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What is design? Most people will answer that question by pointing to a designed object – the iPhone, for example. Now that’s good design! The Mini Cooper. London’s famous map of the Tube. Anything ever built by Norman Foster. That’s design, right?
Wrong. Design is not the object, but the process that created that object. It’s a process that is part creativity, part method. A process that takes a lot of time, many failed attempts and a great deal of thinking. And thinking is something that looks a lot like Doing Nothing At All.
It’s very hard to explain this to a client. The Silicon Cape is beavering away right now, making software and websites and iPhone apps. Just do me a design! I need to show my investors something by next Tuesday, and we’re launching before the end of the month. You guys have designed stuff before, right?
Yes, we have designed stuff before. So we know that if you just take assumptions and preconceptions and bundle them up in the first format that crosses your mind, you might churn out something decent, but you’re never going to make something amazing. And given how much stuff is out there, and how little attention people have left to give to it, amazing is the only adjective that counts.
If you want to make something amazing, you have to be prepared to do the following:
• Understand and frame the problem. If you start by saying “I want to make Object X”, you will only ever make that object. If you start by thinking about the problems that Object X will solve for its users, you have taken the first step on the way to creating something exceptional.
• Talk to real users. Let’s say you have this amazing idea for a piece of software that will revolutionise farming in South Africa. But you are a 30-something wheeler and dealer, familiar with the world of venture capital and social networking. You will never be a farmer. Unless you go out and talk to real farmers, understanding their needs and framing the problem in their language, you are going to end up only making software that you think will work for farmers. There is a microscopic chance you will score a bullseye. But if you talk to your end users right from the beginning, you will know what your target looks like, and vastly increase your chances of actually hitting it.
• Have lots of ideas. The first idea you have will not necessarily be your best. Why should it be? People who generate successful ideas take it as a given that you need to have a lot of mediocre ideas before some good ones slip out. Take Apple, who do ten concepts for every product. (Or Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, who said, “If you want to have a good idea, have lots of ideas.”)
• Iterate and refine. You’ve talked to users, you’ve understood the problem, you know where you’re going. But it’s still too early to launch your product and sit back waiting for the dollars to roll in. You need to design something, then go back to those real users and watch them use the thing you have designed. Those ideas you thought were so brilliant will soon show their true colours.
There’s a lot more to user-centred design, but that’s the basic framework. And companies that understand this process are the ones that excel in the 21st century. Britain’s Design Council recently updated their 2003 Design Index, which showed that a group of 150 design-oriented companies outperformed the stock market by 200 per cent between 1994 and 2003.
These companies continue to outperform the FTSE 100 even in the current tough times. And they are not the companies you would normally associate with the word ‘design’. On the list are the likes of Marks & Spencer, BAE Systems and HSBC – companies that take design processes and thinking styles, and apply them across the board.
Industry giants like DHL and Deutsche Telecom pay €50 000 a pop to get the HPI School of Design Thinking working on a problem. Students spend 12 weeks framing the problem, observing the target users, and coming up with an idea. That’s right, 3 months of research and design just to come up with an idea. But those ideas are not just a rehashing of what’s already out there, but truly groundbreaking. The kinds of ideas that could become the Next Big Thing.
So why am I ranting about design? Because if you design not just your logo and your website, but your entire customer experience, your product, and the way your organisation works, it will make your business more successful.
Don’t think this is something that happens easily or quickly. It takes time and effort and a lot of that thinking stuff that looks so much like doing nothing. And the politics of making design happen in an organisation can be overwhelming. But take courage – this stuff is not just a stab in the dark. There is a method to the madness, and it’s called Design Thinking.