11 December 2016


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The practice of design and how we see design have been changing dramatically. As designers we’re now more focused on using design thinking practices and methodologies to define and solve problems, putting the customer at the heart of everything we do. The craft of design is still important, but our shift has focused.


As designers, we are now more aware of the need to deliver ‘effect’ – therefore how our design solves business problems, how we measure the success of what we do and the business outcomes we’re looking for is in sharper focus throughout the design process itself.


We are in a period where we’ll see a proliferation of digitally enabled user-led design innovation. This, coupled with increased pace of design and its execution – offers a speed to market promise, which for many businesses is a really compelling opportunity for competitive advantage.


Many businesses we work with are embracing this philosophy – in practise it’s 'let’s get something quickly to market and see how it performs'. However, to offer some words of caution and to some extent play devil’s advocate – ‘just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should’ and 'faster isn’t always better'.


When we say faster, what do we mean?
In the work we do at DNA, we need to look through the lens of larger organisations and corporates who form a large part of our client base (although, most of this is applicable to smaller businesses and start-ups). This allows us to categorise our insights and opinions into two areas:


1. Faster idea generation and proposition validation - knowing we’re focusing our efforts on the right thing(s); and
2. Faster execution and delivery - essentially speed to market.


These are essentially the areas that we work within – typically our clients ask: Is it a good idea? How quickly can I start making money from it?


The range of digital tools and applications we have at our fingertips - that allow us design and build things and put them in front of real users at pace – has changed our industry for the better, but in the wrong hands or without the depth of interrogation needed, could see you beginning a journey you’re not quite ready to set off on.


Speed comes in many forms.

It’s easy to get excited by the prospect of being able to deliver something quickly – be it a prototype, proof of concept or first release of a new product.


We all know the idea of ‘failing fast to succeed sooner’ – the somewhat abridged Lean Start-up mantra. By placing users at the heart of your project, using them to test constantly as you iterate to a product release, you can minimise complete failure. In addition, you can now go very easily from an idea or concept to high-fidelity and have something that looks and feels real. The line between a concept and a deliverable has been blurred by the new tools for design and collaboration we have available.
However, there are some key things to look out for; for example we’re often too focussed or attached to an idea, and by working at pace, we don’t enable ourselves to stop, test and interrogate not just the execution, but the idea in itself. We need take the time to properly interrogate the idea and ask ourselves the hard questions if we are to be confident of the right solution, and of its being desirable, feasible and viable for the business to invest in. Is this actually something that is useful and meaningful. Does it derive from genuine customer need.


This is where faster isn’t better - that is not saying you need to engage in a lengthy research process necessarily – but some simple empathy and customer understanding can give enough insight to inform you that you’re not on the wrong path. Let’s say it’s a mobile app. You could design a mobile solution that works brilliantly and performs well in usability testing, but if it’s not scratching an itch that your users have, it won’t be successful.


Need beats speed.

I remember having an impassioned discussion with a CEO recently, about the iPad. His argument was that the iPad was a product derived through innovation as a process, not by asking the customer what they wanted. And while that is true, he kind of missed the point; it was also derived from identifying a genuine need and by observing behaviour. People uncomfortably sitting on the sofa, watching TV whilst using a cumbersome laptop was an opportunity founded in the changing way many people spend time, stay connected and consume media at home.


The skill of designers is in helping to define problems and need, and to help creatively explore ways of solving those problems. My argument, is that while, there is no debate that ‘speed of execution’ is essential nowadays, you should take some time to add some rigour and collaborative interrogation to the process to ensure that it, in some way is going to be useful.


Another challenge facing designers and businesses investing in design, is that when something looks good, it inevitably feels more finished. The digital design prototyping and testing tools we have available, mean we are able to go straight from an idea, to something that looks to a degree ‘final’ and it’s often difficult to unwind from that. As soon as you show something to a stakeholder or project sponsor, they are likely to focus in on the detail. ‘Are you using the correct tint of brand blue’, or ‘I don’t like that button’. That’s OK, because it’s their job to focus in on those details, it’s our job to ensure we’re continuously focusing on the problems we’re trying to solve and the effect it’s delivering back to the business and its customers.


The integrity, quality and finesse in delivery isn’t any less important, but at the right stage in the process. There’s little point crafting an interface that isn’t solving the right problems. I know I’m hammering home the point here, and while it happens less often, it does still happen – especially where individuals are emotionally attached to an idea or concept.


Another consideration is an organisations willingness, or ability, to move as fast as they would like to or feel they should be able to. I can’t overstate how important it is when seeking to move fast that you embrace the concept of customer-led  design, but any customer led innovation will only come from an organisation working as a whole, from the exec down.


Speed requires cohesion.

It simply doesn’t work if you’re a team that is trying to get things done in a culture of ‘slow and steady’, or an organisation that relies on large groups of stakeholders who only have the time to be be partly engaged. Where there is a culture of steering groups or everything you do requires multiple sign-offs by multiple people who are not vested in the value you seek to unlock – then results will be underwhelming, and speed is never going to be possible.


I experienced this first-hand. I was at a large retailer in Australia seeking to build an internal customer-led UX & Agile delivery team. We were tasked with building a new app, in a lean way and with a multi-disciplinary internal team of designers, developers, product owners and testers. I was all for this. It saved the company money and allowed us to control the outcomes we were looking for.


However, this was ultimately a bit of a doomed experiment. The wider business wasn’t ready to embrace customer-led sustainable innovation and lean delivery methodologies, and to be frank, the Marketing department weren’t ready to let go of something that they had traditionally controlled.


This is something I often see in organisations who attempt to build an innovation team or have one or two individuals flying the flag for design thinking and customer-led approaches. Teams are often disbanded, reassigned or those individuals moving on to businesses who are able to embrace this culture change across the organisation.


I love how our practice and the design industry has changed, how we now have an ability to design, build prototypes, and validate products and ideas at speed. Our ability to put people at the heart of everything we do has made for a greater number of better informed and better executed products and services.


I believe it is ok to take a little time, in order to get things right. Getting to market faster has its attractiveness, getting to market better is possibly more valuable. Although it is possible to do both – I will always advocate for doing it right, over doing it fast.


Lee Tucknott / Digital Strategy and Product Director