Looking ahead

XVI.2 March + April 2009
Page: 76
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWDoing business by design

Alex Wright

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Ever since the Harvard Business Review declared that "the MFA is the new MBA" in 2004, the business press has published a raft of articles testifying to the rise of so-called design thinking among corporate managers. So it should come as no surprise that designers are finally starting to break out of their professional literary ghetto to write books targeted at businesspeople. Building on the tradition of such airport-bookstore staples as Built to Last, In Search of Excellence, and Good to Great, a new crop of books has emerged to offer fresh design-oriented perspectives on modern business problems, while—not to put too fine a point on it—burnishing their authors' consulting credentials.

The archetypal design book for businesspeople may be Clement Mok's Designing Business (published in 1996), a beautifully designed think piece that promoted the value of information design as a business strategy in the emerging Internet age. In the years since, many companies have embraced a user-centered approach to design, especially on the Web. But too often they remain fixated on designing individual "products" (websites, software applications, or physical devices). Apple notwithstanding, most companies still tend to relegate designers to the status of "exotic menials" (to borrow Ralph Caplan's term), whose job consists mainly of producing lovely artifacts. As design consciousness starts to penetrate the business mainstream, however, some designers are starting to make the case for a more strategic approach that expands the scope of design thinking beyond the realm of product development.

Ex-Apple industrial designer Robert Brunner and Success Built to Last coauthor Stewart Emery follow standard pop business book convention with a catchy title—Do You Matter?—that serves as a hook for pulling together a series of loosely related case studies that illustrate their central thesis: Companies will "matter" to their customers only if they learn to embrace design thinking at the highest levels of the organization.

Given Brunner's Cupertino pedigree, it should come as no surprise that Apple occupies center stage throughout the book (firmly ensconced in a halo that often feels more than a little self-serving). But the authors have done their homework in seeking out other effective exemplars of companies that have built effective design cultures. In the most dramatic case study, they recount the story of how Samsung chairman Lee Kun Hee transformed his company from a second-tier electronics maker into a global design leader. That transformation was thanks to a remarkably brusque internal campaign that at one point involved force-marching factory workers into a yard piled high with Samsung products, where they watched their products smashed to bits with sledgehammers—driving many of the workers to tears. So began Chairman Lee's "Year of Design Revolution." Those extreme tactics seem to have paid off. Samsung has learned to embrace design at every level of the company, and in so doing catapulted itself into the top tier of global consumer electronics makers.

Other examples are less dramatic but no less compelling, ranging from the obvious—Nike, IKEA, Virgin Atlantic—to the slightly unexpected, like Cirque du Soleil and Whole Foods. Commendably, the book also delivers a few cautionary tales of companies that failed to realize the difference between a well-designed product and a true design culture: the one-off success of Motorola's Razr phone; Starbucks's succumbing to the seductions of efficiency over experience when it junked its old manual espresso makers for the automatic kind; and the story of Polaroid (enough said).

In each case, the authors show how successful design companies move beyond product development to create cultures that drive design thinking across multiple product lines and, even deeper, bring an integrated design approach as many customer touchpoints as possible: customer service, online experiences, and in-person contacts. In the best tradition of pop business books, the authors coin a pithy catchphrase to encapsulate their point: the "customer experience supply chain."

The authors stumble a bit in the closing chapters, when they try to translate their laudable vision into concrete steps that managers might take to institute design thinking at their companies. They dispense buzzwords ("Awareness," "Commitment," "Implementation"), slogans ("Design or die") and—the worst offense—a recursive acronym: FOCUS (focus, long term, authentic, vigilant, original, and repeatable). Many readers may find themselves rolling their eyes at such pop management mantras. That complaint aside, the bulk of the book is well written and the central thesis effectively argued. Readers will come away with plenty of evidence to support the authors' contention that great products alone do not make for a great company.

Perhaps the first company to prove that point was Eastman Kodak, whose 1886 one-button camera ("We do the rest") suggests a model of product-service integration that makes it the spiritual ancestor of the iPod. The Kodak story provides an apt starting point for Subject to Change, written by four members of San Francisco user experience consultancy Adaptive Path. Like Brunner and Stewart, they argue that in order to succeed in a rapidly changing marketplace, companies must move beyond the limiting perspective of one-off product design and explore ways of creating more integrated customer experiences.

While Apple has long since become the design world's most over-used case study, the authors do manage to find something new to say about the iPod. Digging past the conventional wisdom that attributes iPod mania to the simplicity of its industrial design, and arguing instead that its success really hinges on the chain of services that surround it: such as, the thread of experiences tying the iPod together with iTunes and the Apple Store, effectively integrating what Brunner and Stewart call the customer-experience supply chain.

Just as Brunner and Stewart's book weighs disproportionately toward Apple, Subject to Change features a heavy dose of Adaptive Path clients. But the authors do manage to turn up a number of other stories that support their contention that companies can succeed by building more nimble design cultures. These range from the predictable, like Flickr and Apple, to the pleasantly surprising, like the Mayo Clinic's SPARC program for medical-service innovation.

All three of these books share a purpose: trying to influence business readers to shift their focus from one-off-product development to a more integrated approach to designing the customer experience. The books also share a f law: succumbing to the idealistic pitch mentality that is, alas, the consultant's stock in trade.

While the book's central thesis is timely and well focused, the book has a choppy quality that reads something like a group blog: with moments of genuine insight punctuated by a few too many half-formed arguments. In one conspicuous gap, the authors reduce the practice of ethnography down to a mere page that scarcely does the methodology justice (accompanied by the cloying suggestion that anyone interested in ethnographic research should go out and hire a consultant). The authors would have done well to follow Brunner and Emery's approach and hire a professional writer/editor to lend the book a more coherent voice.

