Outcomes, not outputs.

Ben Sauer
4 min readSep 23, 2015


“We need a new thing!”

No. Stop. Great work isn’t about that. Here’s a better question to start with:

“What is the change you want to see in the world?”

That’s actually a tough one to answer if you’ve already got a thing on your mind; maybe you’ve already been hired to create one. If that’s the case, then usually the desired change is:

“The world will have a new thing, and… profit!”

Terrible answer.


The difficulty is that our brains can’t operate without them; they’re necessary to understand the world. When I say ‘I mixed in some praying mantis DNA.’ — we need shared assumptions for you to understand me.

But if you’re talking about solving a problem, instead of understanding, the assumptions aren’t always helpful. Things come with baggage; let’s pretend that it belongs to other passengers. Step away from the baggage!

Let’s use a failed project of mine as an example.

Client: We’re taking an existing app to a new platform, can you design it and make it better?

Me: good idea, let’s do that.

<After product with better design fails in new market>

Client: what happened??

Me: Well, you asked me to redesign an existing app for a new platform, assuming that there was a market there.

Creating the thing (an app) was the easy answer, one that didn’t need much thinking. I fell into the same trap as everyone else involved; our jobs were dependent on making apps.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair

I came away from that project wishing that I could do research and strategy independently of making a thing; remove the baggage that comes with that particular kind of thing. Alternate paths would have been open; doing something else, even stopping.

This isn’t a one off mistake. Baggage comes on every journey.

Dropping assumptions as much as we can allows us to think like a beginner. In the ‘diverge’ part of the double diamond design process, dropping assumptions (e.g. “this kind of thing!”) will enlarge your palette of solutions.


In The Real World of Technology, Ursula M. Franklin proposes that we think of technology as…

practise, about the organisation of work and of people…
Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears…
Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most, of all, a mindset.

I like this idea because it reminds me that what we create isn’t like sculpture; it’s part of a system, a continuum. Our work creates a dialogue between people and things. For example: the Amish don’t reject technology because they hate things. They reject technology if they don’t like the outcome it produces (for example, inequality).

Shimano once asked IDEO to design the next generation of mountain bike. IDEO, ignored the suggested thing (a mountain bike) and instead focussed on an outcome, namely, how to get more people riding bikes.

By researching why non-cyclists don’t ride, they discovered that designing the perfect city bike would open up a new market for Shimano. Mountain bikes not applicable.

As designers, how do we stay focussed on outcomes (the change), and not outputs (the thing)?

  • Censor your words. In the early days, stop saying ‘app’ or ‘website’ — thing language!
  • Research. A designer’s job is to understand the problem without assumptions about solutions.
  • Clear business objectives: clarify a small number of them for your organisation.
  • Paint a picture of the change you’re trying to bring to the outside world. Storyboarding is one example.
  • Clarify the value. Focus relentlessly on finding out what it is, and express it as concisely as possible, so that you can…
  • Test. If you’ve clarified the value, it’s easier to test your idea and…
  • Spread the word. Successful teams can say how they’d like to change the world with remarkable consistency between individuals.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein

Who knows: think hard, and maybe the answer to the problem isn’t a new thing.



Ben Sauer

Speaking, training, and writing about product design. Author of 'Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale'