How does profitability affect UX design?

I’m a designer with a decade of experience working in creative agencies. I’ve been to plenty of client meetings and pitches over the years, but one area I’ve never been properly exposed to is the financial side of running a business.

I’ve always let others deal with the difficult money questions, and unless I myself had been specifically asked to give a cost for a piece of work, I would always keep it that way.

This was for two reasons. First, as a ‘creative’ type I always felt that it wasn’t my job to worry about that sort of thing. My opinion was “I am a designer not an accountant. My job is to push boundaries and to live in that ideal world. I’m here to sell in the dream to the client.” Secondly, being employed in an organisation, as opposed to contracting or working freelance meant there was always somebody else to deal with the issues of budget, cashflow and payments. I was not normally privy to those conversations. My time would come after all that initial negotiation had taken place. Ongoing conversations about money usually happen separately to design workshops and creative reviews.

Recently, however, this has started to change.

The more senior my role becomes the more involved I’ve been getting in business conversations. In my case, to be able to champion design and user experience in an agency where this is a relatively new skill set means I need to be able to understand how all the cogs fit and work together, and this means learning about how the business works financially as well as operationally.

To be perfectly honest I was initially averse to this. In my head ‘business’ meetings are full of middle-aged men in suits sitting round a conference room table talking about terms I don’t fully understand; bottom lines, top lines, gross and net profits, margins, overheads, recovery rates, etc. Put me in that room presenting a piece of design and I’d be ok, but there is something intimidating about financial speak, you can come unstuck very quickly if you don’t know the figures inside out.

Last week I attended my first management team meeting. Part of this session included a run down of the agency’s figures. I already had a rough idea of the turnover but this was the first time I’d had a proper look at the financial breakdown. Seeing the numbers laid out in front of me it became easier to understand what the costs of running a business actually are and why certain business decisions had been made.

I’m learning to appreciate the impact costs can have on an organisation in terms of resource, training, etc. and specifically what effects that has on the design team.

For me, knowing how the company stacks up financially is interesting, but more importantly it helps me to understand how we can grow. Developing the design team through training or additional staff has been on my agenda for a little while, and it all comes down to how much the agency can afford to reinvest.

This is where profitability affects UX design. Without a surplus of money the business cannot afford to send its staff to conferences, employ new people, buy equipment or software licences, or open up additional R&D time. And not having access to these things makes our lives harder when trying to deliver high quality work. You could look at it as a vicious circle; you cannot do good work without the proper resources and you cannot pay for the proper resources without doing good work. It forces lateral thinking. It requires difficult decisions to be made.

I realise now I need to replace designing for the ideal world with designing for the real world. I need to set limitations around how my time is spent on projects and understand the value I am bringing in monetary terms. But this goes against my creative, eager-to-please nature.

However I also believe that the best creative thinking comes when working within constraints. I’m used to working to a brief. Part of the challenge of designing a new system lies in understanding technical feasibility and business processes and delivering an end-product that meets the requirements and budget. What I need to do now is to plan how to deliver this whilst achieving a higher level of efficiency, a reduction in waste and maintaining a profitable day rate.

I truly believe this should be seen a part of the brief and not a hindrance to it. I don’t want to reach the point where creativity suffers at the hand of profitability. Producing high quality work will always be at the forefront of what I do, but I should be able to deliver this in a profitable way by working better and smarter. I’m going to be spending the next few weeks and months learning more about how this can be done.