How scrappy startups are beating Fortune 500 giants, every day.
There’s a shift under way in large organizations, one that puts design much closer to the center of the enterprise. But the shift isn’t about aesthetics. It’s about applying the principles of design to the way people work. Its how startups are beating large multinationals every day…
This new approach is in large part a response to the increasing complexity of modern technology and modern business. That complexity takes many forms. Sometimes software is at the center of a product and needs to be integrated with hardware (itself a complex task) and made intuitive and simple from the user’s point of view (another difficult challenge). Sometimes the problem being tackled is itself multi-faceted: Think about how much tougher it is to reinvent a health care delivery system than to design a shoe. And sometimes the business environment is so volatile that a company must experiment with multiple paths in order to survive.
I could list a dozen other types of complexity that businesses grapple with every day. But here’s what they all have in common: People need help making sense of them. Specifically, people need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.
A set of principles collectively known as design thinking — empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them — is the best tool we have for creating those kinds of interactions and developing a responsive, flexible organizational culture.
What Is a Design-Centric Culture?
If you were around during the late-1990s dot-com craze, you may think of designers as 20-somethings shooting Nerf darts across an office that looks more like a bar. Because design has historically been equated with aesthetics and craft, designers have been celebrated as artistic savants. But a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life. Let’s consider those principles.
Focus on users’ experiences, especially their emotional ones.
To build empathy with users, a design-centric organization empowers employees to observe behavior and draw conclusions about what people want and need. Those conclusions are tremendously hard to express in quantitative language. Instead, organizations that “get” design use emotional language (words that concern desires, aspirations, engagement, and experience) to describe products and users. Team members discuss the emotional resonance of a value proposition as much as they discuss utility and product requirements.
A traditional value proposition is a promise of utility: If you buy a Lexus, the automaker promises that you will receive safe and comfortable transportation in a well-designed high-performance vehicle. An emotional value proposition is a promise of feeling: If you buy a Lexus, the automaker promises that you will feel pampered, luxurious, and affluent. In design-centric organizations, emotionally charged language isn’t denigrated as thin, silly, or biased. Strategic conversations in those companies frequently address how a business decision or a market trajectory will positively influence users’ experiences and often acknowledge only implicitly that well-designed offerings contribute to financial success.
The focus on great experiences isn’t limited to product designers, marketers, and strategists — it infuses every customer-facing function. Take finance. Typically, its only contact with users is through invoices and payment systems, which are designed for internal business optimization or predetermined “customer requirements.” But those systems are touch points that shape a customer’s impression of the company. In a culture focused on customer experience, financial touch points are designed around users’ needs rather than internal operational efficiencies.
Create models to examine complex problems.
Design thinking, first used to make physical objects, is increasingly being applied to complex, intangible issues, such as how a customer experiences a service. Regardless of the context, design thinkers tend to use physical models, also known as design artifacts, to explore, define, and communicate. Those models — primarily diagrams and sketches — supplement and in some cases replace the spreadsheets, specifications, and other documents that have come to define the traditional organizational environment. They add a fluid dimension to the exploration of complexity, allowing for nonlinear thought when tackling nonlinear problems.
For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation has used a design artifact called a customer journey map to understand veterans’ emotional highs and lows in their interactions with the VA. “This form of artifact helped us better tell a story to various stakeholders,” says Melissa Chapman, a designer who worked at the Center for Innovation. Even more important, she adds, it “helped us develop a strategic way to think about changing the entire organization and to communicate that emergent strategy.” The customer journey map and other design models are tools for understanding. They present alternative ways of looking at a problem.
Use prototypes to explore potential solutions.
In design-centric organizations, you’ll typically see prototypes of new ideas, new products, and new services scattered throughout offices and meeting rooms. Whereas diagrams such as customer journey maps explore the problem space, prototypes explore the solution space. They may be digital, physical, or diagrammatic, but in all cases they are a way to communicate ideas. The habit of publicly displaying rough prototypes hints at an open-minded culture, one that values exploration and experimentation over rule following. The MIT Media Lab formalizes this in its motto, “Demo or die,” which recognizes that only the act of prototyping can transform an idea into something truly valuable — on their own, ideas are a dime a dozen. Design-centric companies aren’t shy about tinkering with ideas in a public forum and tend to iterate quickly on prototypes — an activity that the innovation expert Michael Schrage refers to as “serious play.” In his book of that title, he writes that innovation is “more social than personal.” He adds, “Prototyping is probably the single most pragmatic behavior the innovative firm can practice.”
A design culture is nurturing. It doesn’t encourage failure, but the iterative nature of the design process recognizes that it’s rare to get things right the first time. Apple is celebrated for its successes, but a little digging uncovers the Newton tablet, the Pippin gaming system, and the Copland operating system — products that didn’t fare so well. (Pippin and Copland were discontinued after only two years.) The company leverages failure as learning, viewing it as part of the cost of innovation.