Posts Tagged ‘design thinking’

Systemic design thinking and complex adaptive systems

Going back to first principles has been a refreshing exercise. Even as our work has taken us into some wholly new places, there’s comfort in knowing that others have thought deeply about the concepts, though not in our context. I’m a firm believer in not re-inventing the wheel. Consider it a working prototype to be tested in a new environment, rather like I’ve been doing with Vijay Kumar’s innovation methods.

Here’s the context of the thinking I’d been doing on iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems – that is, taking on the wicked problem space of international development where the operating environment is rather greatly different from the predictable regularity of the developed world:

People-centered systems design thinking for complexity
Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective (Intro)
An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools (Part 1)
Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’(Part 2)

Thus, it was with pleasure that I dived into exploring Peter Jones’ publications on social transformation. Two, especially, caught my attention.
The first lays the groundwork in the work of bringing together the two disciplines – systems thinking and design.  From the abstract of his Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems:

Systems theory and design thinking both share a common orientation to the desired outcomes of complex problems, which is to effect highly-leveraged, well-reasoned, and preferred changes in situations of concern.Systems thinking (resulting from its theoretical bias) promotes the understanding of complex problem situations independently of solutions, and demonstrates an analytical bias. Design disciplines demonstrate an action-oriented or generative bias toward creative solutions, but design often ignores deep understanding as irrelevant to future-oriented change.While many practitioners believe there to be compatibility between design and systems theory,the literature shows very few examples of their resolution in theoretical explanation or first principles. This work presents a reasoned attempt to reconcile the shared essential principles common to both fundamental systems theories and design theories, based on meta-analyses and a synthesis of shared principles. An argument developed on current and historical scholarly perspectives is illuminated by relevant complex system cases demonstrating the shared principles. While primarily oriented to complex social systems, the shared systemic design principles apply to all complex design outcomes, product and service systems, information systems, and social organizational systems.

And once I noted there was a bit of an overlap between the references I’d drawn on for my initial exploration of design planning as the discipline from which to source methods to address the challenge of complex, adaptive systems as currently explored in the development space, I was relieved to see that I was on the right path for our own theoretical evolution.

This paper is a great starting point for our methods development for the context of the informal sector in the East Africa, particularly outside the urban centers. And, a second paper by Jones – Design Research Methods in Systemic Design validates many of our assumptions while working with only the methods and systems thinking from one school of thought – the Institute of Design’s philosophy and approach.

In future blogposts, I will attempt to triangulate the thinking from all of these disciplines – design planning, human centered design, systems thinking, and international development. There’s a paper I’m hoping to write by the Autumn, if all goes well and the abstract accepted for a conference at the end of the year.

Does the human-centered design industry believe in it’s own process?

Generic diagram found online

Generic diagram found online

Listening to users, and incorporating their feedback is considered the key differentiator for the practice of human-centered design. Yet, one wonders, if the design industry has understood that this philosophy must necessarily include the feedback from their clients as well. That is, while we are all aware of the navel gazing tendencies displayed by design thinkers and writers, we very rarely come across any pragmatic criticism of the industry itself, and it’s approach and processes, by those purchasing their services.

Yesterday, during my reading on ‘Doing Development Differently’,  I came across an incisive critique of what can only be called Big Design, by Geoff Mulgan, the Chief Executive of Nesta – the UK’s innovation foundation. His insights are worth pondering.


Source: Ben Ramalingam

One could almost interpret this as saying that human centered designers are unable to incorporate user feedback.

As Mulgan himself says on page 5:

I’ve several times sat in meetings with designers and design promoters, alongside policymakers, where the same pattern has repeated. The policymakers grudgingly accepted that they might have quite a bit to learn from the designers; but the designers appeared baffled when it was suggested that they might have something to learn from the policymakers, or from the many other organisations and fields with claims to insight into service design: social entrepreneurs, professions, consultancies, IT, policymakers. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule: but overblown claims that design methods are uniquely placed to tackle complex, holistic problems has not always helped to inspire a culture of collaboration and mutual learning.

When an overweening sense of one’s place on the team overrides ‘deep craft’, what are the future implications for the designer’s role in shaping their own environment?

