphrase Steve Jobs, the patron saint of designers, design is not just what it looks like and feels like. It is not even how it works. Design today is how it leads.

This article was originally published in FastCo Design.