Bringing balance & structure to design

Here’s the transcript from a talk I gave this week at the Conference. The presentation is below and each separator is for a slide change.

Let me ask you a question. We are all designers here, but when you think of the word ‘design’ what comes to your mind?

1st – Exciting: Despite the condition of the Bangalore roads, every morning, I’m really excited to go to work.

2nd – Limitless: Our work is constrained only by the limits we put on ourselves.

3rd – Powerful: The results we achieve are so powerful that people sit up and take notice

I must admit, we are a group of privileged folk sitting here. To be wielders of so much power. 

But as Uncle Ben Parker famously put it – “With great power, comes great responsibility’ 

There is however a corollary: “With great power comes the fear of losing it.”

And no one should live with that fear. We should rather understand and embrace everything that design helps us with.

But as designers and design leaders, do we understand this power? The capabilities? And… Are we ready to harness the power of design? This is something we will talk about today.

I’m Navneet Nair.  I lead the design team at PhonePe. I have been designing software for over two decades now. And for most of my career, quite frankly, I did not realise the power of design. And most certainly I did not understand how to harness this power. 

I was always interested in the ‘How’ of doing design and not the ‘Why’. You see, ‘Design Philosophy’ was never top of mind.

However in the last four years something changed. I started a Design Studio – which failed. And consulted with a number of startups. Helping them implement and establish design.

I was able to look at things from an outside perspective and study what worked and what did not. I was able to look at patterns and establish new ones. I was also able to implement them and see how it worked.

Today, we will talk about some of these learnings. Let’s start by looking at why design can be so attractive to business

Good design, as we all know, can improve profits. We have ample proof. 

In fact McKinsey found a strong correlation between design led to actual profits the companies made. 

This focus on profit is what I call ‘Business Centred Design’.

Business centred design is focussed on business need and uses metrics and data to make sure things are on track. 

This provides clarity in design decisions as long as it is meeting the performance goals

However a narrow focus on profits can lead to bad and expensive design mistakes. 

Like the Ford Pinto which was susceptible to fires. Or the more recent Boeing 737-Max planes.

The Pinto was a small car manufactured by Ford in the 1970s. Lee Iacocca had put cost goals on the car so that it can compete with Japanese models. This led a number of design compromises which included putting the fuel tank in the rear of the car next to the numbers and a very thin tank walls. As a result, despite initial low pricing and attractive design, the Pinto is today known as the worst car ever designed.

The Boeing case meanwhile is a story that is still unfolding. It is a clear case where the mental model of the pilots was changed without letting them know only so that Boeing could build a more fuel efficient plane.

From a UX point of view Business Driven design can lead to misuse of power. And some of the more evil designers can use it for creating dark design patterns.

Now, this is the point when we designers took things into our own hands. You can’t let suits decide it all. After all there is a human side of things. And that’s when we started talking about ‘User Centred Design’

Designers like Don Norman and David Kelly pioneered this approach which focusses on users and their needs. Methods like Design Thinking and Design Sprints have today created a mature and iterative workflow. Great right?

It is, for most parts. However the trouble arises when there is a conflict between the user needs and the business goals. For most parts these are pretty tricky conflicts and difficult to resolve.

This leads to a broken process

Which is why I propose a third dimension to the picture. ‘The Value’ and hence this approach is called “Value Centred Design”

The core of this process is to ask the question ‘Why

Why’ are we building what we are building. What is the purpose? What is the reason for being

This introspection allows to arrive at the very core of why we are building our product.

Our core value.

And this core value will bring balance to the design process. And of course you become a design Jedi in the process.

So what are the various components of this Value Driven Delivery of design.

A value driven delivery starts with the defining the value statement. This is a specific format that articulates your core product value. Once we define this statement, we can use it to drive all our decisions. They will help us resolve conflicts between user and business needs. And make sure our product is consistent with every other piece of communication we have with the rest of the world.

However having a vision is not enough. We need to set goals that will help us achieve the vision. There are a number of ways we can achieve goals. However the one that I’m most familiar with and the one that I have seen work most often is the OKR system.