When the authors hit their stride, however, they dispense nuggets of useful design wisdom. The book's strongest chapter, "The Design Competency," focuses on how to build an effective in-house design competency, probing one of the central challenges many companies face in trying to embrace design: how to move beyond the MBA fixation on quantitative metrics to drive innovation through qualitative methods. Here the authors stress the importance of learning to live in the "fuzzy front end" of product development by encouraging teams to get beyond reductionist approaches and presuppose multiple solutions, shift focus, and ask tough "what if you could...?" questions (à la Tivo/Netflix/FedEx). Ultimately, the authors argue that the key to product innovation lies in combining qualitative methods with a more agile approach to product development. Some designers might question the authors' wholesale endorsement of agile methods, and their seeming reluctance to devote much discussion to the pros and cons of agile development from a design perspective.

The book's penultimate chapter boils the essence of the book down to a few pithy, one-line slogans under the heading "How to Get There" ("take small steps," "encourage innovation in a tangible way," or "provide specific positive feedback and support.") that will undoubtedly ring true for many designers and managers. Such worthy sentiments cry out for a fuller treatment, however. While, the authors articulate a compelling design philosophy, they fall somewhere short of translating that vision into a workable blueprint for organizational change.

Business readers might not expect to find practical management tips in a book by a brand consultant; after all, brand people often get a bad rap as practitioners of one of the world's fluffier trades. Yet designer and brand consultant Marty Neumeier's new book The Designful Company turns out to contain plenty of practical advice for business readers interested in exploring what it would take to imbue their companies with more design thinking.

Keeping his audience firmly in mind, Neumeier bills his book as a "whiteboard overview" designed for a quick airplane read. He even goes so far as to provide a handy bullet-point outline of the book's contents for busy readers (an affordance this reviewer dutifully chose to forgo). Readers who engage with the whole text, however, will find that Neumeier brings a laudable dose of reality to the subject of organizational change, asserting plainly that "a company can't will itself to be agile." Instead, he suggests, design thinking is an emergent property that manifests when the right people and mind-set come together. That said, he goes on to suggest steps that managers might take to nudge their companies to "develop a 'designful mind.'"

Although Neumeier's brand orientation makes for a somewhat orthogonal approach compared with the more experience-oriented books discussed above, Neumeier winds up tackling many of the same topics, albeit with a different vocabulary. Grounding his book in the question of so-called "wicked problems"—social planner Horst Rittel's term for seemingly insurmountable challenges like balancing long-term goals with short-term demands, predicting the returns on innovative concepts, and innovating at the increasing speed of change—he argues that such deeply thorny problems demand a new way of thinking that's altogether lacking in traditional management approaches like Six Sigma. Unsurprisingly, he suggests that salvation lies in the practice of design.

Bemoaning the lack of design thinking among most MBA graduates, Neumeier tries to articulate how managers without a formal design education can nonetheless adopt a designer's point of view by cultivating empathy and intuition, an imaginative and idealistic outlook, and learning to live with the "creative tension" between vision and reality—the distance between what is and what could be. The designer's mind-set, he argues, embraces paradox and encourages so-called "third brain thinking": the ability to zoom in and out of problems at multiple levels.

Like Brunner and Emery and Adaptive Path, Neumeier advocates that managers bring design thinking "up the ladder" through research and development, industrial design, call centers, online experiences, face-to-face contacts, and so on—to create what he calls the "brand ecosystem," echoing Brunner and Stewart's notion of an "experience supply chain" (catchphrases being the currency of the business-book realm).

After a frustratingly brief discussion of the problems facing in-house designers (that Neumeier admits could be a subject for another book), he goes on to discuss what steps managers can take to imbue their organization with design thinking. He argues for establishing a design vision clearly situated in an organizational entity that can pull together a "metateam" drawn from all over the company (here he tries his best to puncture the myth of the "Lone Ranger" model of innovation by individual genius designers). He also suggests—with perhaps a hint of self-interested bias—that in-house teams should own the vision for design while outsourcing a great deal of hands-on design execution.

Neumeier's prescriptions sometimes verge on sloganeering ("Ban Powerpoint," "Establish free-speech zones"), but he does go into satisfying specifics about the importance of establishing metrics like time to market and setting measurable frameworks for evaluating pilot projects. He also argues for establishing brand-training programs to give employees certain core values that can then take shape throughout the entire chain of customer interactions. Finally, he articulates his vision of the "designful company" by pitting it against the "traditional" company, the designful company being a place where customers come before costs, vision and creativity take precedence over command and control hierarchies, and jobs are more product-oriented than role-oriented. If this sounds like Oz, well, surely it's a brand consultant's job to conjure a better world?

Ultimately, all three of these books share a purpose: trying to influence business readers to shift their focus from one-off-product development to a more integrated approach to designing the customer experience. The books also share a flaw: succumbing to the idealistic pitch mentality that is, alas, the consultant's stock in trade. A few too many feel-good nostrums tend to undermine the credibility of worthwhile arguments, by making it all seem a little too easy. One comes away wishing for a more grounded perspective, perhaps incorporating the viewpoint of beleaguered designers and managers laboring in the field (of course, most of these people are too busy to write books). On the other hand, a more reality-centered business book about design might make for less inspiring reading. In the end, we look to designers to transcend the mundane realities of money making, by transforming the world of commerce into a useful art.

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Alex Wright is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He has led user experience design initiatives for the New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard University, and the Long Now Foundation, among others. His writing has appeared in Salon.com, the Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. Alex writes regularly about technology and design at http://www.alexwright.org.

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DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1487632.1487650

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0300  $5.00

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