And, what are the ramifications for the entire design industry, when Big Design’s Big PR hampers progress more than it helps?

“Unlearn the past to create the future”

ckptyranny1The late Michigan University management professor, CK Prahalad, is best known for his last, and most famous publication, The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. But to MBA students, management consultancies, corporate planners, and regular readers of the Harvard Business Review, he is also known for a long and distinguished career in management thought leadership. Identifying and recognizing the Core Competency of corporations is another one of his strategy concepts.
I bring him up because today I want to start my keynote on behalf of the Inequality and Technology opening conference by BankInter Foundation for Innovation with a point he made in a speech given at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad back in 2009.

The tyranny of dominant logic, he called it. We are all socialized to believe, he said, that developing countries cannot be the source of innovation. And this dominant logic provides the theoretical lens by which we see the world. Developed country managers, consultants, academic researchers, all have been socialized to accept this notion.

Because of this, he said, we have never questioned the premise that innovation flows from the top down to the bottom; or, from the North down to the South; or, from the developed countries to the developing. But, as he pointed out with numerous examples in his speech, this doesn’t actually hold true. And this blinds us from seeing otherwise. We must unlearn, the past, to create the future, he told us.


Read On…

5 examples of the breadth of African led human-centered design and thinking and planning

The other day I was searching for news on design from the African continent and noted on Twitter that it seemed as though only the South Africans were consistently talking about their various creative outputs. Having long been part of the crowd that believed in the indigenous creativity and innovation in the less visible parts of the world, I went digging to see if maybe it wasn’t the words that were important but the intent of the action.

Was there, in fact, evidence of people centred thinking and planning, and solution crafting, that was innovative or transformative? This is what I’ve found with just a couple of days of desk research, I expect there’s much more out there and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

South Africa: What was designed to exclude can be redesigned to include


Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course © Johnny Miller / Millefoto

During apartheid, barriers were both constructed and modified to segregate urban spaces—roads, rivers, and large stretches of open land separating rich neighborhoods from the poor. Twenty-two years later these barriers still exist, large homes with lush lawns just a few yards away from tightly-packed communities organized with dirt roads rather than tree-lined streets. Photographer Johnny Miller wanted to capture the dramatic divide from a new perspective, and decided to shoot many areas in South Africa from several hundred feet in the air for a series titled “Unequal Scenes.”

Miller’s photographs went viral as evidence of the inequality inherently embedded in the design of the landscape. Now, the City of Johannesburg is talking about redesigning apartheid’s spatial design:

The city is trying to achieve this through its spatial development strategy dubbed the ‘Corridors of Freedom’ to eliminate sprawling low-density areas without practical public transport networks.

The City of Johannesburg’s executive director for development and planning, Yondela Silimela, says suburban living is not efficient, as leisure amenities are shared by few people. The proposal by the city is urban mixed-use areas that promote shared public spaces such as swimming pools and tennis courts between the rich and poor, to close the widening inequality gap.


Government of Rwanda’s political will to enhance citizen-centered governance

In Rwanda, however, the people centric policy design has entered the realm of the intangible – pushing the envelope of design thinking as far as any Nordic city. Taxation policy is to be reconsidered after a User Perception Survey, and an ambitious plan for leadership commitment has been launched by the president for people-centered development. We have hopes of a design policy lab being pioneered in Kigali.


Namibian invention disrupts mobile technology


Petrus Simon with his invention

More pragmatically, a young Namibian figured out how to make mobile phone calls without the need for a SIM card. Luckily, this achievement of his captured the media’s imagination, catapulting him into the limelight and garnering him a scholarship in technology at any university of his choice from the local telco. If every young African inventor received the same, the landscape of STEM would change across the continent.

Ekandjo revealed that the company does not usually fund learners from grade 12, but MTC  is proud to make an exception.

Last year Petrus won a gold medal at the NamPower national schools’ competition, after he invented a machine that serves as a seed drier and cooler.


Kenyan Andrew Kio saw the unmet need for African sizes in clothing

 “There are no standard sizes for Africans like the way people walk into shops abroad and you are asked whether you are a size 12 or 14 and such like things.”

