The core capabilities of design

Patrick Whitney | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 25, 2016

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Many people still think of design as dealing with the look and feel of products. It is true that products were styled in the mid-20th century to imply a difference when they were actually the same. And, twenty years later design focused on making products user-friendly in response to embedded computing making them user-hostile.

As we shift from an economy of scale that emphasises efficient production to an economy of choice that values delightful user experiences, other core competencies of design come to the fore.

Reframe: Realise that the initial definition of a challenge may not be accurate. Create a new frame for understanding what is needed.

Reframing describes a new direction for a project. It depends heavily on abstraction and new insights gained through empathy. In the case of Apple music, music industry executives thought they were creating value by manufacturing CDs, while Apple reframed the challenge as “helping people enjoy music”.

This led it to create a phenomenal new retail experience. It reformatted the music offering by focusing on songs rather than albums. It wrote a new contract for digital rights management that would make downloading legal, creating more balanced benefits for listeners, musicians, and publishers, all the while generating other innovations.

Abstraction: Discover the core value that can be created or enhanced

Projects often begin with an answer in mind. Continuing to ask “Why?” to discover the core value that can be created leads to meaningful, novel solutions. A good example is the way Steve Jobs abstracted the concept of the “MP3 player and software to organise music” to “enjoying music,” competing with Napster and other software used to steal music.

Imagine new options: Create new ideas that make sense even when evidence is limited

In the late 1800s the American scientist and logician Charles Sanders Pierce wrote about a third type of logic that could be used to make logical conjectures with relatively little evidence. Called abductive logic, other ways to describe it include ‘hypothesis formation’ and ‘argument to best inference’. An abductive inference reasons backward from a likely outcome, to ask, “If this is the result, what could be the most likely cause?”

Physicians often use abduction in making diagnoses based on observation. Designers use abduction to propose options based on user observations. Both use incomplete information, yet each has a sound reason to believe in the value of a proposal. As we shift to an era filled with uncertainty, organisations need a wider variety of plausible options. The type of intelligent creativity that characterises design achieves this.

Visualise ideas: Turn abstract ideas into concrete examples

Projects are frequently launched with an abstract verbal description that each project team member may interpret differently. By visualising and prototyping early ideas, design enables all involved to see the alternative ramifications of different options.

Empathy: Know users better than they know themselves

Companies usually think of users in terms of market segments. These are normally a cross between a range of demographic characteristics and a propensity to buy things within the company’s categories of interest. By observing what people do rather than asking questions about purchase preferences, the design process can discover patterns that can lead companies to create offerings that people do not know to request. A simple example is Oxo Good Grips.

Sam Farber, the founder, worked with Smart Design to design potato peelers and other household tools with large rubber handles that looked good. He had observed that people with arthritis could not hold the small handles on existing products. He also knew a much larger group was buying elegant kitchen products. By expanding his customer base among this second group, Farber was able to sell the product for much less than the dull-looking ones that had been designed for people with arthritic hands.

By empathising with both groups, Farber created a product that millions of people love but none had asked for. Had Farber done traditional market research, he would have discovered no segment for relatively expensive, specialised kitchen gadgets, other than the market for people with arthritis.

Probabilistic systems: See relationships among things that do not seem related

Designers are comfortable making decisions with information that is logical and supported by evidence, yet still incomplete and unproven. Complex deterministic systems – like building a bridge – have known factors and specifiable results. Working on ways to reduce morning traffic congestion on the bridge has incomplete and unreliable information in fuzzy areas, like how people make decisions about the route they take to get to work in the morning.

Operations: Know the general options for production and the social context for gaining acceptance in the organisation

Since the shift of design from making things to specifying them, the operational aspect of design knowledge has taken on a more important role. This role ranges from gaining approval for an idea to knowing which manufacturing processes to consider.

Value creation: Recognise unusual opportunities to create value, particularly intangible value

Companies that were first adopters of quality assurance programmes had a competitive edge – until those programmes became standard. The intangible value that design creates is today’s competitive edge. Consider Apple’s balance sheet: Design appears as a cost, but it remains invisible on the revenue side. Individual consumers cannot buy design, but we can buy the offerings of outstanding companies who deploy design as a competitive resource.

Published on February 25, 2016
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