The topic of design is all the rage these days in business circles. As with any “rage,” the word has become severely overloaded. Despite the decay in meaning, the principles of design are increasingly essential to business success. This is especially true in today’s adapt-or-die environment of rapid change.
Depending on your vintage, when imagining a designer you likely conjure images of turtlenecks and mid-century modern furniture or bearded hipsters and MacBooks. Either way, that image is only a caricature. Before we can look at a few ways to adopt design behavior, we need to set up a realistic working definition of design thinking.
In the simplest terms, here is how I define design:
- It is the communication of an idea or solution to a problem
- It simplifies or humanizes a process or interaction
- It is driven by a personal experience, particularly an emotional experience
- It relies on images, models, and prototypes that connect to base cognition
- It is tolerant of failure and makes use of feedback
The trappings of aesthetics are completely avoided here, and intentionally so. To be sure, the beauty (or lack thereof) of an object or interface can influence the effectiveness of the design. But focusing on the look and feel of a design can also distract us from observing whether it truly achieves its goal.
Given this understanding of design, what are some design-centric behaviors that we can adopt within our organizations?
Capitalize on Customer Insight
A design-oriented organization puts customers at the center of the conversation. All other concerns drift to the sidelines. While profit potential, marketability, cost, manufacturing complexity, and support are important, they have no impact if the product doesn’t meet a customer need.
Do your teams regularly spend time with your customers? If not, this is the starting point for adopting design behaviors within your organization. There are many ways to achieve this, and the exact techniques will be guided by the type of product or service you deliver. Here are a few ideas:
Probably the simplest thing you can do to understand the problems your users face on a daily basis is to watch them perform a task. In particular, watch them using your product or performing a function your product is intended to enable. In some cases, it may not be possible to sit down and observe your users for a few hours, but you may be surprised. Whether you’re designing a mobile application, a car dashboard, or a text-to-speech interface for the visually impaired, you can probably find a way to observe or approximate their experience.
User Interviews or Focus Groups
It will be no surprise that a face-to-face conversation is one of the best tools for gathering customer insight. Whether done on a one-on-one basis or in a group setting, hearing experiences from the first-person perspective is invaluable.
Be sure that you go into these interactions without too many biases. It’s best to have a mix of predetermined quantitative questions as well as open-ended experiential questions. You want people to provide their opinions candidly and not feel as though they are being led. Be prepared for surprises that you did not anticipate, and when they arise, follow them, that’s where the real value lies.
One of my personal favorite techniques allows us to gather insight from inside an organization without the process of observation influencing the results. This works particularly well when designing for groups of individuals who perform similar tasks but do so independently.
Simply ask them to pair up for an hour or two. One person observes the other and writes down in as much detail as possible how the other person executes the task at hand. This has two benefits: 1) the observer brings their own understanding of the task (possibly foreign to you) to bear while recording, 2) the observed individual is less likely to alter their behavior because they know they are being watched by a stranger.
Always Consider Your Message
Defining the message is one of the most powerful things a team can do when designing something, whether a product or process. This applies equally at any level of abstraction: a business model, a product, a feature, or a tiny user interaction. There are essentially two base components to any message: what you want the audience to know, and what you want the audience to feel. By focusing on these two components, you strip away all of the distracting elements of how something will be built and focus on how it will be experienced.
It’s important to note here that the level of granularity of the message changes depending on what you’re designing. If you are focusing on an entire business model, the message should be defined at that level. If you are zoomed all the way in on the tiniest detail, then likewise the message should be intensely sharp. Here are some examples:
|Topic / Problem||What to Know||What to Feel|
|Onboarding experience for a crowdsourced pet care service.||What services we offer, and which we do not. Our pricing
model and how crowdsourcing helps reduce cost. How we ensure
safety. How to sign up for the service.
|Fondness for their pets and an emotional connection to their
daily care. A sense of family. That our service is credible and
|Data visualization of several climatological metrics over the
span of decades.
|Broad trends in temperature as well as temperature volatility.
Trends in frequency of major storms. Trends in CO2 emissions.
|A sense of urgency but not disaster. A connection with the
environment. Some amount of personal responsibility.
|User interface for selecting and filling government tax forms.||Which forms they are completing. How long it will take to
complete. How to complete each section. What supporting
documents they will need before they begin. What the submission
process will be like.
|Confidence that their documents will be completed properly.
