Change by Design 

By: Tim Brown



When you hear the word DESIGN, it’s easy to think about things like a beautifully designed object, or a brand new Loius Vuitton bag. In fact, as Victor Papanek points out, at its worst design is intended to get people to “buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress neighbours who don’t care”.

But what if design was much more? What if you could design anything you wanted in your life or business, including change itself? You’ll find the answer to that question in Tim Brown’s “Change by Design”.

Part I - What is Design Thinking?

As Tim Brown, the President and CEO of IDEO points out, design is so much more than style. He defines design thinking as:a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Although this kind of thinking hasn’t yet been reduced to an algorithm, Brown and his colleagues at IDEO have developed what they call “a system of overlapping spaces” in the continuum of innovation. There is the inspiration space, which covers the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; the ideation space that generates, develops and tests ideas; and the implementation space that leads the ideas to the marketplace.

Charles Eames, the legendary designer, often said that the mark of a designer is the willing embrace of constraints. This is what differentiates us mere mortals from the ranks of design thinkers. A true design thinker will be able to balance the following three constraints that should be present in any project:

  • Feasibility: what is functionally possible in the foreseeable future;
  • Viability: what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model;
  • Desirability: what makes sense to people and for people.

As Brown notes, a competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints, but a design thinker will bring them into a harmonious balance. Want an example of an innovative product that does just that? How about the Nintendo Wii? Millions of people around the world - adults and children alike - would agree with you on this one.

Part II - Putting People First

The job of the designer is to “convert need into demand”. The traditional tools at our disposal, like surveys and focus groups, are horrible at creating game-changing innovations. As Henry Ford once famously said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.

Once again, we have 3 elements to consider in how we create success in the process of putting people first. They are insight, observation and empathy.

Insight: learning from the lives of others
Insights that change the game don’t start in the lab or in a boardroom. They are out in the world waiting to be discovered. So, go out into the world and see what they see, feel what they feel, and hear what they hear. Only after you do that can you even begin to design a solution to their problems. The single largest roadblock standing in your way to creating a solution that works? The assumptions you make about what’s going on even before you begin.

Take the example of Jennifer Portnick, who wanted to become a Jazzercise dance instructor, but because she was a size 18, ran up against company requirements that instructors are of a “fit appearance”. Port nick challenged this policy and won, forcing Jazzercise to drop their weight-discriminatory policy. The assumptions that led to this policy in the first place were the problem: that all fat people want to be thin, that weight is inversely proportional to happiness, or that large size displays a lack of discipline.

You might even be listening to this right now agreeing with those assumptions. But consider this: every time you make assumptions about any of the stakeholders in your business, you lose the opportunity to search for insights. That’s one leg up that design thinkers will continue to have on you moving forward. And God help you if some of them work for your competition.

Observation: it’s what they DON’T do that’s interesting
Focussing on the middle of the bell curve, where the majority of your customers lie, is more likely to confirm what you already know rather than give you insight into a new solution. If you want real insights, travel out towards the far reaches of that bell curve to find the extreme users of your product or service. These extreme users will show you things that your regular users won’t. That’s where the gold is.

For instance, when IDEO wanted to get insights for a new line of kitchen tools, they first started out by studying children and professional chefs - definitely not the anticipated mainstream buyers of their products. However, seeing a child struggle with a can opener highlighted issues that an adult would have learned to disguise. This and other insights lead to them dropping the traditional “matched set” handles for a system that has a different, but more comfortable handle for each. These Zyliss tools continue to fly off the shelf today.

Empathy: standing in the shoes of others
The King once said, “before you abuse, criticise or accuse…walk a mile in my shoes”. If you change those first words to “decide, conclude or assume”, you’ve got a pretty good formula for generating insights. It’s quite possible that you have very little in common with the people you serve. If you are C-suite executive whose company serves people struggling to make ends meet on a weekly basis, it’s likely that you have no idea what it’s like to live in their shoes. Well, here’s your chance to finally think like your customer. The solution? Go through your customer journey.

When IDEO was helping a hospital redesign their emergency department, they didn’t just go to the site and take pictures and notes. They actually sent a person in with a fake injury and had them experience the entire process from the patient point of view.

The hidden camera footage they obtained showed them a lot of opportunities for incremental improvements, but highlighted an even bigger discovery: that the patient experience was both crushingly boring and riddled with anxiety. This lead them to redesign the space to create not only physical changes to the process, but they also designed the solution to create a different set of emotions for the patient. This is truly powerful stuff.

Part III - Creating a Solution

At this point you’ve created constraints for your problem, gone out and collected insights from your customers, and now you are ready to generate a solution to your problem. There are two steps here that are at odds with one another: divergence and convergence.

Divergence is the act of generating multiple options to consider. The reason we want to create multiple options and not just one right answer is that the process of testing competing ideas against one another is that the final outcome will be bolder, more creative and ultimately more compelling.

Convergence is what drives us towards solutions. This is probably the most difficult portion of the entire exercise because it forces us to eliminate options and make choices. In fact, we have to allow ourselves to let go of options that are promising and that were the result of a lot of hard work to create in the first place.

Now, as you’d probably guess by now, true design thinkers are constantly bouncing between divergence and convergence, constantly testing new theories and attempting to put them into action. This is where a culture of experimentation truly comes to life. As Brown points out, the rules for getting this right are incredibly easy to say and understand, but insanely difficult to put into practice. Here are 6 rules for making it happen.

  • Best ideas emerge when the whole organisational ecosystem is involved.
  • Those most exposed to changing externalities (new technologies, shifting customer base, etc) are best placed to respond.
  • Ideas should not be favoured by those who create them.
  • Ideas that create a buzz should be favoured - in fact, only those with buzz should be supported by the organisation.
  • Senior leadership should use their “gardening” skills to tend, prune and harvest ideas.
  • An overarching purpose should be articulated so that the organisation has a sense of direction.

Follow these rules, and your culture of experimentation will flourish. Ignore them and it will die a slow and painful death.

Part IV - Prototyping Solutions

In the process of diverging and converging on solutions, the only way to truly understand if it is going to meet the constraints of feasibility, viability and desirability is to get a prototype of the solution as soon as possible in the process.

As Brown says, “the faster we make our ideas tangible, the sooner we will be able to evaluate them, refine them, and zero in on the best solution.”

Here’s how to put prototyping to it’s best possible use in the process:

Make it quick and dirty. Spend as little money as possible to create the prototype, as the goal is to get something in our hands as quickly as humanly possible. One of IDEOs most famous prototypes was created when a roller ball from a tube of Ban Roll-on deodorant was attached to the base of a plastic butter dish, making the first articulation of what would later become the iconic Apple Computer Mouse.

Don’t spend too much time. The goal is not to create a working model - it is to form the idea so you can learn more about its strengths and weaknesses. If you spend too much time on it, it will start to look like it’s “finished”, and “finished” solutions are much harder to kill than crude mockups.

You can do this for services as well. Even if you are designing something that can’t be picked up, like a service, you can still prototype it to get feedback. You can use scenarios, for instance, where you can create a “persona” and play out a scenario you have created for that persona. The best scenario you can create for this instance is your customer journey.