Defining Metrics, Creating Value

In my post “Why Design Conversations,” I quoted Ben Sheppard, McKinsey, and Company’s Product Development and Design lead: “What the CDO [Chief Design Officer] is accountable for is less clear” (Sheppard).

Let’s dissect this a bit further.

While other leadership positions have direct responsibility, measurements, and links to the “bottom line,” design leaders often operate on the outskirts of such tangible rewards. When others are not clear on what it is you do exactly, it’s hard to determine the correct parameters with which to measure performance. This is true of design on the whole, it will remain true within the realm of designing conversations.

Throughout this journey, I’ve detailed many considerations for which conversation designers can have positive influence: from embracing tension and discomfort, challenging mitigated speech patterns and developing visuals that help data stick, to setting a pace that allows time to develop important moments of connection, acting as curators for engaging narratives while creating an atmosphere that allows for deeper degrees of listening, and finally, to act as a facilitator—regardless of formal designation—encouraging open mindedness with a playful mindset.

Conversation designers need to be responsible for their results and understanding how their work impacts their organization. Businesses often want to look at the bottom line. While you can start there (and we will), simply focusing on this one aspect may often lead to inconclusive information. If design happens “in the trenches” – so does its worth. This means going beyond “bottom line” calculations is essential; businesses and designers must be able to demonstrate the value in designing conversations to show — as Jeanne Liedtka says — the ways it shapes those doing the shaping.

“I want to talk about maximizing the ROI of design thinking, which you might think would take us immediately to talking about financial measures …. But it doesn’t — because what our research tells us is that maximizing the value of design thinking is really about understanding its social technology, and in particular, understanding how it shapes those of us who use it in the process of helping us shape designs for the people we’re using it for” (Liedtka).

Design, on the bottom line

“We’re not the first to ask: how can you confidently prove the business value of good design? Sure, there are workarounds that uncover pieces of the puzzle, like A/B tests that show increases in conversion rates or user research that validate design choices. But, the bigger picture—financial results—always seem to be missing” (Esposito).

When you focus solely on design’s impacts on the bottom line, that’s where design stays: on the bottom. As a former accountant, I know firsthand how a company’s senior leadership often speaks in terms of “balance sheets” and “gross revenue.” This can alienate those educated or experienced in shaping products and services for human beings. This need to understand the business side has resulted in many of the MBA/MA programs you may have seen pop up over the last few years.

I may be a designer now, but I haven’t lost touch with my accountant roots. If your audience is a group of “bean counters,” (said with love, of course!) a presentation of design’s benefits needs to focus on a direct return on investment, in the dollar sense of it. Perhaps you are trying to gain buy in from a board of directors or asking for budget allowances from a strategy team; in many of these cases, illustrating the warm fuzzies of co-creation teams can be a hard sell.

Luckily for designers today, there is a mountain of research available to make a case for the bottom line benefits of design, whether you’re making a case for design thinking on the whole, or for an investment in designing conversations. The two I’m going to mention are the McKinsey’s “The business value of design” and Forrester’s “The Total Economic Impact of IBM’s Design Thinking Practice,” both from 2018.

The results from both of these reports are way too comprehensive for me to adequately give them justice briefly here, however, both provide different ways to evaluate design thinking’s potential financial impact, or even as a way to justify investment decisions to risk averse stakeholders. Designers can refer to this research and find the right approach for their specific needs and audience, to make a wide variety of cases for investing, measuring, and tracking in design thinking and conversation design.


The McKinsey Report

The McKinsey Report is a wide view perspective, which “tracked the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries,” surveying senior executives, collecting financial data, and performing an advanced regression analysis, which ultimately allowed them to group organizational actions into the “four themes of good design” (Sheppard et. al).


The Forrester / IBM Report

The Forrester / IBM Report is a more drilled down perspective: focusing solely on individual projects within IBM to understand the “benefits, costs, and risks associated with this investment” in design thinking. To perform this feat, Forrester “interviewed four of IBM’s Design Thinking clients and surveyed an additional 60 executives who have employed design thinking at their organizations” and found that partnering with IBM’s Design Thinking practice addressed challenges to “enhance culture, speed, efficiency, customer experience, and profitability” (Forrester Total Economic Impact Study).

The results from both of these reports are way too comprehensive for me to adequately give them justice briefly here, however, both provide different ways to evaluate design thinking’s potential financial impact, or even as a way to justify investment decisions to risk averse stakeholders. Designers can refer to this research and find the right approach for their specific needs and audience, to make a wide variety of cases for investing, measuring, and tracking in design thinking and conversation design.


SERQUAL: An early attempt to capture experience

“Intensifying competition and rapid deregulation have led many service and retail businesses to seek profitable ways to differentiate themselves. One strategy… is the delivery of high service quality. Delivering superior service quality appears to be a prerequisite for success, if not survival, of such businesses in the 1980s and beyond” (Parasuraman & Zeithaml 12-13).

