Clear business goals mean a precise and efficient execution. The S.M.A.R.T. Framework (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-Based) can be a key to your design success.
Many UX designers think their primary goal is to create a delightful user experience or a sleek design. But that shouldn’t be the main focus. Designers need to think beyond mere pixels. They should adopt a business perspective, think strategically, consider the primary objectives, and design towards both users and business goals.
While reading a client’s brief, we often find that the business goals and the requirements are not clearly formulated. Either we get Clients from Hell, suffer a lack of communication, or are faced with unrealistic and unclear expectations. We hear vague requests, like, “We want a new website to attract more visitors,” or, “We need a very catchy app.” As a result, we have a hard time identifying the primary design objectives. It is a professional designer’s duty to assess and plan for all project needs as well as the expected results.
A great UX designer is a forward thinker who doesn’t just settle for executing the design, but strives for optimal results. A great design project should always start by analyzing the client’s brief to find pain points that could potentially lead the whole project in the wrong direction. And finally, both parties should agree on the key deliverables throughout the engagement.
Why Thinking and Planning Should Always Come Before Design
As we’ll learn in this article, the S.M.A.R.T. framework avoids waste and maximizes efficiency. Good designers are always outcome-oriented; they clarify requirements and goals, manage expectations, and lay out a clear plan before starting to design. It’s the best way to optimize their efforts and be sure that the project stays on track.
Asking vital questions early on and doing preliminary research are key steps along the way. For example, do we need to design a website or a mobile app?
It’s important to think proactively and separate nice-to-have from must-have. A client may think he or she needs a mobile app packed with complicated features, but a diligent business objectives analysis could demonstrate that a simple responsive website would be enough.
How to Think S.M.A.R.T. During a Design Process
In his book Principles, Ray Dalio—one of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs—defines principles as “ways of successfully dealing with reality to get what you want out of life.” He stresses the idea of a systematic and measurable approach to nearly everything a company, team, or individual tackles in life and work. Gut feelings alone can get in the way of good, clear, and healthy communication—that’s why systems and frameworks are so valuable.
For a successful design project, we suggest the S.M.A.R.T. framework. It was developed by business consultant George Doran in 1981. He thought that focusing attention on specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely objectives provides the discipline that will help people and teams improve their chances of success.
The S.M.A.R.T. acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-Based.
Let’s explore each aspect of this framework, and how it applies to design projects.
S - Specific
Each goal should be clearly defined. Be specific, and don’t leave any room for misleading interpretation.
“We want more visitors” could mean too many things:
The client would be satisfied with 2,000 visitors/month.
The client is expecting more than 30,000 visitors.
The client would be happy with an increase of 20%.
We shouldn’t have to play a guessing game based on vague requests. A nonspecific goal can take us into a rabbit hole and cause a lot of frustration. To avoid that, we must ask as many questions as necessary until we get clarity on what exactly is required.
Conversely, “We need a 20% increase in our monthly website visitors” is specific and doesn’t leave any space for interpretation.
M - Measurable
“Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.”
– W. Edwards Deming
Design is not art. Key insights should inform the input, and the output should be measurable.
“We want our users to feel happier” is a beautiful and noble objective, but happiness is a subjective value that is difficult to measure.
“We want our users to increase their donations by 30%” is measurable, because the client can check the donation amounts on a website.
A - Actionable
Once we have a clear and measurable goal, we need the means to execute it properly.
“We want our audience to read our blog articles completely” is not very actionable—at least from a UX design perspective. We could track the pageviews and time spent on any given page, but we cannot force the users to read every word. In this case, it would be better to suggest content and SEO optimization before discussing a design solution.
“We want to increase the user’s engagement on articles from the blog” is more actionable. We can design solutions to meet that objective: buttons for upvoting the article or the author, forms for leaving feedback, a new commenting section, etc.
R - Realistic
A realistic goal should be within reach—not aiming for the moon.
“We want every single visitor on our site to sign up” is a very ambitious goal. Same goes for, “We want you to design a website for our startup to convert 100,000 visitors per day.” Do they have a solid marketing strategy? Did they hire a growth hacker to help them reach such a high expectation?
Designers must be mindful of the numbers and metrics that clients expect. For instance, while, “We expect a conversion rate of 10% for this new eCommerce site” could seem attainable, when considering that the average conversion rate for eCommerce is 2.95%, it’s actually quite ambitious.
T - Time-based
Timing is everything. Bind every goal to a specific time unit.
“We want to increase site traffic by 10%” is not time-bound. We need to know how much time we have to achieve that goal. Numbers and projections matter—evaluating them up front is essential to managing expectations.
“We want to acquire 1,000 users on a monthly basis for the next six months” is very specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely. Also, knowing how long we have to do the work leading to the desired result is essential. It allows us to be mindful of resources and priorities in order to stay efficient as the project unfolds.
Using S.M.A.R.T. with Clients
Designers must analyze every brief with their clients and lead them to an in-depth conversation on how to translate expectations into attainable goals. This is an ongoing process towards building a strong communication framework and confidence on both sides.
IDEO’s Design Thinking approach explains how “thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy.” That’s why clear communication and empathy are key to applying the S.M.A.R.T. framework alongside the client and all stakeholders.
Using S.M.A.R.T. with Your Design Team
The S.M.A.R.T. framework is for designers what a blueprint is for architects; the latter do not start building a house without a clear assessment of the field and design considerations. In order to achieve key business objectives, design teams should rally behind common goals and means—beyond their next Dribbble shot—where design is solving the tangible problem for both the client and the end user.
In practice, S.M.A.R.T goals can be framed as user stories or be even more specific with job stories like Alan Klement explains. “As a user, I want to be happy” is not so S.M.A.R.T. On the contrary, “As a user, I want to search the content of a book and filter my results through categories and tags” is very specific and actionable, and is a great example of a S.M.A.R.T. objective.
The Google Design Sprint is a great demonstration of how valuable it is to use a “battle-test process” when designing in a team “for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers.”
If the project includes digital product focus and development, we suggest taking a look at this introduction to Agile project management from Paul Barnes.