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What CEOs Need to Know About Design

Audrey Crane Audrey Crane 5 min read

Holy smokes, my book is out. To be honest, I lie up nights worrying that people will read it.

Not all people, but some people. My peers and colleagues, other Designers especially. Because in this book, and I hope you’re sitting down for this, I do stuff like: explain what a mockup is. I say that design is more than colors and fonts. I argue that people who do design should be trained and experienced Designers, just as people who write code should be trained and experienced Engineers. I point out that the money invested in huge engineering teams can be massively diluted by design that obfuscates and warps the value of the tools they build.

And this isn’t news to everybody I work with. Or anybody I work with, really.

This is what keeps me awake: people reading it and thinking “What the hell is wrong with Audrey? At DesignMap, they do hard-core UX Strategy. They were part of the team that got ExactTarget acquired by Salesforce. They were the first design team to work with Docker. They write articles about complexity, understand containers and how to measure the ROI of UXD and they can model optimization vs innovation with their eyes closed. Audrey worked with Marty Cagan and Hugh Dubberly. She had 1-one-1 meetings with Elon Musk (ok, back in theZip2 days, but still). She was in the room when Ben Horowitz introduced ‘Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager’ at Netscape. She’s been in tech for 20-a-hem years. And this is what she has to say? I expected more of someone from DesignMap.” (Ugh. A troll once said of one of my articles, “I expected more of someone who came out of Dubberly Design Office.” That still makes me want to throw up every time I think about it.)

But it’s true. This is what I have to say. Of course I have a lot more to say, on many topics. Anyone who knows me knows that! But this is what I have to say most urgently, I guess.

Because Designers (like most professions I suspect) do a lot of preaching to the choir. We go to fantastic conferences organized by Designers, for Designers. There are hundreds of great blogs and podcasts, literally thousands of Medium posts, webinars, and books coming out every day. And, if I do say so myself, we’re doin’ good. Design of digital products has been a profession for 30 years. We have a seat at the table. And we’re doing, and talking about, really grownup stuff like having meaningful but difficult conversations, contributing to revenue, orchestrating multi-modal interactions, and our own maturity as a profession. (Although, heaven help us, we’re still arguing about job titles. Argh.) But as we gain momentum, it becomes harder and harder for people to get on board. Which one of those articles would you recommend as a starting point to the CEO who’s heard that design is showing up in McKinsey and Forrester Reports but doesn’t have a single Designer on staff, and doesn’t know where to start? Should you point them to The Design of Everyday Things? Or teach them to use Sketch? Or add them to the Design Leadership Slack channel?


As we speed up, get smarter, and talk about deeper and more profound and more complex ideas, we leave fewer and fewer on-ramps. How does one get up to speed on the basics of what Design for digital products is and what it’s for? Especially as someone within leadership at a business, who does not really know what a mockup is or what IxD stands for. And if I can extend the metaphor, it is a terribly risky express lane for Designers to build, because as design systems become more pervasive and more sophisticated, it becomes easier and easier for business leaders who think design is just “colors and fonts” to assume that with Material (or whatever), “Design is solved.” And boom, game over. If they don’t have an on-ramp to help explain why design is really relevant to their business, how will they get beyond “colors and fonts”?


I am here to tell you, yes there is. Here are six stories from the last three months:

  • I chatted with an Engineering Manager who told me his team got Designers assigned to “about 40%” of their projects.
  • A colleague is a coach for a not-primarily-technology company. They developed some tools they historically used only internally to provide services to clients. Over time, they started to make their internal tools available to clients to use themselves, both because those relationships were well-developed, and because they were struggling to scale their services business. They do not now, and never have, had a single Designer on staff. All of the design work, every single pixel, has been done by Business Analysts, Client Services Specialists, a single Product Manager, and Engineers, mainly in the form of written documentation. Now the CEO thinks maybe they should get some Designers, but doesn’t know where to start.
  • A friend runs an engineering team. His company hired a marketing firm to design web and mobile applications for them (in spite of his urging them to hire a real digital product design firm). The marketing firm designed the web product, and then said, “Your engineering team can just extrapolate from that to make the mobile application.”
  • I interviewed a Designer who had left a major biotech company. She described a project in which she looked into a very small digital tool that was receiving considerable complaints from users. She identified clear OKRs, used her considerable people skills to get the Engineers to believe it was truly a problem they could solve together, made revisions and conducted tests, and got the Engineers excited to make and release the changes. Overall she surpassed her goals by 4x, and communicated her success to her execs in an impressive presentation. They gave her the equivalent of a pat on the head — and she was leaving because she was exhausted by fighting for the value of design over and over again, even though she had so much success to show.
  • Another friend is a design consultant, helping his clients build teams. To this day, the biggest and most common mistakes he sees organizations make is thinking that design is just colors and fonts, or on the other end of the spectrum, thinking that design is just “Design Thinking”. The dots don’t connect.
  • A friend is a Business Analyst for a B2B tech company that’s been around for more than 20 years. Their complex product requires 4 months to configure, customize, and train staff on. While they are a “modern” technology company that is agile, with Product Managers, Scrum Masters, sprints and regular releases, they’ve never had a Researcher or Designer on staff. My friend is frustrated by the long meetings trying to design-by-committee any pull-down menu or tab that anyone has a question about. But the executive staff sees absolutely no value in watching people use their product to see if or how people struggle, or investing in making it easy to learn or use. They are certain that no startup will ever make headway in their market, and certainly not because of design.

Maybe you’re still not sure this is needed. Maybe you think we’ve all grown up. Certainly it seems like there is some solid proof of that in InVision’s Design Maturity Model (a useful TL;DR here). This fantastic report lays out 5 levels of maturity, which describe both what the Designers do for their companies, and the impact they have, from most mature to least

  • Level 5: Visionaries
  • Level 4: Scientists
  • Level 3: Architects
  • Level 2: Connectors
  • Level 1: Producers

Level 1 assumes that there is a design team that heard about this survey and responded to it. I’d like to mash this model up with Jared Spool’s Maturity Model, which adds:

  • Level 0: The Dark Ages

…which he describes as, “The team is entirely focused on meeting the business and technology challenges, without considering the user’s experience at all.” While I suspect that most of these companies would argue that they do consider the user’s experience, nevertheless companies without Designers exist. And there is still tons, maybe even most(?) software in the world being turned out by companies in the Dark Ages. They didn’t hear about the survey InVision sent out to conduct their research, and they certainly didn’t respond to it.

My book is here to help move people off zero, without insulting them, frustrating them, or bemoaning their past. I’m still excited to listen to what Level 5s have to say, maybe say a few things myself in those higher integers. (Maybe that’s the name of InVision’s next conference? “Level 5: The Conference.” You’re welcome!). But I see so much opportunity to make software better for everyone, just by making sure there is a way in to the design freeway for any business leader who wants it.

So I wrote this book, which honestly I have been revising so long I cannot distinguish it from 50 pages of lorem ipsum. It leaves out volumes, massively simplifies, and assumes nothing of the reader. But it’s an on-ramp, a way in, or at the very least, an invitation.

Got this far and still want to read it (or give it to your Aunt-who-is-a-Business-Analyst or Cousin-who-founded-a-startup)? You can buy it here.