Welcome to our Design Talks series dedicated to sharing the insights of thought leaders and top people engaged in design from around the world. We interview experts who work with design in different contexts, with different objectives, and through different approaches. In these series, we hope to provide intellectual and creative inspiration to all of our readers.
This week’s guest is Nick Disabato, a designer and writer from the city of Chicago. He runs Draft, a proudly independent interaction design consultancy. He wrote design best-sellers Cadence & Slang and Value-Based Design, and has over 12 years of experience in design.
Designers struggle to correctly price their work. It often boils down to competing on hourly rates, flaunting design degrees and years of experience, and elbowing to the front with the fanciest portfolio. But savvy designers know: It’s not the years of experience, it’s the experience in your years that counts. Here’s where Nick comes in with the concept of “value-based design.”
Hello Nick, it’s a pleasure to have you on the Toptal Design Blog. What does it mean to be a value-based designer?
Value-based design is an expansion of the design process that focuses on specific business needs. It’s adding measurement and experimentation in addition to the research that most designers typically do.
The consequence of using those three parts in your practice is that designers end up paying a little bit more attention to business needs—valuing their design work in terms of what it means for the business. This includes focusing on customer’s goals, meaningfully improving key business metrics and objectives—tying the purpose of design to what the business is doing.
How is it different from the other “value-based design” terminology which is about personal values?
Value can mean your morals, it can mean inclinations, it can mean what you really care about in the world. But when you’re thinking about “value-based design” you’re thinking about business value, economic value, and what an organization values when they buy design services and hire designers.
On Communicating the Value of Design for Business…
Designers have not always embraced design metrics or actively shown how their designs drive business goals. What can they do to communicate the value of their work more effectively from a business perspective?
All design is speculative until it’s been put in front of paying customers. If you want to communicate the value of the work—to actually measure its value, you have to be put in front of measurement tools. In most businesses, that’s their analytics suite or other business intelligence dashboards.
One of the things I recommend in the book is to get more in front of data even though a lot of designers tend to be allergic to it. They’re quite happy to let product people, data scientists, their managers, and their business owners deal with it.
Data is not that hard to understand. The best thing that designers can do to communicate the value of their design work is to get in front of data and analytics tools in their organization.
A lot of designers don’t bother thinking about the holistic effects of their design. Designers should ask for access to the analytics package and business intelligence. Have meetings with data people who have access, understand what purpose data has, and when you make a change what ramifications it will have on the organization.
For example: will a redesign increase or decrease adoption? Will it improve revenue, but at the expense of longtime customer value? Does it have knock-on effects that could potentially harm the business?
I view it all as a part of the research process. You’re always trying to get to the bottom of the story… getting to the why, not the what. You can look at the what on analytics, but figuring out the why is especially interesting, and if designers don’t take responsibility for this, other people will.
On Communicating the Value of Design as a Freelancer…
How do freelance designers who work on short-term projects prove their value? They don’t typically have access to business analytics, such as conversion rates, KPI’s, and Net Promoter Scores. They get the gig, do the work, and the numbers for their work show up much later.
Designers should ask for access to the business’s analytics, and then plan a couple of check-in sessions every three months.
Doing this pre-launch will help you handle any major situations that may have arisen. You could even end up selling additional work in order to clarify edge cases or issues with the developers for example. After launch, you will be focusing on measurements and understanding impact.
Designers can put a clause into contracts and ask for it as part of their project. It demonstrates to the business that you care about the success of the project, and want to make sure it’s a home run. You can also offer to take a look at results after the design and potentially offer course corrections in case there are issues.
It works for you because you’re able to measure your impact and build your reputation. It works for the business because it’s relatively minimal work to check-in for a couple of hours every three months. It also allows you to take responsibility for the work, and really shepherd it across the finish line. Again, it’s about proving your worth.
On Designers Competing on Hourly Rates…
Keeping the focus on freelance designers and looking at a designer who has a ton of skill and experience—I call them “champion athlete” designers. They’ve worked hard for decades to “get the gold”—get to that level of speed and skill. How can they factor this in while competing with others who charge on an hourly basis?
What designers need to consider is: Why would a potential client hire off Upwork or Fiverr? What differentiates me? I’m a proven safe bet, I get results, and I have a decent track record.
If I’m redesigning an eCommerce store, I have two things that differentiate me over a “dime a dozen” designer who just puts comps together. The first is positioning; I’m specifically focused on conversion rate optimization and value-based design practices for eCommerce and have a long track record of working with eCommerce. Would you prefer the expert who’s not gonna make mistakes and will make sure everything works really well or a person who just does design as a vague cloud of whatever it is they do? My specialization helps tremendously, and specialization can be done by anyone.
The second thing that makes me different is understanding the client’s needs. This is a more subtle point, but in my initial kick-off calls with the business, I ask them why they came in to talk to me today. Why are we here? What is the real need? I’m asking enough probing questions to get to the real heart of what motivated them to reach out for design work. Why are you talking to me in particular? Was it because you were referred? Was it because I’m really good at my job?
I think my proposals work well because I address the client’s needs in a way that shows I clearly understand what I’m doing. They’re structured like this: I lay out a problem—pretty much as if I’m parroting back what the client is telling me. I present the problem and talk about what the potential solution is at a very high level: “I provide this sort of design, and it provides these sorts of outcomes.” Clients are never buying design, they’re buying outcomes. Then I outline a potential impact for them in concrete terms.
For example: “If your conversion rate goes up by ten percent, you make this much money. Results are not guaranteed, but it’s a typical outcome if we all work according to specifics and it turns out as planned.”
Then I may provide a choice of three budget and timeline options. For example: here’s the smaller project, here’s the middle project, and here’s the larger project where I’m gonna have to hire people temporarily. Then we go through all of these options and I present it in a proposal.
Designers on Fiverr aren’t thinking like this—they’re playing a different game. It demonstrates a significant amount of professionalism and poise and is another way of conveying that you’re a safe bet. Clients consider this, take a deep breath and cut the check for five figures rather than going on Fiverr. You wanna de-risk the engagement as much as possible because no one in the tech industry knows what they’re doing.
On Overcoming Obstacles with Value-Based Design…
Is it hard to ask clients to adopt value-based design billing versus looking at a designer’s hourly rate? How do designers overcome pushback from clients?
I typically don’t introduce the term “value-based” with my clients. I say hourly billing doesn’t really work for me because it places the focus on the wrong thing. You’re not buying hours from me, you’re buying a project, and that project creates a certain set of outcomes.
I’ve never had a business owner really push back on this unless they’re so shortsighted by their own process that it’s probably not going to be a good fit anyway.
On Switching to the “Value-Based Design” Model…
Should all freelancers switch to a value-based pricing model?
I think value-based pricing is something you should embrace as you move toward becoming an intermediate and senior designer. It’s harder to justify when you’re fresh out of school and don’t have the experience, or an understanding of business needs.
There’s also potential in design schools to teach about how business works—where designers can also get an MBA. There are already specialty design MBA schools in the US. But I don’t think it makes sense for people to go value-based when they’re 22 years old and fresh out of design school.
This is something that more senior people know how to handle because they’re dealing with specific, different kinds of conversations than simply a design brief. It’s what the business needs are—it’s a different kind of conversation, and it takes years to figure out.
On How Designers Should Speak the Language of Business…
That’s a perfect point to segue into my last question. What is the one thing about business that designers should know in order to better speak the language of business?
I think what it’s really about is understanding how businesses work from a very basic standpoint—getting to the pain that the business is feeling. Understand why they came in the door to talk to you. Is it that they’re getting trounced by a competitor? Is there some sort of classical disruption going on, like a Warby Parker versus Luxottica type situation?
What is the real motivation for hiring a designer? Are they losing customers? Are their customers angry? Understand the pain.
There has to be a motivating factor – and it’s usually a business pain. They’re losing money, or they’re not making money fast enough, or their growth trajectory shifted, or their needs have changed so they’re releasing a new product. What is “the thing?” You need to understand that before you can figure out how to create a design that addresses it head-on.
Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
Good design sets a business apart from the crowd and benefits the bottom line. It can broaden a brand, keep it significant as well as develop and maintain the consumer’s trust. It clearly communicates a brand’s values and considers the needs of the end user and its impact on the wider community.
Good design differentiates a product from the competition. It contributes to a better experience, higher customer satisfaction, and increased profit.
Design is the creation/development of an object/site/app while also considering its impact, function, purpose, the economics behind it as well as the aesthetic. Its ultimate purpose is to communicate clearly and efficiently. It’s also about respect for the object as well as the user.
A value driven approach in relation to design means thinking about business value, economic value, and what an organization values when they buy design services and hire designers.
Great designers are storytellers. They are great communicators, know how to share their ideas effectively and make them real. They find solutions. They listen, observe, understand context, and how a design will be integrated into the world. They have empathy, are meticulous, perceptive, and open to change.