It has become apparent to me through comments, questions and work with clients that many business owners and operators believe design-based innovation, aka design thinking, is limited to products… that services and processes and web operations don’t really lend themselves to the discipline of design thinking, beyond perhaps the aesthetics of “making pretty.”
This concerns me for two reasons. First, a great chunk of the growth businesses in the market are almost entirely web-based, not product-based. Second, in the case of product-based companies, they almost certainly have a significant web operation. Excluding all or part of your business from the discipline of design could, IMHO, limit your competitive advantage now and in the future.
I asked Suzanne Gibbs Howard, an Associate Partner and Design Director at IDEO, to help me think through this issue. Suzanne specializes in human factors and design research.
Q: First of all, for those who may not know, what does it really mean to be a design thinker?
A: Design thinkers gather information that helps us understand customer experiences. Once we understand the people surrounding our business challenges—their needs, desires, problems and aspirations—we can identify relevant business opportunities. Then we experiment our way forward, prototyping new solutions and getting these solutions out in front of customers as early as possible. As we prototype, we learn from people by observing, gathering feedback, and refining our approach. This central iterative cycle of learning—trying out new business possibilities, gathering feedback and refining the ideas—is what makes design thinking unique.
Q: Given that many businesses are web-based, what role might design thinking play in their growth and operation?
A: Web-based businesses need to understand their customers and the ecosystem of stakeholders as much or more than the non-web based marketplace. Competition is only a click away. Loyalties run thin. Social networks and word of mouth are powerful forces that can make or permanently damage a brand.
The cycle I described earlier, of constantly trying understanding people and beta testing new approaches, is incredibly well suited to the web world. On the web, we can observe and converse with people in a variety of ways. We can easily beta new options and we can quickly gather information in response.
But it all starts with understanding your users and their personal context: What do people associate with your business that you haven’t considered? Where else do they go to search for more information? Who are the powerful influencers in social networks? What are the emotions various customers experience? Which patterns appear across the diverse array of people who visit you online? And where do they get lost, confused, or start to lose trust on your site?
Q: In terms of design thinking, what are some the most important things a business owner/operator needs to keep in mind?
A: It is crucial to understand that people do not always do what they say they do. So it’s not enough just to ask customers or potential customers questions. You have to move beyond conversations with customers to experiences in context. When business people get out of their workplaces and visit customers on their own turf, light is shed on things that have been misinterpreted in the past. Seeing someone’s home helps you understand their aesthetic, and you can see other brands that attract them. Getting a guided tour of someone’s tech setup exposes all of the terms that they find confusing. It’s important to enter peoples’ real lives and look far beyond the specific business challenge that you have at hand.
Q: When I worked with Toyota, they called that genchi genbutsu. It means “go and see.” It’s how they came up with the Lexus and Scion brands. The hard part for many businesses, though, especially those that are web-only, is that what you’re describing isn’t always possible. Got a backup strategy?
A: Yes. One thing you can do is provoke people. Many business people simply ask customers what they’d like to see in the future. In abstract, customers will try to help. However, customers are notoriously bad at imagining the future, so you must provoke them with new possibilities. Sketch new ideas. Mock possibilities up on your computer. Make fake ads for what the future might hold. Playfully engage customers so that they have something to critique or build upon. This is much more effective than responding in the abstract. It doesn’t matter if the provocations look good—even rough ideas are better than nothing at all.
Q: I think the IDEO Method Cards, both physical and iPhone app versions, are extremely valuable tools. Let’s say there’s a business trying to figure out how to address the Gen Y market, which they know nothing about, which three methods would you recommend they use?
A: The IDEO Method Cards are an excellent tool to help business people get beyond simply asking questions. By inviting business people to not only Ask, but also Look, Learn and Try, the deck helps us find ways to participate more deeply in the customers’ perspective.
Regarding Gen Y, most business people have trouble understanding how much the world has shifted since they themselves were in their teens and twenties. To help someone learn about this vast and impressive generation I suggest three Method Card techniques:
1. Look: Fly on the Wall. Observe and record behavior in context without interfering with people. To get started, find a location where lots of Millenials spend time. Take a few hours to truly observe them. Shadow an individual or stay in one spot and watch as people move through. Write down specific behaviors. Develop hypotheses about what might be going on from these people’s perspectives. This is a great way to establish context and to begin understanding culture.
2. Learn: Activity Analysis. Represent in detail all tasks, actions, objects, performers, and interactions involved in a process. With this method, you can begin getting closer to the actual challenge you have at hand. Invite a few Millenials to take part in whatever the challenge is that you face. Shop alongside them, help them use your product, or go with them as they engage your services. During or immediately after the activity, have them map out exactly what happened from their perspective. What emotions did they experience? This will help you understand a familiar experience from a fresh perspective.
3. Try: Predict Future Headlines. Project what will happen in the future and capture it as a headline. Based on your learnings so far, consider your business and take a stab at what relevant headlines will be a year or even five years from now. What new technologies or products will come to market? Which brands will shift in new directions? What new expectations will customers hold? Use these headlines as prototypes and share them with a few Millenials. Can they imagine this future? How would this impact their understanding of your industry? What would they like to see your business do in response?
Bottom line: when it comes to staying relevant, growing your business, and driving your competition crazy, don’t stop thinking like a designer!
By Matthew E. May
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change (Jossey-Bass, 2010), In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (Broadway Business, 2009) and The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (Free Press, 2006). Matt works with individuals, teams and companies to guide change through a focus on design thinking and problem solving. He spent nearly a decade as a fully retained advisor, master kaizen instructor and jishuken leader for Toyota, a company that implements over 1 million new ideas each year. Matt is a graduate of the Wharton School and The Johns Hopkins University, but considers winning The New Yorker Magazine Cartoon Caption Contest among his proudest achievements.
You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay