Companies shouldn’t just come up with a product idea and then tell designers at the end, “Make it pretty” – or it will lead to some ugly, ridiculous stuff. That’s the central premise of Tim Brown’s Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, and I’m in total agreement. Brown, the head of famed design consultancy IDEO, argues that “design thinking needs to move ‘upstream,’ closer to the executive suites where strategic decisions are made.” So IDEO prides itself on an ambitious process in which an eclectic team of designers, ethnographers, psychologists and more actually observe customers in their natural environment (picture a dude with a clipboard watching you cook dinner) in their quest to understand how customers use products and what can create a killer gap. After all, a design team could be tasked with “creating a new bottle design.” But if the product inside isn’t what customers want, the packaging really doesn’t matter. IDEO is famed for inventing new processes (like how to run an ER or bank office better), in addition to cool new tangible designs.
I’ve long been a proponent of the marketing analogue for this (“marketing thinking,” perhaps?) because if you don’t include a marketing mindset from the beginning, you’ll similarly end up with bad products and a mandate to pawn them off on suckers – and that’s no way to run a lasting business.
IDEO’s “deep dive” approach (and their willingness to learn from outliers) creates interesting insights. As Brown notes regarding a project for kitchen supply manufacturer Zyliss, “The team started out by studying children and professional chefs – neither of whom were the intended market for these mainstream products. For that very reason, however, both groups yielded valuable insights. A seven-year-old girl struggling with a can opener highlighted issues of physical control that adults have learned to disguise.”
Along similar lines, they’ve pioneered something called the “unfocus group,” which – unlike traditional focus groups of average consumers – gathers specifically-invited, unique contributors to weigh in with their particular perspective. (Says Brown, “On one memorable occasion – we were looking at new concepts for women’s shoes – we invited in a color consultant, a spiritual guide who led barefoot initiates across hot coals, a young mother who was curiously passionate about her thigh-high leather boots, and a female limo driver whose full livery was accented by a pair of outrageously sexy stiletto heels. Needless to say, this group proved to be extremely articulate about the emotional connections among shoes, feet, and the human condition.”)
Brown’s quick take? “Design thinking is neither art nor science nor religion. It is the capacity, ultimately, for integrative thinking.” To label it design thinking privileges their discipline a bit (I’m still rooting for ‘marketing thinking’), but hey – they’re entitled. The world needs more of exactly what Brown describes.
Do you incorporate design thinking (or some variation thereof) in your work life? How has it helped (or hurt)? How can we best create the products and services that customers genuinely want?