OKR – stands for Objective and Key Results. It is a format to frame goals that help us align efforts by putting forward common goals and measurable results. It gives clarity and direction and quantifies performance. Further if we adhere to the process, we will have a highly engaged team that believes in the vision we all are working towards.

Finally, we need to add enablers that help us achieve these goals. There are what I call ‘Design Habits’. In fact, design habits are the physical manifestations of your goals and visions. They are a vote for the kind of person or team that you are and defines your identity. And some habits are more important than others.They are known as keystone habits and it is basically a habit that puts the rest of your life into place.

All these three parts need to work together for the design process to be effective.

We can still follow a standard double diamond process or any one for that matter. If we have this framework in place, we will be able to bring excellence into our results.

This is not a new system and lot of people have followed the same system to create great products. The only difference is that it has not been articulated in the same manner.

To look at an example, let us take the example of a brand we all love.


When Steve Jobs came back to Apple after the NExT acquisition, he started a new advertising campaign that talked about the values that Apple stood for.

This advertising campaign was the now famous “Think Different”- campaign

Let’s listen to Steve talk about why the company was thinking around these different lines. This is an excerpt from a speech he gave to a bunch of internal leaders in Apple a few weeks after he had returned.

So we just heard Steve Jobs articulate Apple’s value in six minutes with the help of a minute long, slickly produced TV ad. Unfortunately, we do not have that same luxury or the same skills in public communication that Steve had. 

So what can we do.

We can use something called a “Product Value Statement” 

and this is what a typical product value statement looks like.

If we were to create a product value statement for Apple, it would look something like –


Now imagine you working on any Apple iPhone – Let’s say the keyboard – with this value statement in mind. Isn’t your mind clear? 

Don’t you almost instinctively know what the feature should look like.

Never before done & Revolutionary to say the least

Excellent, so we are done right. Why do we need anything else? What additional benefit does something like OKRs bring.

OKRs give direction to the clarity of the value statement

It will help the team align the efforts and do the most important things first

The OKR process is not just about setting goals but also about achieving them. In order to do that it enforces a radical level of transparency and continuous feedback

All this put together improves team engagement.

Formatting OKRs are simple. You just need to state your objective. Followed by 3-5 key result. 

Let’s see how this would have looked for someone working on the iPhone keyboard.

Let’s say Ken Kocienda who designed and developed the keyboard for the iPhone were to write down his OKRs, it would look something like this.

The goal of setting an objective is to write out what you hope to accomplish such that at a later time you can easily tell if you have reached, or have a clear path to reaching, that objective.

Key Results are numerically-based expressions of success or progress towards an Objective. Not everything can be quantified. 

Perception is the most difficult one. Hence sometimes a key result can use a relative quantification as well.

It is recommended to always shoot for stretch objectives. If you are consistently hitting your goals you are undershooting your capabilities. If we strive to achieve a 0.7 score of our stated Objectives, we are doing well.

Now that you have set your objectives, comes the final part. Building habits that are aligned to your goals. Habits, like I mentioned earlier are the physical manifestations of your goals and vision. The most important habit that you can form is called a ‘Keystone Habit’

This is something that can change the direction of your team

And they do not have to be anything as drastic as getting up at 5 am and going for a 5 mile run. Or meditating for an hour day. (Though I’m sure both are good habits that will go a long way)

One habit I have been cultivating is that of “Not sending an email”

What kind of a habit is that? Some people may object. Hey how can we document things without it being on mail? You may have questions. 

But this is a powerful cue. By not sending an email you are committing to meeting with the team member in person. This improves engagement and helps create a bond within the team. It also soothe flareups.

Apple for instance has 7 factors that are an important part of how the design team works

And in order for all of these things to work, there are certain design habits that needs to cultivated. 

Here are some example of habits that will help cultivate a culture of inspiration and collaboration.

These habits can be used to inspire teams

These habits can be used to improve collaboration

There are a lot more habit that will help you out. But remember for the to work effectively they have to be paired  with goals and guided by a vision.

But then we can keep that for another sessions, I’m sure you do have a lot of questions

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