28 May 2008

How important is empathy?

Lots of great innovations have happened with out it. Obviously, technology drives innovation right? Not so much. In an industry that few would call immerging, high tech or even innovation, A.G. Lafley of Proctor and Gamble goes to great length in his recent book to describe the virtues of field research and empathy. He constructs his arguments under a very appealing umbrella focused on driving revenue and profit growth, something that ought to get the attention of every executive no matter how mature their industry.

In the 40’s a innovation was derived from basic radio technology that allowed the musical notes from guitars to be electronically reproduced and amplified. The goal was to increase the volume so that the musician could engage a larger audience. The result was something completely different.

Neither Leo Fender nor Seth Lover were musicians. Leo was primarily responsible for the acceptance of electric guitars as a successful technology. Leo was a military trained radio repairman that recognized and opportunity and stretched his knowledge of technology into innovation. Seth, also military trained, took things a step further when he designed the Humbucker pickup that most all Gibson guitars sported. Many historians will tell you that the combination of Seth’s Humbucker and the high output Marshall amplifier created a magical combination of tone and energy that was largely responsible for the late 60’s and early 70’s explosion of guitar oriented rock and roll. Yes, more important than Clapton, Beck or even Hendrix’ genius in shaping the music. They could not have done what they did without that specific technology.

But curiously, both companies have had multiple encounters with corporate death since those pioneering days. The electrical guitar has largely stayed the same since the early fifties. Almost every guitar built today is based upon a half dozen designs developed by either Fender or Gibson in the fifties. Gibson has nearly gone under a couple of times. New ownership groups have had to reinvent the company and they still struggled in a thriving, growing market. Fender nearly collapsed in the 70’s when they were acquired by CBS. Their products were awful. Both companies had plenty of technology, cost management, good business strategies, state of the art manufacturing and huge product demand. Both companies ended up making huge and completely unintentional contributions to an emerging after-market product industry and aided many new competitors. How did this happen? These companies invented and dominated the industry.

Simple. They fell out of touch with the musicians. They fell out of touch with their customers. They let accountants and engineers and MBA’s run the company into the ground. They were not in touch with guitar players. They could not get a handle on what was coming around the bend. And they did not invest in research or empathy.

So how did P&G out pace their competitors? They invested in ethnography. They invested in and leveraged design. They put designers in key management roles (CEO and CMO for instance). And, designers want to know how the product is used, how it works and how it doesn’t work. It seems so simple in hindsight doesn’t it? Embrace and leverage design, be in touch with the customer.

16 May 2008

How can business benefit from design? (2 of many)

The topic is going to turn to (design) process for the moment. I have on occasion expressed my disdain for rote process. You know, that stuff commonly associated with Henry Ford, TQM and Six Sigma. Design, plain and simple, does not work the same way as manufacturing. That is because design is about solving problems. And nearly every problem is slightly different. So it begs the question, how do we get reliably great results from design, if we don’t standardize the process? The answer is, we do this by assembling a structure. Let’s take a look at a simple step-by-step method that works really really well.

Step One. Establish the criteria by which the designer will work and the work will be judged. Artist thrive when given the freedom to create whatever their hearts desire. Not so much with the design process. Yes, artist and designers both draw, but that is about where the similarity ends. Expression of self take a much more subtle form for designers. Designers embrace the notion of having criteria to which they can design.

So how do you express this criteria? Simple, build a problem statement (sometimes called a situation statement), state your goals, objectives, policies (if you must), and constraints. We won’t labor on the specifics of these now, but suffice to say this takes some practice.

Step Two. Let the designer(s) work. I will save detailing the ‘magic’ of this (it is decidedly not magic btw) for another day.

Step Three. Evaluate the design against the criteria. How simple could this be? Talk through the weaknesses and strengths of each solution. Personally I think formal grading systems are a little stuffy, but for a tough crowd they can be helpful.

Step Four. Eliminate the lesser solutions and promote the best ones. You might even have a winner here. If you do, ask yourself, will this work? Is it great? Can we do better? If the answer t any of these is no, then it might be time to revisit your criteria. This is not the time to recommend a horizontal layout, or your favorite color blue. And ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ statements are only worthwhile if they include part of the criteria. If the design satisfies the criteria, and still does not work, you need to rework the criteria, plain and simple.

Here is a huge tip… it helps tremendously to (and some would say ONLY works) if the same people holding final approval were included in the criteria process. If they understand the logic of this structure, and they subscribe to the process, the design team will be confident and things should go well. If you cannot get final approvers to review and bless the constraints, and they still want the final vote, then I suggest mutiny, a new job, or heavy drinking. Seriously, passionately caring about your work in this situation will be a constant frustration if not a living hell. You will be working with the roulette wheel of project success.

If you adopt these four steps and discipline yourself the majority of your frustration with design and design process will go away.

14 May 2008

How can business benefit from design? (1 of many)

While many designers have a process, most have a philosophy or structure. Good designers often refine a process and use it over and over to produce reliable and competent results. Great designers think in terms of structure and a vast set of tools from which to draw. One of the most important concepts for the designer is that of divergence and convergence. Early in the design stage we must broaden our thoughts and think beyond the obvious. This is often poorly characterized as ‘outside of the box’ thinking. So often we face problems seemingly without the time or resources to appropriately analyze before we synthesize. We take a straight-line approach to a quick, known, and comfortable solution, but that is short sited. The more important the problem, the more we should consider stepping back and challenging assumptions. Working divergently will have us exploring things that at the time seem less than relevant, but very often open the door for exceptional solutions.

Bill Buxton (author, designer, business guy at microsoft) talks at length about the importance of sketching. It is absolutely crucial in the divergent stages of design that ideas are not yet formalized. One way to accomplish this is to stay away from the computer. Here, white boards, pencil and paper, and even sticky notes are your best weapons. These tools allow designers to convey important visual and functional concepts without being bothered by details - details that not only get in the way, but will narrow focus and restrict thinking. This is extraordinarily important for non-designers to understand.

When Pixar released ‘The Incredibles’ they packaged with it a second DVD disc. On that disk is a wonderful 30 minute video with great insight into the behind-the-scenes goings on. One of the most important take aways from this short story is learning what to look at. If you are working with designers it pays to understand the process and to be able ferret out the significant portion of the rough sketch or mocks. A good design presenter will often explain this upfront, but don’t count on it. If you have any question regarding what you are suppose to be looking at or paying attention to, just ask. Most designers will be delighted that you did.

Many project managers are quick to reduce design's chaotic wondering, but time should always be taken when the stakes are high. Delivering the solution on time is surely an important part of the job, but delivering a great solution is also. Great designers and design managers are cognizant of delivery schedules and exactly when enough explorations are, in fact, enough. Many designers will attempt to reopen (work divergently) an issue late in the game. This can be problematic for delivery. It's often a tough call, but it is where experience and discipline pay off.

In the convergent stages the entire atmosphere of the working environment changes. Schedules rule, pressure builds and the stress of delivery should be evident. But for most designers and especially the non-designers it can be a welcome change to the free flowing, and sometimes random wondering of early explorations. You will often hear, “now we are making some progress” or similar statements from management. That’s when you know that all this fuzzy design thinking is starting to turn into relevant results that they appreciate. This can seem like one of those few times when the business folks and the design folks are working stride for stride.