Kio did basic market research to help him carve out a niche for himself in the market given that most people then still had a preference for imported jeans, despite the fact that they did not fit properly. He learnt that women have the most problems. He had found his entry point. Kio then went and bought some pairs of women’s jeans, ripped them apart and studied their designs carefully.

Blacjack now has six full-time employees and Kio has recently bought new machines to keep up with demand. Blacjack dresses KFC and Kengeles staff and recently signed a deal with French retailer Carrefour, which has debuted in Kenya. He also imports Woodin designer African prints from Ghana for uniquely African jeans. Source


Which segues nicely into the recently launched initiative by the AfDB called Fashionomics – complete with a B2B platform for pan African SMEs. We keep our fingers crossed that creative entrepreneurs like Andrew see the fruits of all this hard work.


People-centered systems design thinking out loud

feature_jaimeThis morning I was pondering the complexity involved in weaving together four separate threads of ‘innovation’ into one holistic system. They were not unrelated to each other, and the end users are more or less the same for each, but each is also a standalone solution to a pain point in an ecosystem. I was tinkering with the idea of trying to knit them into one – would it be far too complicated, both to implement, and to develop conceptually? Or, would the complexity be worth the additional headaches because the outcome would be well worth the effort of integration into a holistic and seamless concept?

From the product development point of view, the research question is whether an integrated, seamless solution is more viable and desirable than four standalone solutions developed by individual teams, in parallel, within the same ecosystem, and for the same target audience. Feasibility is the question being evaluated, from the value for money perspective. Of course it could be tried, that’s the beauty of design – one attempts to build prototypes to test one’s paper based theories to see if they break in the real world. But was it worth the time and resources to build the prototype in the first place?

It was while grappling with this minuscule yet wicked problem that I was reminded of a gentleman I once heard speak at the Better World by Design conference in Rhode Island about 8 years ago. Jaime Lerner is very well known to urban planners and city designers, I’m sure, but perhaps not as familiar a name to the rest of us. He conceived the idea of the city as a living, breathing, organic system – a turtle, as you can see in the diagram above. Life, work, movement, are all integrated together.

While the systems design challenge I’m pondering is more technology based, as is usually the case in today’s world, and not a cityscape, I believe that one can take away some powerful insights from Mr Lerner’s philosophy for design planning for a complex human ecosystems. In this context, its the informal and rural economic system prevalent in the developing world. Not unlike Brazil, where Mr Lerner perfected his vision.

Commerce in the informal sector is a living, breathing, organic ecosystem made up of human beings in flexible, negotiable, and thus, reciprocal relationships with each other. Much of the groundwork for this conclusion can be discovered in the reports linked to here. If we set aside the cityscape, and consider the essence of Mr Lerner’s philosophy, we see that his three key concepts are life, work, and movement.

In the context of the informal valueweb, movement could be considered with far more layers of nuance than simply transportation or mobility as one would in the context of urban planning. And, in the context of an ecosystem, it could be stretched to cover the flows of value in between the nodes in a value web – these we’d earlier identified as information, goods, services, and currency. That is, movement is the lifeblood of the organic network, the transactions that take place, and most importantly, the element of give and take which distinguishes human to human interactions.

Thus, if we were to step back from the design of the details of such a complex human interaction system, we too could conceivably think of it as living organism – perhaps not a turtle, which is a better metaphor for a city; perhaps there’s some other metaphor waiting for us to stumble over. In the meantime, I do wonder if we have the underlying philosophy for the design of complex, interdependent human interaction systems?



@Prepaid Africa Connecting Dots – October 2015


October was a busy month for us – The African Development Bank hosted their first Innovation Weekend in Abidjan from the 9th to the 11th of October. Our contribution was thinking about the problems we face as the starting point for new venture design.


Emerging Futures Lab’s Niti Bhan, collating everyone’s problem statements. Abidjan, 9th October 2015

Savvy young people from across Francophone West Africa gathered to conceptualize startups over the course of the weekend, culminating in grand prizes and the opportunity to grow into viable businesses. Much excitement.

The startups; PayFree, a multiplex platform for payments; La Ruche, a marketplace for artisans to sell their wares; Coliba, a mobile platform for managing urban waste; and BioPRO, an intervention seeking to help rural people get access to energy and electricity will each receive an AfDB fellowship with Ampion to accelerate these projects to become viable companies.


Continuing with the Francophone flavour, our next big news is introducing our Beninese collaboration – Ms. Yacine Bio-Tchane, who has been blogging in French on the emerging consumer markets in the region. Emerging Futures Lab now has a Francophone West African footprint.

Portrait robot du nouveau consommateur africain
La ruée vers la Côte d’Ivoire des marques internationales
Les taxi-motos, potentiels livreurs en Afrique de l’Ouest
Où se trouvent les plus grands consommateurs en Afrique?



tumblr_nwsbz0ytDw1qghc1jo1_500Finally, Senegal hit the headlines with the launch of indigenous wine from the shade of the baobabs.




ColdhubsNigerian innovators have become a hot trend – Coldhubs is an outdoor solar powered fridge, developed by Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu as a sustainable solution for minimizing post harvest losses faced by farmers. Meanwhile, a team of students from Nnamdi Azikwe University (UNIZIK), Awka, have built a made-in-Nigeria mini bus, which they say is the first of its kind.

tumblr_nx7cu51yEp1qghc1jo1_500And finally, from the Nigerian diaspora, Dr. Samuel Achilefu, has won the prestigious St. Louis Award for 2014 for creating cancer-visualizing glasses.



And to round up this exciting month, we cover the just concluded India  Africa Forum Summit, held in New Delhi 26th to 28th October.

16BYAThe hype

India-Africa summit is meant to strengthen trade ties
India is trying to match China’s engagement in the continent
China is accused of exploiting Africa’s natural resources

Reality check

India isn’t really doing any better than China
It exports 67% consumer goods, 2% raw materials
Imports are mostly raw materials – salt, ores, oil, metals

10 years later: Will buying Lunar Design make McKinsey more nimble?

project1Around 10 years ago, I’d made this rough sketch of the innovation consulting landscape as I saw it at the time. The overlap of business and design was the topic du jour, and IDEO had just begun seeding the media with stories of the Empathy Economy and the magic of “design thinking”.

Today*, peterme’s blogpost woke me up with the news that McKinsey had purchased Lunar Design. If you’re not familiar with the ID landscape in the US, particularly on the West Coast, then a few words on Lunar will help with context. Afaik, they’ve always been a most respected medium sized industrial design studio – I have a vague recollection of meeting John Edson in some social gathering related to my work with Core77. Besides, back in the day, before social media came along to completely fragment what was left of the interwebs, the design world was a much smaller place.

Once I’d released my first impressions on Twitter (one of the reasons there’s a lot less blogging these days is how much of our pondering ends up being diffused through those addictive 140 character bursts), I recalled the diagram I’d created in September 2005. That was the period when I’d immersed myself wholly and completely in exploring the interstitial spaces between “Business” and “Design”, developing much of the foundation of my consulting practice.  You can see the seeds of today’s hybrid research driven consumer-centric strategies and the evolution of the traditional methods and frameworks to suit the needs of the informal sector in the explorations of a decade ago.

Ten years to respond to changes in the environment

Enough indulgence in the circumlocutions of yore, lets take a step back and look at the diagram again, this time with today’s news layered on top (as crudely drawn as the original).

project10That red box marks the spot of the combined Lunar+ McKinsey offer. Does this acquisition stretch McKinsey in a continuum (heh) across the entire bottom half of this position map? Or will Lunar Design hold that space for them while they keep their corner on the bottom right?

Given they’ve had a digital design department in some affordable corner of the universe, I’m assuming they’d managed to stretch their service offering and client deliverable capabilities as far they could without actually stepping fully fledged into the hard core world of industrial design. Their lack of strategic design planning was obvious.


You’ll note that their earlier attempts to discuss product design tend to emphasize the B-School approach of conjoint analysis and elements from industrial engineering such as value analysis. Having debated the pros and cons of conjoint analysis vociferously in product development as taught in an MBA program as well as taken electives in value engineering during my engineering undergrad, I can recognize the clumsiness of the design strategy for competitive advantage approach in this case study. Its incremental.

