Brave new world

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 58
Digital Citation

evolve, adapt, THRIVE!

Jon Innes

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Mankind has always been shaped by technology. From the harnessing of fire and the invention of the wheel, to the spread of the steam-powered locomotive, technology and innovation have continually redefined our lives. This rate of change continues exponentially.

Think about how many disruptive technologies were introduced in the past century—cars, television, containerized shipping, cell phones, the Internet—and consider how widespread their impact has been. Is it any surprise we are in the midst of today's economic upheaval? While one could argue that greed and lack of government oversight got us into trouble in recent years, I'd suggest that technology enabled the greedy, via mass production, efficient transportation, and modern communications technology, and that governments are struggling to keep up with societal changes fueled by technological change. What part do designers play in all this, and how will that change?

As noted before in interactions (and elsewhere), science fiction writer William Gibson once sagely said, "The future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed." The best futurists are science fiction writers, and one of them, Cory Doctorow, has an interesting take on the new world order (what I would call the "the post-post-industrial era"). In his novel Makers, Doctorow describes a world where open innovation reigns free, and individuals have little need for large capital investment to move product from design to realization.

The Industrial Revolution was about the power of technology advancing the power of a few select members of society who could afford it—the aristocracy. What we are witnessing today is a different economic paradigm shift, again induced by technology, but instead empowering vast numbers of individuals—the common man. Moore's Law now allows vast numbers of the global middle class (and increasingly the poor) to have access to enormously powerful technology. With the Internet, they now also have the world's knowledge at their fingertips. In the digital era, they can create and sell things of significant value without a large capital investment. Unlike the industrial barons of the last economic revolution, they require no large factories. The implications of this shift are profound: We are moving toward meritocracy.

If you can take your idea from napkin drawing to design, via the next generation of tools like AutoCAD or Axure, to selling it via an online market in a matter of weeks without a lot of money, things change. We saw what happened to software in the late 1990s when Web technology hit. All of a sudden things like "the virtual store," seemingly limitless in its inventory, and more convenient than the shop down the street, became possible. Imagine what might happen when it becomes feasible for anyone to produce custom-designed physical items leveraging highly flexible offshore manufacturing facilities taking bids via the Internet. Or when anyone can (re)produce items in their neighborhood or home via advanced 3-D printers—which is increasingly becoming an affordable reality. As for software, open source has similar effects. It becomes much easier to create complex software standing on the shoulders of others.

All this means that design becomes more important. As always, design will be about recognizing a need and creatively proposing a solution within the constraints, but many of yesterday's constraints will vanish.

In this new order, creative ideas trump deep pockets and entrenched market players. The cost of trial and error is minimized, so data-driven design, via rapidly collected market insights and user feedback, is everything. Quality becomes key, as does brand, because user feedback via social networks will be public and nearly instantaneous (consider Twitter, Yelp, blogs, and Google). Brands will not stand for long based on myth, as they often do today. In a world where information flows freely and rapidly, every product release or site update will matter, and consumers will be fickle. A pervasively networked consumer base will let no flaw go unnoticed or unpunished. Last year's "Operation Chokehold," where disgruntled iPhone users threatened to shut down AT&T's network and coordinated the effort via Facebook, is an example of the future. Another example is how fast consumer sentiment turned on Toyota. Consumers have more power when they can easily communicate to everyone on the Internet when they are unhappy, putting them on a level playing field with corporate marketers.

Efficiently and effectively incorporating user feedback will become even more critical than it is today. Evolving the design faster than the next guy will increasingly mean owning the market in the long run. Large companies will no longer have an edge based on sheer financial resources; rather, they will need to open their minds to outside ideas and intelligently embrace acquisitions and open innovation in order to keep their edge over smaller and more nimble startups that no longer face the financial, cultural, or logistical hurdles of old-world financing, marketing, and sales models.

Those who identify and meet the needs of niche (including localized) markets (a.k.a. "The Long Tail") will thrive. Hyperefficient markets, cheap manufacturing, and open source models will enable specialized products beyond what we have today. Megabrands selling one-size-fits-all solutions will no longer have as big an edge due to mass production (and marketing) economics. Large corporations will have to adopt mass customization as first envisioned by Joseph Pine in 1992 or they will become obsolete. You can already order personalized jeans from IndiDemin or shoes from Puma at near off-the-shelf prices. This trend will only accelerate as more companies embrace the underlying technology.

Possibilities are becoming limited more by our imagination and knowledge and less by the technical or financial wherewithal needed to achieve it. The design community will need to extend or adapt our methods in several ways if we want to thrive in this new world.

First and foremost, we'll need to continue to position ourselves more as futurists and strategy partners. While there's plenty of talk about this, how many of us are really doing it, or are even ready to assume this role? I'd bet there are many readers who are still content to work comfortably defining the details but who shy away from strategy definition and vision setting. Unfortunately, mass personalization will eliminate many mundane jobs, such as picking colors and forms for mass-production goods. As my longtime collaborator Liam Friedland and I have emphasized in our tutorials on user experience strategy, successful designers of the future will be those who can map and prioritize the outputs of the user experience team based on the needs of the overall organization, deliver innovation predictably, and deliver for the customer. Yes, there will still be "traditional" design work, but with fewer entry-level jobs and higher quality standards.

