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Design as a Discipline

Design should be much more than a project phase


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Design is already part of the IT vocabulary. Functional design. Technical design. Detail design. User interface (UI) design. And, more recently, user experience (UX) design. Throughout its history, however, design has generally remained a discrete set of deliverables or project phases, completed by specialized teams at distinct points during a project’s lifecycle. Individual facets of design have reflected little understanding of other related project activities, much less the broader context of the business vision and expected outcomes.

What’s missing may be a commitment to design as a business discipline, a commitment that takes shape by asking: What benefits would we gain if design were a pervasive and persistent aspect of each part of the enterprise? This kind of thinking moves design from just another software development lifecycle (SDLC) phase to an integral part of the IT environment.

IT can create a new niche for itself by cornering the market on design. On the front-end, on the back-end, creative, user experience, applications, services, data and infrastructure. Design weaponized as a repeatable, deliberate approach. Design as a Discipline.

My Take
Hear Emily Pilloton, Founder and Executive Director of Project H Design, describe first-hand her perspective on Design as a Discipline.


Watch video

Nelson Kunkel, director, Deloitte Consulting LLP, explains how CIOs who treat design as a discipline can transform the user experience, as illustrated through an example of how airline passengers’ airport experiences could be transformed in the future.


Read more about Design as a Discipline

Where do you start?

Design as a Discipline efforts often encounter two broad objections. They are seen as either too daunting given existing talent pools, or too nebulous and fluffy. Modest beginnings can lead to profound changes.

  • User first. Begin by taking a persona-based, user-focused approach – understanding who the stakeholders are, how they live and work and the context of the problem you’re trying to solve. Empathy is critical – from field research on how users are behaving today, to divergent thinking to capture “out there” ideas about how they might behave tomorrow. Design as a Discipline prioritizes user stories, conceptual designs and prototypes to solicit feedback on potential design options using “show,” not “tell,” techniques – often discovering features and capabilities that would be missed in conventional requirements JAD sessions.
  • Solution design. It’s not enough to focus on gorgeous visuals and intuitive front-ends. Solution engineers should participate in each phase of the project – from up-front visioning to solution ideation to finalizing conceptual design. This helps keep the “art of the feasible” present as concepts are being explored. Technical complexity might be required because of truly differentiated features or complex end-user needs, but it should be a conscious choice. Don’t get caught in a situation where technical lightweights drive scoping and front-end design without understanding how to make concepts real.
  • Product mindset. Similar to their industrial design brethren, IT shops should adopt product marketing and engineering mentalities – committed to frequent incremental releases, with freedom to react in a timely manner to opportunities. Product owners from the business become critical members of the extended IT community – owning the product vision and roadmap. Goodbye bloated once-a-year budgeting and static portfolio prioritization exercises. “Just good enough” releases may become standard, releasing partially complete solutions to garner real-world usage feedback and drive the next iteration of features and fixes.
  • Avoid tissue rejection. Choose an early business sponsor with simpatico sensitivities. The big picture goal of Design as a Discipline involves extending across the enterprise at large. But manufacturing or finance might not be the right places to start. Some CIOs have initially focused on marketing departments – groups who appreciate design and UX skill-sets, have grown wary of traditional IT approaches and solutions, but are charged with making massive IT investments as digital changes their worlds. Sales is another good place to start, where you’ll likely find vocal user advocates working in well-defined processes with potential improvement from a user-based, design-oriented approach.

Bottom line

Having in-house design knowledge is a strategy to stay relevant to business executives who are enticed by new ways of procuring technologies outside of the CIO’s purview – from one-off cloud purchases to departmental and line-of-business technology initiatives. Consumerization and democratization can be threats to the IT department, or they can be the impetus for Design as a Discipline – moving information technology from its existing cross-roads forward, with intent, to a preferred state.

For corporate IT, Design as a Discipline is the “so what” and the “or else” of today’s consumerization wave. It is a chance to change how solutions are delivered – borrowing from industrial designers and architects – by combining highly complementary skill sets to foster divergent ideation, innovation and streamlined product build-out. It is also a chance to change perceptions of what to expect from IT, setting a baseline of engaging, elegant solutions that combine intuitive interfaces with reliable, secure, scalable, performing technology stacks. And as importantly, it is a way to bring new approaches to the realization of business needs – showing responsiveness to the new normal of usability in consumer technologies.


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