Design catapulted itself into the boardroom in the meantime

This is not to say that the gurus at McKinsey were wrong. Business has, since the beginning of organizational management of mass production and practice, considered industrial design as a line item. Its place in the hierarchy of business was clear – marketing and finance and sales would inform the designers and the engineers what they had to do and how to do it.

Business schools emphasize analytical thinking while strategy teaches us frameworks and methods for analysis, after the fact. NPV will let you forecast returns but the method requires you to know exactly what you plan to do, in order to cost it, at the outset. There is no room built into the system for either experimentation or iteration. Brainstorming is a carefully curated meeting and free association or wild guesses frowned upon by middle management. The bottomline is a numbers game. And that’s a game that McKinsey’s designed to win.

The ‘magic’ of design

Yet as Steve Jobs would have shown you, there’s an intuitive leap in vision and innovation that happens (by magic) for which there’s no careful step by step replicable process to follow. Synthesizing the vast variety of data and distilling it down into a visualized whole – a concept to be manifested in the form of a prototype or rendering – is often a post it covered version of a pub brawl. Sure, there are a 101 Methods, as Vijay will remind you but the reality is one of scribbles, sketches, whiteboards, foolscap sheets and Lego.

The eureka moment is in the conversations – brainstorming – a phase built into the design process at least once if not more. This space in time is critical to the design (and of course, innovation yada yada) process. Business processes don’t really have this space built in – brainstorming and discussions become management by walking around and watercooler discussions – moments to be captured in the interstitial spaces between powerpoints and presentations and slidesets of excel spreadsheets.

And so you have design case studies which inform you that the removal of half an inch of spindle will save you 0.7% of your cost.

Can the black turtlenecks help the suits be nimble?

Much has already been said in the past 10 years about the value of design’s approach to problem solving and the insights it can bring to bear on business strategy and decision making. Very quickly, some key points that come to mind, are:

Comfort with ambiguity and chaos – we don’t know what we’ll find or what we’re going to make and we’re okay with this not knowing long enough to figure out what to do.

Experimental & Iterative – “Let’s see what works” is the unspoken yet universally understood mantra when there are enough design enthusiasts in the room. You don’t have to be guy who makes it to understand we might have to break it a few times to see what happens. Ask Dyson.

Flexible, Responsive, Nimble – The very nature of the design process, with its multiple iterations and lack of attachment to the one right answer implies that design teams tend to be flexible, nimble and responsive to results, data or shifts in the environment.

Willing to leap first and look later – which brings us to this last point since innovation, or even a new toothbrush design, often means there aren’t any citations or numbers available to point the way. The much maligned inarticulate concept sketches that emerge from the gut of an industrial designer (and especially award winning ones, like Lunar) often can’t justify their existence with metrics, measurements and excel forecast sheets though they could probably craft a well reasoned argument for a particular design direction.

Will this chaotic creativity be integrated into McKinsey’s offering and deliverables or will it be one more service to be discretely sold?

This is the make or break question. McKinsey’s current state of mind can be inferred from this snippet taken from their new book:

Our intuition has been formed by a set of experiences and ideas about how things worked during a time when changes were incremental and somewhat predictable. Globalization benefited the well established and well connected, opening up new markets with relative ease. Labor markets functioned quite reliably. Resource prices fell. But that’s not how things are working now—and it’s not how they are likely to work in the future. If we look at the world through a rearview mirror and make decisions on the basis of the intuition built on our experience, we could well be wrong. In the new world, executives, policy makers, and individuals all need to scrutinize their intuitions from first principles and boldly reset them if necessary. This is especially true for organizations that have enjoyed great success.

Does this questioning of the underpinnings of their traditional methods and conventional frameworks imply greater integration, in an effort to catch up with the leapfrogging of innovation as peterme would have it?

There is an urgent imperative to adjust to these new realities. Yet, for all the ingenuity, inventiveness, and imagination of the human race, we tend to be slow to adapt to change. There is a powerful human tendency to want the future to look much like the recent past. On these shoals, huge corporate vessels have repeatedly foundered. Revisiting our assumptions about the world we live in—and doing nothing—will leave many of us highly vulnerable. Gaining a clear-eyed perspective on how to negotiate the changing landscape will help us prepare to succeed.

Or, is this just an attempt to buy ‘cool’ more than a decade after the fact? Only time will tell.


