Saving Money with Design Thinking for App Development Teams — Visual Studio Magazine

Questions and answers

Q&A: Saving Money with Design Thinking for App Development Teams

Traditionally, there has been a divide between developers and designers in the app development space. Coders just want to code, it was thought, while ignoring amorphous design considerations. Some have attributed this to a left-brain/right-brain story.

Although this thinking has evolved a lot with modern development techniques, vestiges still remain.

But there’s a really good reason to completely close the gap: money.

Specifically, “Because you can create and save a plot money by putting Design Thinking and innovation at the heart of your application development — perhaps more money than your entire software development budget!”

This eye-opening claim – which is sure to please everyone from senior management to front-line grumblers – comes from the ‘agent provocateur’ Billy Holliswidely known for his contrary views.

A designer and software developer himself, Hollis will be explaining his profit-driven advice in detail with real numbers in an upcoming presentation at Visual Studio Live! conference scheduled for June 13-17 in Austin, Texas.

In his June 14 presentation titled Design Thinking for App Dev Teams: Why and How, attendees will learn how to estimate the amount of money poor design is costing them, using a spreadsheet with proven formulas.

In addition to focusing – with his team at Next Version Systems – on user experience (UX) design, advanced user interface (UI) development, rule-based architectures and more, Hollis also teaches design courses for UX and technical courses on XAML for the Universal Windows Platform and XAML for WPF.

We caught up with Nashville-based Hollis to find out more in a short Q&A:

Visual Studio Magazine: Your presentation on Design Thinking for App Development Teams will explain how organizations can save big bucks by putting design thinking and innovation at the heart of app development initiatives. Could you briefly explain a key example of this?
Holis: In one case, a Fortune 1000 company began saving, and continues to save, an eight-figure amount per year, primarily through labor savings from its 9,000 user staff.

“In one case, a Fortune 1000 company started saving, and is still saving, an eight-figure amount a year.”

Billy Hollis, software designer, developer, consultant, speaker and agent provocateur

Key design innovations in this case included radically better ways for users to find the information they needed and better navigation options to quickly get to the right place in this massive app to perform daily tasks. Plus, we’ve designed better ways to manage complex workflows. They moved from generic data grid approaches to a managed workflow with plugins for each stage of the workflow. It made them faster, helped them make better decisions every step of the way, and made those workflows much easier to learn for new users.


The amount of money saved could possibly total more money than an entire software development budget. How are such savings possible?

Take the example I just mentioned. Accelerating users adds up quickly.

The total savings per year for this app is easily 10 times the amount spent designing and developing the new version of the app, including what they paid their own employees. In another case, a 200-user app halved the unit labor cost of processing 20,000 prescriptions and refills per day. In yet a third case, a manufacturer commissioned a production management application that eliminated several production errors per year, each at a typical cost of $1-2 million.

You mention a spreadsheet with real-world formulas used to estimate the amount of money poor design costs organizations. Will it be provided to participants?
Yes, I’m happy to give them this spreadsheet, which was created specifically to estimate the ROI of enterprise application design. This is one of my most popular downloads. In addition to making the ROI calculations, it presents and explains the formulas used.

I have an Excel version and a Google Sheets version. I will also be offering attendees the option to follow a half-hour online session to help them complete it and discuss the nuances of design ROI.

Naturally, not all applications can achieve the amount of recovery described in the previous examples. But it’s still surprisingly easy for design returns to exceed the amount spent. Additionally, the organization gets the more intangible benefits of having a modern, well-designed, and respected application, which helps with things like user retention.

Participants will also learn the requirements and steps to help create a custom design strategy that brings together all roles in software development with the goal of reaping the benefits of good design. What are these roles, generally?
Developers play a major role in designing the most complex applications, in a large team, centered on their deep expertise in the domain concerned. Product owners and other team members who manage features clearly have a role, as well as visual designers and anyone else design-aware.

I was also surprised that development managers, or even senior executives such as CEOs, could be such a valuable part of a design team. This requires a commitment on their part to spend the necessary time.

Seeing the potential return on investment has helped many of them decide to invest that time in design and participate in design thinking.

One of the roles that many teams won’t have in-house is someone who helps them build and learn a custom design process. This person understands a variety of options for doing design thinking and should have a good facilitation background to prevent the team from getting bogged down. Perhaps this underdog’s greatest contribution is helping a team break free from the past. They need to get out of their ruts thinking about their app work, and a design specialist usually comes up with a pool of ideas to help them do that.

Besides contributing to lost productivity, unnecessary mistakes, poor decisions, and wasted time in training, have organizations suffered other negative effects from poor design?
A client of mine saw a competitor poaching customers simply because the competitor’s app was better designed, especially in terms of aesthetics and layout. The competitor was even showing screenshots of their app to erode confidence in the customer’s overall ability to perform!

Many developers have traditionally ignored or at least neglected design considerations, focusing only on solving practical problems and creating a sort of divide between designers and coders. Why do you think this happened, and do you see this gap narrowing today in modern software development techniques?
Our ecosystem, with its complex APIs and endless rapid change of technologies, has filtered the developer population down to people who are primarily code- and detail-oriented. They see their job as writing code, not providing useful and efficient applications. A few of these developers just don’t match up with the design efforts, because they just can’t get their heads out of the detail swamp they live in. Design requires seeing the big picture, and that’s a new skill for many developers.

However, my experience is that a majority of developers can learn techniques to be a useful and effective part of a design team. Some even end up really liking it. No wonder, because innovation can be fun. Once they see the value and fun of design, these developers no longer feel that divide with designers. As teams gain high-level design expertise, I’ve seen them get to the point where there’s no division between developers and designers at all.

About the Author


David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.



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