The Secret to Building Great Products

 The Secret to Building Great Products

MANAGING THE CREATIVE PROCESS OF DESIGN

By Jon Kolko

Recently, the word “design” has crept into the C-suite. Large companies like IBM or GE publically embrace design, and Forbes recently reported on J&J, PepsiCo, and Philips all hiring a Chief Design Officer. Design is a complicated word, so it’s worth questioning: what does the CEO need to know about this new idea, philosophy, and role?

Design has its roots in aesthetics, and that’s what most people associate with the word – fancy chairs now reproduced at Design Within Reach, or the bullet trains representing the prosperity of the 50s. As technology grew more complicated, the word grew to mean “user friendly,” making it so we could muddle through complex systems without losing our minds.

Now, the word has evolved. Design has become synonymous with engagement and emotion, the qualities of great products and services that people love. This is a marketplace differentiator, and a way to escape what Jeff Immelt calls commodity hell: the race to the bottom in both quality and revenue. To participate in this “experience economy,” the creative process has to be managed, which can be chaotic, frustrating, and risky. Here’s what to expect when diving in.

The Design Process is Messy and Emotional

A good design process focuses on people, but aims to uncover their emotions. The goal is to empathize with people – to see the world through their eyes, and to feel what they feel. This means spending a large amount of time with individuals, and looking at people one at a time, rather than in abstract aggregate. For example, when conducting research with students, hours are spent in dorm rooms, really getting to know each one on a personal level. This yields results that are far, far away from a survey. The output doesn’t cleanly tell you what to build or how to market something. By itself, the data doesn’t tell you anything generalizable at all. Instead, the design team needs to marinate in the data and spend time actively interpreting it to make it actionable. This process is messy, vague, and often, extraordinarily chaotic.
The Design Process is Frustrating

Design is about visualizing something that doesn’t yet exist, and this creation process doesn’t come on demand. Sketching (in any sense of the word – drawings, digital prototypes, or service blueprints of a customer journey) require iteration, and require getting it wrong on the way to getting it right. In an increasingly complex world, it’s tempting to latch on to methods that are highly analytical or well structured. But design can be vague. As a process, it doesn’t scale for speed, and like software, the “mythical man month” rears its head, making it hard to recover lost time on delayed projects. Design isn’t repeatable. If one group works through the design process, and another group repeats their process, they’ll get strikingly different results. This introduces a quality gap, where the quality of the result depends highly on the quality of the design team. And often most frustrating for executives is realizing that the process contradicts itself. Because design is so contextual to an individual culture or community, a design recommendation in one context may directly negate a recommendation in another. It’s unlikely that designs supporting students in a vocational college in Wisconsin will support students studying in Australia (or even at a four year school in Wisconsin).

The Design Process Is Risky

Design is provocative, not predictive. When you create something new, you have no exact precedent to lean on, and so you must lean heavily on intuition. The empathetic research process above informs this intuition, but makes no promises about validity at scale. Much of the innovation risk of design is jumping from a qualitative behavioral insight to a broader story of product/market fit. Fear can overwhelm innovation at this stage in the process. It’s tempting to “bland” a design and minimize the newness, as a risky design may fail. Failure can be embarrassing, expensive, and disruptive. It’s hard to stay the course and see an innovation through to completion and launch.

But, what can be gained with this creative process of design can be extraordinary. The process generates valuable insight about people. It unifies a company culture through rich, highly visual artifacts. It generates alignment around a vision, because that vision becomes overt. And most importantly, it builds empathy, which is the secret to building great products. Design is not a silver bullet, and like any business process, it requires education, rigor, and a constant evolution. But bringing design into an organization will fundamentally change the thinking about market offerings, help manage the complexity of new product development, and will produce products people love.

Jon Kolko is Vice President of Design at Blackboard and the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. Jon’s work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. He has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies, and he’s most interested in humanizing educational technology. @jkolko

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