Takeaways from the MITX DesignTech Summit

At the MITX DesignTech Summit, product and design leaders from across industries got together to discuss the business of design through panels, discussions and a few interesting keynotes. The summit was notable for its diversity, not only in speakers but in the focus of the content. Here were some of my key takeaways. I also captured some sketchnotes during the conference.

If we want a seat at the table, designers need to shift away from artifacts and towards co-creation.

Janaki Kumar focused on the evolution of human-centered design as a profession. As design continues to be brought into the process at earlier stages of work, we need to focus on being comfortable with ambiguity, and learning to speak the language of business and technology. Kumar reminds us that "We're evaluated not on the beauty of our artifact, but on the impact of the implemented solution." In this new world, we have an opportunity to co-create the design vision alongside our stakeholders, rather than simply creating beautiful artifacts which may or may not be built as designed.

In Maurício Manhães' discussion on Service Design, he echoes Kumar's points, suggesting that we remove the word users from our vocabulary, preferring humans instead: "Nobody can 'use' a human. You're not using anyone, you're co-creating the experience."

Measuring design's impact isn't just about impacting business KPIs; it's about informing business priorities with data.

athenahealth's Aaron Powers and Audible's Coryndon Luxmoore shared their thoughts on measuring design ROI at different ends of the spectrum. While both talked about the need to balance qualitative information with quantitative business metrics, they acknowledged the challenge of over-rotating towards measuring All the Things. Says Powers, "If humans don't make decisions based on the measurement, the measurement was a waste of time." He also shared athenahealth's "UX-Revenue chain model," which he writes about in an excellent Medium article.

athenahealth's UX-Revenue chain model.

Luxmoore spoke about connecting the dots between qualitative stories and quant data, and mentions that the Jobs to be Done framework can help teams find places to investigate further. Panel facilitator Kate Brigham of EzCater says, "accelerating the pace of learning what NOT to do is also valuable."

To create lasting value and inclusive products, plan for the edges.

Jutta Treviranus from the Inclusive Design Research Centre gave a compelling talk about designing for Inclusion. She openly discusses how the common product design philosophy of optimizing for the largest possible use cases ends up creating brittle products that hinder both inclusion and innovation:

"By designing for the majority, we’re actually not innovating and we’re actually reducing diversity. By co-designing with those on the edges, your design will be better suited to respond to changes in your target customer base and will get much more coverage much more quickly."

Treviranus shared some of my favorite quotes of the day, including this provocative definition of disability:

"Disability is a mismatch between the needs of an individual and the product, service or experience being offered... including poverty."

She also shared some resources for inclusive design, including [Microsoft's Inclusive Design Toolkit]("Disability is a mismatch between the needs of an individual and the product, service or experience being offered... including poverty."), which shares methods and tools for co-creation.

Scaling design and research across an organization requires democratizing your approach.

An extensive panel of research and design leaders spoke to the process of growing design and research capabilities within organizations. Susan Rice of Toast reinforced the need to understand your audience: "You can take a user-centered design approach to everything, including how you communicate with people." Kate Lawrence of Akamai talked about bringing senior leaders along for the journey, helping stakeholders move away from focusing on specific methods ("we need a usability test!") to shaping a research plan alongside them.

All the leaders talked about the need to democratize research across their product teams, and help the organization capture an end-to-end view of the customer experience. Jen Cardello of Fidelity talked about starting to roll out unmoderated usability testing to scrum teams, as a way of dealing with significant demand:

"We can't be on 500 scrum teams."

Harlan Weber of MBTA focused on using an experiment-driven approach to research, to help product teams avoid costly landmines, balanced with the ability to help their products move outside of their product silos.