Design-led vs experience-led and why it matters

Over the last few years, as more organizations started accelerating their investment in design teams, many design leaders have been advocating to move from engineering or product management-led to “design-led” organizations. I probably hear this once a week in an interview, a conversation with a design leader, or a coffee chat with a designer. Everyone wants to know if we’re a “design-led” organization and if not, when are we going to be?

Here is the thing, most of the time, companies shouldn’t be design-led unless you redefine what design truly means.

I know this is a bit controversial so before reading into this, continue reading below.

Most of the time, the people making this statement aren’t really differentiating between design the team and design the discipline or method of solving problems while keeping users at the center of that process. Many of them would also disagree with the “everyone is a designer” sentiment (let’s not get into that discussion, please).

Moving from engineering-driven to design-driven assumes that somehow, designers are either better at leadership, business, or both. This hasn’t been proven to be true in my experience. They’re not worse, I just don’t have proof that they’re better than their partners in engineering and product management.

Companies shouldn’t be discipline-led. They should be outcome and customer-oriented. The core outcome of the whole design and development process in tech is experience with a business model on top of it. I know this is a bit oversimplified, but you get the message.

Design itself isn’t the outcome of the work done by the design, engineering, and product management teams working together to deliver a great customer experience.

Companies that care about their customers should be experience-led.

Well, what’s the difference? Isn’t that just splitting hairs? How is design-led different from experience-led? I am glad you asked!

Design-led is focused on the team and discipline that’s leading or facilitating the effort while experience-led is focused on the outcome desired for customers.

Imagine a company where product managers facilitate and lead a human centered design process and that they’re amazing at it. In that company, product managers do a better job of facilitating the end to end process of coming up with a great experience for customers. They have a design team that’s not yet mature enough to take a lead or facilitate any work. The results, however, are great for customers. The experience they ship to customers is excellent and the business model is customer-oriented and focused on ensuring the company has the business to profit and continue to operate while making sure the customer is top of mind. Is this is a good outcome? Is that company experience-led? Do they have to be design-led to succeed?

I’d agree with you, my virtual friend, that a 3-way collaboration between design, engineering, and product management as equal partners is the best way we know today to come up with that outcome, but the focus should continue to be on the outcome.

The other aspect to this is perception. What other teams hear when you talk about design-led is a self-serving message asking your team to lead. This is the wrong message to send if your true goal is to move the whole organization, not just your team, to focus on customers and the end experience as the ultimate outcome.

Many design leaders confuse design-led as being the outcome itself. Having a strong design organization is good and necessary, but it’s not enough.

The north star of design leadership should be transforming companies and organizations to be customer-focused and experience-led. Design leaders should think of themselves as business leaders focused on the outcome for their customers and the business.

Experience-led is something everyone in your organization can strive for. I’d hope design as a discipline and design teams lead us there, but the outcome should always be the focus.

If you’re interested, continue the discussion with me on Twitter!