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Design-led innovation

What we are all trying to do.

Design-led companies are on the rise and customer/user obsession and empathy building, is becoming entrenched in the status quo.

It’s not a new phenomena by any means, but at least in my mind, it is long due for some articles addressing the topic and simplifying the space — if only for some common language and an anchor for interesting conversations.

The following article is intended as both a way of sharing existing thoughts on the topic as well as working out what I think of it by means of writing about it- writing out loud, sort of speak.

Context

My name is Shay, I am a strategic designer and have been working in the space of product, service and venture design for the past decade. From startups, to agencies, to freelancing, to opening my own little studio, I have picked up a bunch of experience and insight into the space along the way and got to meet and work alongside many fascinating folks who are doing some really great things.

With some time on my hands and an inner need to break things a part and put them back together, I thought I’d give this topic a go.

The approach

Design-led innovation

Design-led innovation is an approach that more and more of us are trying to put into practice every day — whether we call it as such or not.

When we try to get into the user’s shoes, to speak about needs and pains, to prototype solutions and run experiments — we are applying a design-led approach to innovation.

Whether we call it design thinking, lean-startup, service design or whatever other name — we are all following design-led principles.

We may work in Product-management, Ux or Strategic-design, yet many of us are trying to do the same thing, and get there in a similar way.

What it is we are trying to do (and how)

What we are trying to do- Simply put, what we are trying to do is build great things (products, services, ventures, experiences etc.). Things that would add value to the lives of the people who would use and interact with them. I don’t think it really requires much more elaboration than just that. We are simply trying to add some value to the world around us, and make things a little bit better.

How we are (not) getting there- let’s start by how we are not doing it. We are not just building things based on a whim and what we think best, without any consideration of the people we are designing for. We are not just building them without testing, we are not just scaling them from the get go and putting things out there, on the world stage, for people to use. While this approach could be successful, and there are plenty of examples when it does — it is not a design-led approach.

How we (are) getting there- How all of us are actually going about a design-led approach is quite varied, but at the end-of the day, our actions can be broken down to a key common approach. Strive to understand users and their needs, come up with ways to solve for those needs, prototype & test our ideas, iterate upon our learning and scale what works.

It’s as simple as that, and though there is immense depth and variety within each of these components, at the end of the day, all we are doing is simply that.

More about the approach

Striving to understand users (and their needs)-

It has been a long time in the making, but we have all become a little bit obsessed with understanding users and how we can better design and build for them (or at least we know that we should be obsessed about it).

Let’s align on some terminology quickly shall we?

A user- is someone who ‘uses’ or interacts [or will use/interact] with what you are making. This user exists over and above (and outside) of your product or service. They are a person in the world with various needs, and they use the various tools/solutions at their disposal to answer/cater for those needs.

A need- is something a user is trying to achieve or do. Like getting from A to B or pay for Y, or use to watch Z. Many in our space often call these ‘jobs to be done’, or ‘user stories’, but in the spirit of simplification, we can just call them what they are- needs. Whether they are large or small, they are simply needs.

Existing solutions- almost every need out there has some existing solution that ‘solves’ for/caters for it. The difference between them is usually with regards to how well those needs are solved for. Some needs are solved for in great ways, others go under-addressed. Some needs are addressed well but the solutions addressing them have certain shortcoming such that could result in new problems and pains.

We may have different ways of developing an understanding of these users, (common in the craft are immersions and user interviews) but be your approach what it may be, we are trying to do the same thing — develop an understanding of users — their world, their needs, their existing solutions — so that we could use this knowledge to make great things.

Solving for needs

When we say ‘innovate’, ‘build’ or ‘make’, we are simply trying to say that we are looking for ways to solve for, and cater for — user needs.

Having spent time understanding the users we are designing for, partially by spending time with them, partially by becoming users ourselves — we would have developed some understanding of the space. What are the moving parts, what needs exists, what needs are solved for well, what needs seem to be opportune places for better solutions.

It is when we identify those needs — those that are opportune for better solutions — that we curve ourselves some space to build, innovate and make great things. It is within this space that we begin coming up with our concepts, ideas and all those good things we like spending our time talking about.

Flesh-out, prototype, test

Once we have some concepts, we can start giving them some space and time. We can flesh-them out, beyond the high-level post-it note they are on, we can bring them (or key aspects of them) to life through prototypes, and once we have brought them to life, we can begin putting them to a test.

Again, there is a huge variety in the way people flesh-out concepts, or the way these concepts are prototyped and tested, but at the end of the day, it is again as simple as that. Flesh-out the concept, bring key elements to life, test these out and learn.

Iterate

Whenever we put our concepts to a test, we discover and learn things. It might be as simple as discovering that our concepts (or aspects of them) work or don’t work. It might be discovering elements that needs to be tweaked, or it might be discovering whole new aspects about the user, the needs and the problems at hand.

The iteration process simply leads a design-led maker to take these learnings, feed them back into the process, and iterate their whole mental model of the space, accordingly.

Going through the steps of prototype, test, learning and iteration is often referred to as an iteration cycle and going through more of these often leads the things we are making to become better, simpler and better suited for the users at hand.

It’s like evolution, the more cycles of ‘evolution’ you give something, the more fit it is going to be on the other end.

Scale

A very likely outcome of many of design journeys will not be scale. A lot of our concepts will prove themselves invalid, unnecessary, not that exciting etc.

Most ideas we come up with, should not see the light of day, or at least not the light of many days. They should be fleshed-out, prototyped, tested, and then killed — early. The earlier we kill concepts, the better it is for everyone, as we end up spending less time, resources and effort on the wrong things. This frees us to pursue things that might yield better results and use the learning from the failed attempts to be better suited to do so.

Saying that, every once in a while, something would prove itself worthy of scale. It is unlikely to be the original concept, in its original form — but rather a good few cycles of iterations from there. It is those products that have been design-led, that have been developed with users close in mind, that have gone through many cycles of iterations, that are a true marvel to scale.

Like a smooth pebble that has been shaped by a river for many years, when you try and skim it on the water, it can go far…

Wrapping-up

And so you have it, a design-led approach to innovation: strive to understand users and their needs, think of ways to cater for those needs, prototype & test your ideas, iterate upon your learnings, repeat, and every once in a while, if you are lucky, scale.

It isn’t rocked science, it isn’t magic, but it does work.

Whatever it is you call your approach, whatever are the intricacies of your process, if you are more or less going through these motions, you too are using a design-led approach to innovation.

And if you are not,
it’s not too hard to try.

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We write about design-led innovation

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Shay Koren

Shay Koren

Strategic Designer - writing about design, product, innovation, tech, culture and everything in between.

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