29 novembre 2018

The ROI of (service) design?

Dear readers, please be reassured, this is not about revealing the identity of the ‘roi’ [‘king’, in French] of design. As everyone knows, the king of design is... Who is it anyway? No, here we’re talking about R.O.I., that is, Return on Investment, a term we also use in good French!

par Matthieu Savary

(Title illustration by Denis Pellerin)

On several occasions in recent months, you have asked us about the "return on investment" of (service) design. Or even about the "added value" of our designers' work. To explain this, we must not rule out a degree of mistrust towards design and designers, since the discipline is in the limelight these days. And frankly, the blurring of boundaries of a relatively young discipline is inevitably viewed with suspicion in the land of Descartes.

R.O.I. ?

For starters, let's take a look at what Wikipedia tells us: return on investment is very rational. Indeed, it is so rational that it is a ratio. It is measured in percentages and represents "the amount of money gained or lost relative to the amount originally invested in an investment".

Despite this precise definition, it is not easy for us to decide what attitude to adopt when talking about design: should we give a number when talking about the ROI of design? Is it 800% or 1000%? Should we mention how when the iPhone with iOS was released it instantly dethroned Nokia's Symbian smartphones in terms of appeal and usability? Should we explain that nobody would like to sit for two hours on a solid concrete cinema chair?

This way of trying […] to level everything by number […] is particularly disconcerting when the purpose of the activity in question is the opposite

However, we fully understand the question: it is often a question of justifying budgets to management, who are concerned about controlling expenditure. But please understand our despair: no one asks architects for a return on investment in their services, because no one wants to live in a badly designed house, work in a building that has no access, or go to a station that has no platforms. No one questions the added value of the work a baker puts in to making a baguette - because if there's one thing we don't joke about in France, it's the quality of our baguettes. Not to mention this way of trying to equalise everything, of levelling everything by number, which is particularly disconcerting when the purpose of the activity in question is quite the opposite: to humanise the relationships between users and machines, between users and services, between users and service providers. And if we’re talking numbers, we turn numbers into intelligible and desirable forms and data into information.

This is actually a very romantic and, to put it bluntly, naive idea of ourselves.

We even come close to being offended when it comes to talking about our added value with consultants or developers, some of whom are less than scrupulous, and who blithely step on our toes on the grounds that our usual tools seem easy and fun to acquire and they think they have mastered our trade once they know how to open Illustrator. Indeed, we designers tell ourselves that the many years of studying design and humanities that we have behind us and the visual and conceptual references that we strive to put forward through our communication channels should be enough to "do the job" in order to stand out and inspire respect. This is actually a very romantic and, to put it bluntly, naive idea of ourselves. Just as ENA graduates [ENA: National School of Administration] take the liberty of designing entire neighbourhoods without the help of urban planners and architects, or novices claim to be sushi masters after taking a few courses on the internet, we cannot avoid the untimely intrusion of technocrats or even impostors in our fields of expertise. And so much the better: let's take advantage of this to make the value of our work more tangible.

This article cannot be exhaustive, but here are some answers that we hope will alleviate the doubts (and sometimes mistrust) about the benefits of our work:

  • A few comparisons 
  • Different ways of practising, but a common core
  • Desire, meaning, the driving force of our humanity... and of design
  • Benefits on many scales
  • An English-language benchmark study

A few comparisons

Let's continue our comparisons, with a subject that will bring people together.


For a restaurant owner, there are countless recipes for scallops: in various sauces, steamed, pan-fried, as tartare, sashimi, carpaccio, in salads, raw, marinated... not to mention all the side dishes, wines and other condiments that can be paired with them. Not forgetting the influence of the previous dish. Or even the influence of the dishes in which the scallops are served, or the place where they are eaten. In short, the work of the head chef, when not creating a new recipe altogether, is a particularly fine work of assembly that takes place in time, space and on the palate. The "added value" – dare we be so bold - of the chef in the creation of a meal is completely impossible to measure as it is so extensive.

Design work carried out by designers is of a similar nature and value, although the designer naturally deals with many other experiences than just dining - and for that matter, dining too! Crockery, furniture and even the space are all part of the design portfolio, and it is not uncommon for designers and chefs to collaborate. We can see this, for instance, in the relationship established between Bruno Moretti and Guy Savoy.

Architecture, Urban planning

Without going into detail about these other points of comparison, it's easy to see that parallels can be drawn with architecture or urban planning. In each of these areas, a design approach that questions the project, that questions the depth of the specifications and that takes an interest in the desires, uses and habits of the humans targeted by the project, makes it possible to go further than the necessary, yet insufficient, work on ergonomics, engineering and flow management. Yes, even for the Millau Viaduct: in this architectural feat, the lightness/performance ratio of the building is due as much to the quality of the structural work as to the pursuit of elegance. And what would we marvel at if it wasn’t elegant?

Illustration by Denis Pellerin

Different ways of practising, but a common core

The Design Council (UK), in its effort to spread the word, states in its report Designing a Future Economy:

Designers […] have always drawn on a range of different skills, tools and technologies to deliver new ideas, goods and services. This is what makes design unique, and is how it makes products, services and systems more useful, usable and desirable in advanced economies around the world.

There are indeed many ways to practice design: almost as many as there are designers, studios or agencies. This contributes to the wealth of the profession, and in inverse proportion, complicates the understanding and purchase of design services. How is it possible to navigate the diversity of profiles and services offered by a digital agency specialising in e-commerce and a freelance designer who draws numbered pieces for the furniture industry? This is a legitimate question to ask, whether the return on the investment made in hiring designers is going to be as high as can be expected from a design service, when the variety of the 'return' is immense.

As soon as our team was created, we made an effort to set up a collaborative resource based on the specialist field we had developed in France, in order to address the difficulties of finding a common representation of our profession: DesigndeServices.org. However, we always bear in mind that a common core exists, taught in design schools worthy of the name, which cuts across all design issues and has inspired this definition of service design (that can easily be generalised to all design):

Service design is about making a service experience more human, smarter and more enjoyable when it has little or no meaning for its users. It is an approach that is both intellectual and tangible, as well as deductive and sensitive. Therefore, in order to do service design, a constant balance must be maintained between a capacity for strategic vision and state-of-the-art creative and technical know-how.

Clearly, if you need to design an experience for humans, filled with desire and motivated by well-being and simplifying their daily lives (this applies to almost all of us in fact, doesn't it?!), check that the designers you hire have the credentials, the vision and the creative and technical skills to support you through to the end of your project. If so, your return on investment will be colossal. Because by focusing on the factors that will make the experience a success with users, designers will create the long-term commitment you are dreaming of.

Desire, meaning, the driving force of our humanity... and of design

Despite the storm of post-its and paperboard-crumpling workshops that regularly appear in the images surrounding the profession, the issue of creating a desire is at least as important for all designers, and for service designers in particular, as it is for chefs. We insist on the "at least" because the embodiment of a service is so complex that it can be multifaceted and abstract, and we must step up our efforts to get through to the people we are addressing, to make them smile, to engage them.

Touching, making people smile, engaging - we do not choose these words emphatically, but because they represent the fundamental success factors for a project with potential clients. Words that summon desire, this driving force, this "essence of man" according to Spinoza, this humanity that drives us forward. This is fitting: everyone has long agreed that one of the key aspects of a designer's job is to make "beautiful things", to create desire. Bringing in design is about creating the means to achieve this universal aspiration. What better place to be if you want your project to succeed?

However, we shouldn't forget to add the notion of meaning, which is part of our definition of the field. The search for meaning is at the heart of our concerns in the post-industrial world and at the heart of young people's hopes and dreams. And, we’re saying this because we believe in it at User Studio, it is an integral part of the designer's job. If you don't make sense of the things you create, chances are they won't find an audience. Some will focus on elegance, others on the value of social progress, others still on the emergence of a more intelligent, reusable model... Meeting one or more of these goals will give the product meaning and guarantee its success.

a user-centred approach should be focused on the human desire to bring meaning to their daily lives

So, let's not be fooled by speeches that talk about methods or "design approaches", or "user-centred approaches" without explaining what these terms should really mean: the essence of a user-centred approach should be to address the desires of humans, to give meaning to their daily lives (before we even mention their possible needs, or their potential problems).

Benefits on many scales

Having outlined the 'philosophical' contours of what can be expected from our discipline, let us return to the initial question of calculating ROI. We know that sticking such a rational indicator on an activity as multifaceted as design, as we described earlier, is mission impossible. However, some benefits remain that can be evaluated at different levels, depending on the project

  • very short-term financial benefits, which can be easily calculated, such as lower maintenance costs for a better designed machine tool
  • medium-term benefits which are relatively easy to calculate with increased sales on a given market of a product that is clearly more appealing than it was before
  • long-term benefits in terms of brand image, which are much more difficult to calculate
  • collateral benefits such as organisational changes, which are almost impossible to evaluate financially

Let's investigate some of them.


Design is used by and in large organisations, and the team that uses it benefits from its transformative virtues: by encouraging workshops, participation and by making their creative process visible, during their involvement in a project designers work both for the project and to bring about change in the organisation itself. Indeed, the internal stakeholders in the organisations who don’t normally take the time to speak to each other, to work together, and who sometimes even clash on internal politics, suddenly find themselves sharing a common goal and adhering to a common vision.

Without this being the core of their brief (at User Studio we are very careful in this respect, we never turn ourselves into "organisational change consultants") this collateral effect can be particularly positive. Collateral return on investment, if you like.

Cost reduction

Similarly, there is a direct correlation between design and innumerable cost savings. A classic example of this for us, as service designers, is the design of a better interactive platform that makes information more accessible and as a result limits the number of calls to customer service. In this respect, we often take the case of Energie-Info.fr as an example. This is a public information site on competition in the energy sector that we have worked on and its redesign made it possible to drastically reduce the number of calls to the helpline, simply because we made access to the information reassuring, intelligent and appealing. And incidentally, it has allowed customer service representatives to focus on the more complex cases, improving their perception of the service and their own working conditions.

Less (functions) is more (money in your pocket)!

Or, in the design of mobile applications, the investment of time in reducing the desired and desirable functionalities is easily repaid fivefold when it comes to development: less (functions) is more (money in your pocket)!

These are the returns on investment from design, in hard cash.

Social return on investment

In the design produced, using a thinner plastic that we have structured better to make bottles of water (yes, that’s why the bottles are not smooth but have a series of veins running through them) enables us to save industrial quantities of material.

In the service design of connected rubbish bins for Green Creative, the creation of fullness reports providing information on the need to collect the waste, or not, equates to time saved on unnecessary work, travel expenses and pollution.

Moreover, the design work also enables us to improve the comfort of those who collect the bins, by adapting to them ergonomically, enabling them to focus their efforts on intelligent and worthwhile tasks, and playing a role in their well-being.

The value of this ecological and social impact is priceless in strengthening the sustainability of the organisation model. People who feel good, committed to a device that respects the environment; this is progress. Like all notions that are difficult to quantify, financial backers avoid including these notions in traditional calculations of ROI…however, the social return on investment represents one of the increasing values of companies in the 21st century, in a desirable future of work (FR).

Long-term benefits

We spoke about this earlier: the commitment, membership, emotion triggered by the work of designers has an immense power of attraction for users of a product and service. They create an almost seamless attachment over time (e.g., iPhone).

By fitting into the lives of its recipients in this way, a ''well-designed'' product or service fulfils its function in the best possible way, i.e., in an intelligent and beautiful way. It saves time when it's a car, connects them with their loved ones when it's a phone, lets them spend time together with their loved ones when it's a sofa, and makes them understand their spending better and feel more confident when it's a tool for tracking their bank accounts. And much, much more.

In short, designers, when given the opportunity to work in good conditions, produce work whose value is perceived exponentially by users in comparison to the investment made. And the branding benefits are incalculable.

One of the references for research on the subject is the very important Design Council in the United Kingdom. Above I mentioned the latest benchmark study on the impact of design on the country’s economy: Designing a Future Economy. So British. Some figures from our reading:

  • les professionnels qui possèdent des skills de design contribuent à hauteur de 209 milliards de livres à l’économie
  • les professionnels qui emploient des skills de design dans leur travail sont 47% plus productifs que la moyenne (+10£/heure)
  • 43% des professionnels du design sont impliqués dans des jobs liés à l’innovation, contre 6% pour les autres

In addition, Matthew, our very own French reference for service design, shared the results of a study carried out by McKinsey, which is very detailed in terms of figures, and which has the advantage of verifying the value of design for companies - even if it goes a little off course by defining an indicator (McKinsey Design Index) which commercially serves its authors' very 'consulting-oriented’ vision of design. A document also spotted by the watchdog and leading light on the profession in France, Benoît Drouillat from Designers interactifs. It is also shared here, but in a limited format.