A few days back, we had the opportunity to listen to Don Norman, the director of The Design Lab, University of California - San Diego. Amazon describes him as a voyeur, observer and a “former lots of things,” including VP at Apple. Don is best known for his seminal book “The Design of Everyday Things” and is revered throughout the design community. In what will excite readers, Don is already planning another book but is yet to put pen to paper.
Here are our biggest takeaways from Don’s interview:
1. Designers cannot solve a business problem on their own
Companies such as WPP, McKinsey, and Accenture have acquired design companies to service their clients in a holistic manner. But, there is no evidence of an acquired design company making a lasting impact on a business problem on their own because designers are not trained to think like a consultant or an engineer or an architect. They need to work with various teams within an organization to address a business problem.
When confronted with a problem, designers are trained to step back and ask “Why do we have a problem in here?” They are taught to create a product usable by everybody – customers, employees, sales folks, etc. Moreover, designers don’t solve a small part of a problem and hope it will go away forever. Instead, they rely on an iterative approach of continuous improvement by modifying little by little until the whole issue is sorted. That way customers will be happy in the long run.
However, not all companies have the patience to stay the course. Don says Amazon is an exception though. Jeff Bezos had recently commented that Amazon is bound to fail someday, and it was his job to take it as far away from it as possible.
2. Design is not scalable
We referred above how large service providers with thousands of employees are acquiring design agencies. But, Don does not think an organization can have thousands of designers on their payrolls and hope to grow more. Design is an art form and will not be scalable.
However, as is true with any technology or industry, designers will have to evolve with an organization to become better at their job. In March 2018, IBM opened up the full depth of its design philosophy to its clients. This will allow its clients to look inside IBM’s Design Thinking framework.
But, does that mean clients can become a notch smarter and solve their own problems without going to IBM? “No,” says Don Norman. Going by that yardstick, even Toyota had exhibited their car design philosophies and techniques, inviting the general public to look into it. Despite it, no car manufacturer has been able to replicate the success of Toyota.
3. The decision to back a well-designed product is purely business-oriented
The success of a product is based on the timing of its launch. Businesses have to make up their mind on a product that their consumers will crave for. Throughout the early 2000s, Nokia was the market leader with the best button phones. Nokia wanted to improve its existing product lineup but failed to get a sense of the ground reality. Apple sensed an opportunity and in 2007, the company launched its first iPhone, a cleverly designed machine put together that convinced users to ditch the button phone in favor of a phone with a touchscreen.
Similarly, when Google launched the Android mobile platform, Korean giants Samsung and LG, both had the opportunity to pounce on it. Samsung emerged a winner because they decided to go full-steam, while LG let it slip.
At the same time, a product must not be launched when the marketplace is not ready for it yet. Apple’s first digital camera was launched in 1994 but did not see much success because the infrastructure for it was not ready yet despite being well designed. For example, the camera itself did not have adequate memory, it couldn’t be connected to the Macintoshes that were running Mac OS X, and there weren’t many jet printers around for people to see the images they’d just clicked. However, digital cameras were a raging hit several years later when the market was more mature.
4. Design thinking is seeped within an organization
Design thinking is a cultural phenomenon and must be adopted by everybody in the organization. It goes beyond the product itself. Apple’s iPhone is an iconic product for good reason. Every part of the product has been keenly thought over before it reaches the user. There are several components and teams that come together to make this happen. When customers unbox an iPhone, they know it is ready for use. Some customers even want to retain the box with them.
Don compares this with a company that created cameras that produced great images. However, when a user unboxed it, they found a CD in it, then a user manual (that also had a legal document in several languages) and the battery had no charge in it. By the time users get to use the camera, they’d not be able to know the real properties of the camera.
Great products are a result of Design Thinking that is inculcated deep within an organization. Everybody inside an organization must believe in it to realize its complete impact. At IBM, everybody in a division (starting from the top executives) must be trained in a preliminary Design Thinking course for the whole team to benefit from it and create great products that customers love.
5. The designer’s job will change with the evolution of newer technologies
Design by itself has no use. It is only the combination of astute design and modern technologies that make a product unbeatable. That is why the evolution of newer technologies will change the future of design thinking.
Designers will have to learn to work with newer technologies such as artificial intelligence or machine learning to complement their core skill.
However, what remains constant is the designer’s core skill, i.e., the ability to think through the problem. That is why many designers prefer sketching a drawing with their bare hands than use a computer to create sketches. They feel they are dealing with the problem hands-on by drawing the contours and dimensions on paper than on a computer.
Don explains this by saying how Autodesk developed design algorithms to enable Airbus to create a dividing wall that separated the main passenger seating area with the plane’s galley and flight attendant jump seats. Engineers could just enter their conditions such as structural necessities or conditions and the software will spew out the numerous alternative designs that they could choose from.
6. Product engineers need to learn about design concepts early
The design curriculum at engineering schools will change as the industry evolves. Don has worked with students at engineering colleges. In his curriculum, every engineer had to undergo a 20-week design-oriented course. They had to work at a nearby hospital developing prototypes for patients to overcome their physical challenges. Their solutions were never the best, but they worked for the patients. This helps them inculcate a sense of design early in their lives, no matter whatever they specialize in later on.
7. Design-oriented solutions must come from the community that is going through the problem
Developing nations are undergoing problems that are threatening their population, hygiene, sanitation, and environment. Don cites the examples where students from the US create amazing product designs sitting on their desks for these problems that are halfway around the world. They even win design awards for their solutions, but when it comes to actual implementation, they fail because they are too far away from the problem.
According to Don, the solution to this is the emergence of the solution from an individual within the community. From his experience, he has noticed that the solution to a problem emerges in a country that has the scarcest of resources.
Click here to view a full recording of Don's interview.