Why Designers Should Care About the Business Model


Why Designers Should Care About the Business Model

by Firecat
August 28, 2019

Found a goldmine of a Twitter thread via Christina Wodtke with advice on how UX practitioners can add more value, be more aligned with the organizations they serve, and overall more effective. Christina distilled Lessons from a segment on the podcast What’s Wrong With UX / Users Know by Kate Rutter and Laura Klein focused on Why You Should Care About the Business Model.

Check the Twitter thread for yourself, watch the podcast. But this info is so important, I’m summarizing some of the Lessons here and riffing.

You should care about the business model for your company [or client].

First of all, damn straight! We pride ourselves on user empathy. Clients, colleagues and partners are our users on projects. It is rude to not work to understand what our leaders or clients care most about. It’s also stupid, immature, self-indulgent, narrow-minded, disempowering and ultimately ineffective.

For most of my career, the project team model in my head had a business sponsor or lead who represented the business goals and needs, me as a design strategist representing user goals and needs, and a developer partner viability (except when arguing over UI code, which was a blood sport).

Then came Design Thinking, where we are working to democratize UX and help business and tech partners understand and care about it. I believe that’s a good thing, and it has helped

Don’t make unprofitable features knowingly, in advance. And in order to understand what makes a feature unprofitable — work to understand the business model.

Don’t focus [on] the free experience unless you know how to monetize it.

Filling the top of the funnel is great, but unless you have a solid plan for moving people into the paying aspects of an organization’s office, resist the urge to get people there and “figure the rest out later.”

Skeuomorphism probably isn’t why your company is going under. Flat design won’t save you.

Your design skills will do the most good if they’re focused on solving problems critical to the company’s success.

Priorities change because business environments change. Learn to ride that.

I don’t worry so much about this with the type of user experience architect that I am — a left-brained, right-brained, cross-hemispheric thinker who seeks context and can make connections across seemingly disparate domains. Most information architects I know are like that. We’re the “UX Designers” who aren’t visual designers — we’re logical context-setters and sequencers. We draw and sketch, but at a more abstract level.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed working in several business domains. During my stint at USAA, there was lots of product variety, but an overall theme dictated by our placement in the financial services industry. Focusing on Firecat full time again, my day is often a mix of startups, mid-sized organizations in healthcare or government, and enterprise gigs. I love the variety, and my clients benefit from the crosspollination too.

Knowing the business model lets you focus people who are idea generators.

This part cracked me up; I am an idea generator, and I’ve been slow to understand why clients don’t reliably get as excited about them. Working to understand the right problems to solve by listening more than talking is the key for me on this.

Understand the numbers. As a designer, you don’t usually get to set the numbers that matter.

In the past few years, I’ve been involved in forming enterprise strategy. And I’ve become aware that

You should know if your company is shady. GET OUT OF THE HOUSE.

People don’t always have immediate ability to switch employers or sources of revenue; I get that. But there’s a lot of demand for UX talent, and our on-ramp to self-employment is relatively easy too. We are responsible for the results of our clients’ and employers’ business dynamics, so let’s make sure we align with missions, practices and people we can support in good conscience.

If you don’t know how the money flows, you won’t get to make decisions.

When you understand the business model in addition to user value, people will listen to you, invite you to the important meetings. And you won’t be able to understand the motivations of your primary partners and customers, whether internal or external.

Talk to product managers.

“If they don’t understand the business model, y’all are f*cked.” It’s somewhat shocking how frequently this is the case, especially in large, hierarchical organizations where responsibility and accountability aren’t aligned. Leaders frequently don’t want the numbers to be direct and visible, especially when they don’t have decision authority to match. But as the smart designer, you need to ask enough questions of enough people to align your design recommendations with the numbers that matter to whoever does have the authority to make product decisions.

Stay aware of the larger business environment.

“If everybody in your sales pipeline is selling buggy whips, and your competitors are selling cars, you might want to look at that.” Context is so important. We conduct competitor research continually to gather ideas, strategize positioning, and avoid being surprised and disrupted. With more innovative offerings or product spaces, it can be like watching your rearview mirrors; with some clients, we pick an aspirational model competitor and work to become more like them, using shortcuts, making good tradeoff decisions, and focusing attention on the client’s “special mojo” that is hard for others to replicate or emulate — their key differentiators.


I’m seeing the UX community embrace this business model interest and learning as a next step in our maturity model — the same maturity model that got UXers a “seat at the table” means that we’re having THAT conversation. Let’s make the most of it!

Ways I’ve been continuing my education on this:

  • Served in an enterprise strategy role at USAA for almost 3 years — what an eye-opener that was!
  • Enrolled and hard at work doing Ryan Rumsey’s Design Meets Business online course.
  • Pushing a bit harder on Firecat clients to think about and articulate their business model, specific goals for any one project. Our startup clients are usually elbows-deep in their business modeling and eager to share; many others are as disconnected from thinking about revenue and expenses as I used to be.

What are yours? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this.

Let us help you get clear on your business model!

Getting clarity on the Firecat Studio business model is so, so much harder than helping a client get clear. It’s just a matter of perspective — I’m too close to my own business model. Got lots of skin the in game. But my team and I are simply great at helping clients explore, co-create and document a business model, business vision. I have examples to show you if you’re interested. It’s such a powerful way to spend a few hours — totally worth it! Reach out to if you’d like a demo.

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