To succeed in this new world, we'll need to participate in defining the vision, and not just draw it for others. We all know that good design is based on shared visions of what could be. With executives now reading books by Tim Brown and A.G. Lafley, they will increasingly be willing partners in design. How we respond to these aspiring Steve Jobs types is critical. More firms are following the lead of Apple, Coke, and Samsung and hiring design leaders. If we wish to avoid this becoming a passing fad, we must emphasize—as a community—how to run brainstorming and design-facilitation sessions to constructively engage senior leaders to do more scenario-based planning and less micromanaging of pixels and features. One of the best ways to do this is to spend more time leading teams to envision the future using scenarios (as popularized by the famous strategist Pierre Wack) to explore the design space. Here are some examples of these types of scenarios taken from recent technology events:

  • What if we repositioned our computer company as a consumer electronics company?
  • What if we made it easy and cheap to buy music and videos online?
  • What if the price of a laptop dropped to $200?
  • What if instead of selling software, we hosted it on servers and leased it out over the Web?

But as we all know, coming up with the right scenarios before they happen is the hard part. Here are some proven methods for identifying emerging trends for input into scenario planning that we should all consider in our work:

  • Prediction markets (both corporate and market based)
  • Online trend (content) analysis of social media and the Web
  • Delphi method panels and customer councils
  • Formalized studies of lead users (who extend our products or use them in strange ways)
  • Field studies of existing users and targeted users

Each of these methods should be in your toolbox. You're going to need to know when and how to leverage them soon. Remember idea generation and evaluation must feed scenario-based planning methods in a methodical way for long-term success. Otherwise all you are doing is reinforcing group think. As Silicon Valley engineers often say about corporate marketing, "Don't breathe your own exhaust."

It's important to leverage techniques such as those listed here to overcome the first person-perspective problem in design. It's difficult enough to think like someone else; it's even harder to think like someone outside your realm of experience. That's the key contributor to what Clayton Christensen calls the "Innovators Dilemma." This is all the more true when entering new markets, such as those in emerging economies, which are often outside the immediate team's prior experience.

Part of the challenge is that today's multinationals have grown so massive they are too big to live, and arguably incapable of innovation.

The top-down management style we inherited from the Alfred P. Sloan (GM) way of thinking may have reached an evolutionary dead end. No matter how many committees you create (Cisco has 59), and no matter how good your communications infrastructure is, at a certain point things break down and companies become dysfunctional dinosaurs. People create silos and lose touch with the external world and their customers. While methods to capture customer input are evolving, one has to ask if the days of mega corporations are numbered if they cannot adapt. What are the other options?

There is significant speculation that the large organization will morph into something different from Sloan's centrally planned and managed organization composed of functionally specialized departments and product divisions. Technology companies such as Cisco and Intel have been experimenting with decentralized organizational models for years. Google is also a highly visible example. While the idea of having a dedicated innovation organization as part of a traditional organization is still considered feasible in some circles, many point to examples like Xerox's famed PARC and its failure to transfer research ideas into revenue.

One theory is organizations need to evolve into self-organizing superorganisms modeled after insect colonies like beehives. The father of management science, Peter Drucker, predicted this in Post Capitalist Society as the outcome of the rise of the knowledge worker. More recently, Daniel Pink has described this as "the conceptual age," while journalist Michael Malone has prescribed a solution, "the protean corporation." Malone and others claim such self-organizing, bureaucracy-free structures are inherently more capable of innovation, as they can rapidly adapt to changing markets and customer needs to successful deliver products.

As designers we should be inciting these new, swarm-like organizations to move toward adopting open-innovation strategies, inviting outside experts in, and feeding our leaders (note: these may not be our managers) with our analysis of the customer data to drive this change. If you believe in science, the days of accidental design are numbered. There is no question that the role of personal insight and eureka moments will continue to provide key advances. But the long-term winners of the game will be those who efficiently spot opportunities and rapidly evolve concepts into optimized solutions. Just consider what one pretty smart student of design once said about the complex systems he was studying and think about how it applies to you and your company:

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."—Darwin

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Jon Innes is a user experience consultant who helps companies of all shapes and sizes develop and improve design-driven innovation processes. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, he led user experience teams at SAP and Siebel. He has also worked on consumer products for companies like Intuit and Symantec. Innes is a member of UPA, HFES, and ACM CHI with a graduate degree in human factors psychology from New Mexico State. He lives in San Francisco, but has been sighted peering over the shoulders of computer users and drawing on whiteboards at companies all over the world.

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back to top  Figures

UF1The design evolution of the Apple Macintosh mouse from the 1984 M0100 (right), up to the Magic Mouse released in 2009.

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