Minimal frustration. A sense of accomplishment. Affinity to
continue selecting the brand in future years.
|Calendar picker for hotel booking website that supports both
check-in and check-out dates.
|Which dates and date ranges are available to book. The price
for each date for the room selected. Which dates are “super
|Quick and accurate data entry. Easy to be flexible with their
travel dates. Low frustration, highly intuitive interface
One helpful technique that almost anyone can participate in is the creation of a mood board. If you’re not familiar with the term, a mood board is basically just a collection of anything visual or typographic. The idea is to assemble a group of moods that you wish to represent in a product or service. This can have a dramatic effect on getting to the core message of an offering: what the user should know, and what they should feel.
If you’re collaborating in a small working group on a particular initiative, ask everyone to prepare their own mood board for the project. Gather 10-20 images from anywhere—the Internet, magazines, catalogs. The images don’t have to be even remotely related to the product. The idea of mood is so abstract that it helps us reset our thinking and break out of assumed and entrenched thought patterns. A well-positioned chair in an architectural magazine with excellent lighting and color can influence the thinking on a digital product that helps doctors visualize vitals over time.
Spend Time Drawing
A picture truly is worth a thousand words, but in some ways that’s an apples to oranges comparison. The human brain interprets images differently from the spoken or written word. Different memories are triggered by images, and they inspire alternate perspectives. The tangibility of images also increases the likelihood that a shared understanding will develop.
It will serve you well to develop your sketching skills. By this I don’t mean becoming an amazing artist—no need to channel your inner Bob Ross. But everyone can produce understandable “boxes and arrows” drawings that are just as communicative. Here are a few different ways you might leverage visuals in collaborative scenarios:
Data has a profound effect on how we conceptualize products and services. But humans have a warped sense of scale and proportion, and data can be difficult to grasp merely through words.
You’re probably thinking pie charts and line graphs, and yes, those are part of the story here. But there are many ways to communicate quantitative ideas. Things like Venn diagrams, four-quadrant matrices, timelines, and simple network graphs can be fantastic at illustrating a concept and crystallizing a common understanding. All of these can easily be drawn on a whiteboard or the back of a napkin.
Process, Workflow, or State Diagrams
Whenever there is a series of things that happen in a system, as there is in almost any system, a diagram can be helpful. These types of diagrams come in many flavors, but all illustrate something happening with the added dimension of time. These types of pictures are especially helpful when the system in question is complex, has many pieces, or has inherent branching logic that is difficult to keep in your head.
A happy side effect of these types of drawings is that they can often take the place of much more verbose written specifications. I have often seen 6+ written pages reduced to a simple half-page diagram with some annotations. That kind of conciseness means that we can iterate on the idea more freely without the fear of rework.
Interface Wireframes and Storyboards
Whenever you’re working on a digital product interface, wireframes can be insanely helpful. Simple whiteboard sketches of layouts, forms, user interface elements, and content can remove ambiguity and also spark creative alternatives. Personally, I like to encourage everyone to take a turn at the whiteboard. No artistic ability is necessary and the value is huge.
Wireframes represent a zoomed-in view of a digital product, one screen at a time. A storyboard, on the other hand, helps to illustrate workflows and how multiple screens interact. These are equally important to increase shared understanding. Storyboards should highlight the general transitions that a user goes through when completing a task or process. These are often coupled with a more abstract state or process diagram.
Edit Aggressively and Iterate
Any creative endeavor benefits from a thoughtful amount of restraint; developing products or services is no exception. In fact, it is particularly important to edit in a business setting in order to balance the two most important elements of any design strategy: commitment and flexibility.
Design must commit to certain choices; otherwise it doesn’t have any meaning. But, this must be counterbalanced by retaining as much flexibility as possible to allow for unforeseen potential futures. And this is where iteration comes in.
At each iteration of the design cycle, you should strive to make the fewest number of committed decisions possible while still achieving your objective. The shorter and more frequent your iterations, the more opportunity you have to reap the benefits of the flexibility that you have preserved by postponing decisions.
Whenever you are presented with a set of possible features or implementation decisions, ask the question: “What can I remove and still achieve the same objectives?” This continual focus on editing heavily will allow you to delay commitments until absolutely necessary. And, in the space between the iterations you can loop back and gather more customer feedback that will further influence future iterations.
This is just a handful of the ways that you can introduce design behavior into your organization. The beauty of these techniques is that you can start small, experiment with different methods, and improve with practice. You will be amazed at the new perspectives you can gain by applying just a little design thinking in your work.