Postscript: There’s another post here which needs to look at what this means for the design industry.

The Value Creator’s Dilemma: Opportunity and Growth in a Dog eat Dog World

There are two mindsets – the ‘competitive’ mindset where the market is believed to be finite in scope and scale, that assumes that resources are scarce, an approach to strategy based on solely on the competitive aspects of fundamental frameworks like Porter’s Five Forces. Or as I see it, a zero sum game.

That is, the mentality that thinks that ‘if the other guy wins, I lose’ or ‘If I win, the other guy loses’. That makes sense in poker, which is in fact a game, but not, imho, in the business of value creation, revenue generation and growth. It assumes the pool is stagnant.

The other mindset – one that is quite rightly gaining traction, but has yet to be wholly understood in the context of growing the market or generating revenue – is that of a ‘value creator’. The ‘value creation’ mindset believes that the market is infinite, in scope and scale, it assumes that value can be added, enhanced and created, it’s an approach to strategy that does not need ‘one right answer’ as the goal before it’s implementation. And due to this basic difference, there cannot, thus, be a zero sum game.

That is, ‘if I win, I would have created value, adding to the pool from which my wins come to me, therefore I’m not taking away the other guy’s wins which existed before I came along and added some more.’

Let me try to explain this thought a little further. Here is the basic ‘Competitive Forces‘ Model by Michael Porter, better known as the ‘Five Forces’:


This reference site offers a cautionary note however:

Porter’s model is particularly strong in thinking outside-in. Care should therefore be taken not to underestimate or underemphasize the importance of the (existing) strengths of the organization (inside-out) when applying this five competitive forces framework of Porter.

And quite rightly, since it’s a model that is used for analyzing the industry in which the company is a part of, rather than an analysis of the corporation itself. Better suited for the use by external management consultants than a corporate planner.

I would hazard a guess however that  ‘competitive strategy’ has been understood only it’s basic terms of competition without the nuances of strategic thinking behind it.

In 2001, Fast Company printed an article on Michael Porter’s contribution to strategic thinking and his opinions, which I find extremely relevant, particularly as we look to creativity, innovation and design as value creators for competitive advantage.

I’m reproducing here, a significant yet relevant portion of Porter’s insights, in order to support my viewpoint:

There’s a fundamental distinction between strategy and operational effectiveness.

Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.

Operational effectiveness is about things that you really shouldn’t have to make choices on; it’s about what’s good for everybody and about what every business should be doing.
… only strategy can create sustainable advantage. And strategy must start with a different value proposition.

A strategy delineates a territory in which a company seeks to be unique. Strategy 101 is about choices: You can’t be all things to all people.

The essence of strategy is that you must set limits on what you’re trying to accomplish. The company without a strategy is willing to try anything.

If all you’re trying to do is essentially the same thing as your rivals, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be very successful. It’s incredibly arrogant for a company to believe that it can deliver the same sort of product that its rivals do and actually do better for very long.

That’s especially true today, when the flow of information and capital is incredibly fast. It’s extremely dangerous to bet on the incompetence of your competitors — and that’s what you’re doing when you’re competing on operational effectiveness.

What’s worse, a focus on operational effectiveness alone tends to create a mutually destructive form of competition. If everyone’s trying to get to the same place, then, almost inevitably, that causes customers to choose on price. This is a bit of a metaphor for the past five years, when we’ve seen widespread cratering of prices.

There have been those who argue that in this new millennium, with all of this change and new information, such a form of destructive competition is simply the way competition has to be.

I believe very strongly that that is not the case. There are many opportunities for strategic differences in nearly every industry; the more dynamism there is in an economy, in fact, the greater the opportunity.

And a much more positive kind of competition could emerge if managers thought about strategy in the right way.

In sum, the much more positive kind of competition that Porter is talking about, one that demonstrates comparative advantage, offering different choices for different needs  can only emerge from the return to the basics of business.

That is, to create a strategy based on differentiation. Set yourself apart in the market, offering a unique product that no rival can offer, simply by virtue of it’s roots – it emerges from your understanding of your core value proposition, that differentiates you from any other, and then enhancing, creating and finally communicating that difference.