The difficulty in measuring experience and perceptions, such as service quality, is not a new topic. The quote above, from “SERVQUAL: A Multiple-Item Scale for Measuring Consumer Perceptions of Service Quality,” published in 1988, illustrates how these topics were already being researched some 30 years ago.

SERVQUAL was a 22-item instrument used to assess perceptions of service quality  and illustrates the desire to form meaningful ways to capture abstract feelings. Whereas goods quality could be “measured objectively by such indicators as durability and number of defects” there was no way, at the time, to objectively assess “consumers’ perceptions of quality” (Parasuraman & Zeithaml 13). 

SERVQUAL was one way organizations were attempting to identify potential gaps, which in turn would allow them to design better services and differentiate them in the marketplace..

Reading through the guidelines for SERVQUAL’s application, one can easily see why it isn’t a popular method of discovery today. It is a complicated tool at best, and criticism as early as the 1990s questioned the validity of its results (Polyakova and Mohammed 65-66).

Pulling Design’s Value Out of the Weeds

When you talk about value, you’re not always talking directly about making money (profit) or spending money (cost), but often business leaders want to understand how $1 invested would return $2. While this may work great for products and services (for example, it costs $5 to make a toy and you sell it for $30) it is more difficult to measure what I call the “leaky window” effect.

To extend this metaphor, the leaky window is often out of sight or someone else’s problem but it causes significant waste. Oftentimes dealing with a product or service issue is a more ‘comfortable’ problem: perhaps it requires a new part manufacturer, or a better tracking software. In essence, it doesn’t require your organization to take a ‘cold hard look in the mirror’ and have difficult conversations around hard truths.

In my post “Designing for … understanding/common ground,” I discussed an example of this, where the development of personas allowed one company to realize the extent to which a totally unrelated, but much more significant, problem was bubbling beneath the surface while they were busy addressing the need for new software. Design, when used effectively, can be a gateway to discovery of these hidden, out of sight (or out of mind) glitches that can disable an otherwise healthy, functioning organization. Harnessing the power of effective conversation can help a company navigate its way through the various difficult, tense, illuminating rapids of self-discovery, and ultimately, find a way to fix a solvable problem, or develop an acceptable solution to it.

But Leaky Windows come in a variety of forms. Below, I want to discuss a few categories where conversation can support the effective use of design tools, methods, and processes to address the murky value design brings to the table.


Design for TIME

Circling back to the beginning, in one of my original posts “Why design conversations?” you can see the topic of conversational bloat was a significant factor in why I felt the concept of designing conversation merits further research and ultimately… a more active community of advocates. The cost to US business alone is staggering, the impact on morale is devastating. When organizations don’t connect time with value, everyone loses. The phrase “Time is money” needs to be phased out; we’re ready for “Time is everything.” Time needs to be considered a resource—no different than software, or people, or information might be.

In Moments of Impact, authors Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Soloman discuss how Toyota Financial Services (TFS) dealt with frustration surrounding how much wasted time was spent in unproductive meetings. “One of the improvements they came up with was a simple, one-page form for requesting time with senior leaders” (39) Ertel and Soloman write. Meeting-seekers were required to select just one reason for the request: FYI, Input (i.e., requests for guidance and feedback), and Decision, which “forced presenters to be clearer in their requests and helped firm leaders to know what was expected of them in each interaction. Meetings with TFS executives got a lot more focused and productive” (Ertel and Soloman 40).

This “answer” isn’t one size fits all; not every company would benefit from such a form. What we can take from this example is that there are ways to reconfigure and reimagine effective solutions to deal with conversational bloat, even with very small changes like this example illustrates.

Additionally, our world continues to focus on hyper efficiency and cost cutting, and many workers are left with “too many responsibilities and too little time to reflect” (Ertel and Soloman 51). As I discussed in “Designing for… trust” the research demonstrates the value and efficiency of teams given time to reflect.

Disorganized, purposeless, and a lack of respect for time has wrapped itself like tentacles throughout organizations, not only impacting the bottom line, but also squeezing life out of morale and effectiveness. It has become the Leaky Window of our generation. Design leadership should be responsible for the management of an organization’s time and not from a ‘billable hours’ focus. Conversation designers can support this “in the trenches” by ensuring everyone’s time feels valuable, by using design’s processes, tools and methods to strategize and design solutions for each organization’s unique environments.



“Since 2010, costs associated with voluntary employee turnover have nearly doubled from $331 billion to $617 billion… With these kinds of costs, it is puzzling that CEOs, CFOs, COOs and CHROs are not escalating employee retention to a top priority” (Work Institute 9).

