The meaning of design
Ben @ Stratechery writes eloquently about what design thinking is. It’s key to innovation and creating value to customers. All our work, whether policy formulation, Strategy, innovation starts from this.
Approaching a problem with a design thinking mindset, however, certainly takes into account what a customer says, but simply as one input among many. In this approach, observing the way people really live, developing a deep understanding of the real problems they have, and gaining an appreciation of the “hacks” they devise to overcome them can deliver an understanding of prospective customers’ needs that is more accurate than what any of those prospective customers could ever articulate on their own.
And then, from that understanding, an entirely new, highly differentiated product can be delivered that surprises and delights.2 From a business perspective, the emotion and attachment said product inspires breaks down price sensitivity and builds brand attachment, and inspires the sort of viral marketing that can’t be bought.
The brands that resonate, that people love — most famously Apple, of course, but there are other examples3 — are those that suprise and delight. In fact, those words are a central tenet at Apple, and one of the primary standards by which all products are measured. What few appreciate, though, is that when Steve Jobs bragged about not doing market research or not holding focus groups, he was not saying Apple did less than the competition; rather, they did so much more.
It is this lack of understanding and appreciation for the very hard work and deep thinking required to surprise and delight that leads to countless companies and Steve-Jobs-wannabes crashing-and-burning, even as they declare their fealty to design. What they don’t understand is that design is not just about looking good, or working well, or even being easy-to-use. The most fundamental part of design is truly understanding your customers at a deeper level than they even understand themselves. Moreover, to truly be design-centric is harder than being market-centric. Things like surveys and focus groups persist because, while the products that result may not inspire love, they don’t inspire hate — or worse, apathy — either.