And that is where the basic principles of design methodology – design thinking, if you must – together with the basic principles of strategy can come together to provide you with the tools to observe the market, draw your insights on your intended ‘user’s needs, create a product or service for those ‘as yet undiscovered’ needs and so, create your market.

Which in turn, implies that you are then not taking away somebody else’s share of the pie, because you are baking a new pie.

New Market Analysis: It all boils down to Interpretation

This isn’t a new diagram for anyone familiar with my writing. Its a diagram I’ve been using to explain where my work fits into the innovation development process since I first saw it on Luke Wroblewski’s blog back in 2006. However, I’ve just been struck forcibly by the realization that there’s a very important piece of this process that’s missing. And that is Interpretation.

What do I mean by Interpretation? 

Lets start by taking a look at the ever popular user centered design process, simplified in linear form, although we all know there are numerous feedback loops and iterations constantly happening in real time.

The understanding we seek in order to conceptualize and design emerges from the immersion in the new operating environment we wish to enter. This where we go and meet people and talk to them and watch and listen and learn. Its when we get back and analyse our findings that our aim is to synthesize them in the form of actionable insights that can drive the design and development of a new product, service or business model. The space between Insights and Design is when and where we conceive the ideas we wish to develop into workable constructs. Its a given that the process isn’t as linear as diagrammed and ideas and concepts occur much earlier but what is critical, and this is what I realized today, is in how we interpret our findings from the field.

This is the bit I’ve circled in red.

This is where our assumptions, especially those we don’t recognize, and our presumptions, are most likely to let us down. Two people, present in the same user observation study, meeting and listening to the same people, can interpret the raw data in very different ways. So much of this has to do with our preconceived ideas of the target audience not to mention especially important when you’re looking at such a study in a culture and society very different from your own, that its no wonder specialists in the field of design ethnography or user research keep emphasizing the need to able to step outside of yourself in order to observe and understand someone else.

While this is naturally important in all kinds of human interaction, it becomes far more crucial in the context of a professional user research project.

That’s why there are any number of case studies and examples of products and services that fail to match people’s needs or meet expectations *even* after extensive and expensive exploratory user research studies.

Did we manage to interpret our findings correctly? Did we understand what someone was saying in the context of their own culture and mindset and society? Or did we interpret their words and actions from the perspective of our own frame of reference?

I’ll end this with a simple example that comes to mind as I write this. A couple of years ago I was in the field for a small solar power manufacturer who could not comprehend why the very sensible decision of being able to save oodles of money on kerosene by investing in an affordable solar lamp was not being made by his intended target audience. Why were they not purchasing this product even though it made so much sense to do so?

In fact, it turned out, the real question was, did it make sense to the potential customer in the context of their own cash flow, income stream and household management?

Thinking like a user centered designer about brand management

Design is fundamentally a value system, a set of principles, that is then manifested in tangible form.
Conventionally, this has been known as setting the design criteria. However, rather than specification guidelines, as used in engineering, if one were to change metrics and numbers into values or emotional responses, one could, in fact, create a method for building and managing a brand.

For example, once you are able to identify your core value proposition, what sets you apart from the rest – it doesn’t even have to be only your competition or the industry in which in you belong, but in totality – you can then use those characteristics to set your criteria. This helps you develop a “personality” around the brand, or its character in a story or narrative. The “persona” or story, once identified, translates into the ‘design criteria’ or the specification document i.e. the PRD. However, when you take this one step further, into the perceptual or intangible, you can use the same qualities, identified by the persona or story, to articulate the essence of your brand.

Once a picture of this hypothetical brand is captured, to a degree, by this snapshot, every element that supports it, is held up and measured against one question only. Does this activity, action, message or product, work towards maintaining the integrity of the big picture brand personality? Or does it set up a cognitive dissonance in the customer’s mind because it breaks away from the existing perceptual image of the company or brand?

This integrity is necessary in guiding the process of building the brand, marketing strategy, or even corporate planning, particularly in operating environments where uncertainty is the only certainty. Are we being true to ourselves? Are we consistent with our brand promise? Are we keeping the faith?

And as you can see, this process of do, check, tweak, redo, maps on to the definition of design thinking given in bold above and also the basic user centered design process.