We’ve all worked for companies where one department in particular has high turnover. High turnover can often be a sign of a Leaky Window. The Work Institute’s 2019 Retention Report writes that for “each employee you lose, it will cost you up to 33% of their annual salary to replace them” (Sumitani). So while it is difficult to capture the exact dollar impact of the turnover, companies often move forward with hiring, training and investing in a new employee, unaware (or avoiding) of the high price they are paying for the issue. Maybe there are no customer complaints, maybe it has very little impact on sales, and so senior leadership fails to adequately comprehend how much money is being siphoned out right under their nose, and the domino effect it can have on organizational identity, interpersonal relationships, job performance and job satisfaction go largely unnoticed.

It is time to converse around what is causing the high turnover, and it isn’t always easy. The Work Institute identified four preventable reasons cited as reasons for the departure: Job Characteristics, Work Environment, Career Development, Work-life Balance (The Work Institute). Many of these can become that “cold hard look in the mirror” companies are trying to avoid. Perhaps your company doesn’t fit into any of these categories… but it would be worthwhile for every company experiencing retention issues to discover the root of the problem. Design—in conversation, visuals, strategy, team development, and products and services—can all be tapped into to support these efforts.

Improving retention rates is another possible way we can measure design’s positive impact on business.


DESIGN FOR Diversity

Okay, we get it—today there is no shortage of media telling us how important diversity is. But often we get caught up in achieving just one category of diversity and forget that, in business, there are many types of diversity to consider when building “the right” team.

In Moments of Impact, authors Ertel and Soloman list 3 categories of diversity that are important to consider: Organizational, Social and Pscyhological.

A number of years ago, I completed my practicum by working for AARP in Washington DC over the summer. During that time, I participated in many strategy sessions and witnessed first hand how hard the organization worked to achieve diversity at all three of the levels within these meetings. Just this past month, they were awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award by the U.S. Department of Commerce, illustrating the extent to which the company continues to commit to this (and other) important values.

We often get caught up in “social diversity” and, while this is an equally essential area to consider, if AARP had only considered social diversity in those strategy planning sessions, there would have been much left on the table. They also considered organizational diversity; regional perspectives were included as well as various department leadership, as well as psychological. There were a multitude of motivations, learning styles, and intelligences present (as one example, there was always someone with over ten years working for AARP, who brought a vast institutional knowledge and stopped us newbies from repeating costly mistakes without knowing). Designers can help consider these various categories of diversity when designing the right team.

Another example of where designers can really support diversity can be during team building based on personality. In my post “Conversational Offenders,” it can be helpful to identifying personality types that restrict the flow of novel ideas, limit psychological safety and prohibit turn taking (which has proven to be essential in creating successful teams per this New York Times Magazine article titled “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”). Going beyond this, some companies have found success using various types of personality testing to aid them in team building (as well as recruiting, retention, etc.) Some are based on traditional Myers Briggs research, such as this one offered by — while others are opting for quicker, visual based tests like this one from This assessment tool from DiSC is designed more for personal assessment, helping individuals raise self-awareness to encourage better working relationships.

Whatever the approach, designers can add significant value to ensuring teams have a wide variety of diverse personality types so no one type dominates the conversation. After teams have been built, conversation designers can provide support by training on effective co-creation tactics, mediate through difficult ‘show-shopping’ misunderstandings, encourage openness and trust, facilitate effective design thinking initiatives, and ensure time is made, where necessary, for playfulness or reflection.

Organizational Diversity

-Professional role and area of expertise

-Level of seniority

-Organizational unit affiliation

-Geographic affiliation (regional and local)

-Stakeholder type


Social diversity


-Age and generation

-Race and ethnicity

-Culture and language

Psychological diversity

-Personality Types

-Learning styles and “intelligence”

-Religious, political, and other value systems

-Personal motivations and “currencies”

There are many more ways to reimagine how designers can bring value to our organizations, so I could go on indefinitely. Here is the take-away: We are used to seeing designers in spaces where a product or service is being developed—from the beginning, discovery phases, through implementation and testing. Perhaps, we need to broaden our definition of what constitutes a product or a service?

What if an organization’s time was seen as a product? Or effective team building a service? How might we approach the development of either, applying the same traditional lens we might view a new app or a brochure, asking similar questions: Is it effective? How are people responding to it? How can we make it better? What if?

If measuring design doesn’t fit in a neat little box using metrics from other disciplines (like Marketing, or Finance) then we need to find other solutions to illustrate the value design provides. Sometimes, if the data is manipulated enough, you can draw direct lines to the bottom line. This might be essential to some situations and audiences – and the research is now available to help with this task. However, there are other ways to track successes (and failures!) of design’s impact on an organization. Conversation designers need to be aware of how their work can be measured, and be responsible for ensuring that their projects go successfully.