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The Science of Design: Evolution of Product Design and Design Thinking

Enterprise Software Automotive Artificial Intelligence January 17, 2018

The Science of Design: Evolution of Product Design and Design Thinking


In recent years, product design has become the heart of growth and innovation stories of many large companies like Apple, Coca Cola, IBM, Nike, and Whirlpool.  At the core of product design is design thinking. There is no better person to throw light on the future of design thinking than Doreen Lorenzo. Doreen in her prolific career as President of Frog Design and Quirky has advised Fortune 100 companies on design and innovation. She is a redoubtable thought leader on business and design issues. Currently, Doreen is the Assistant Dean in the School of Design and Creative in The College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. She oversees, Design, Arts and Entertainment Technologies, Center for Integrated Design and the relationship with the Design Institute for Health.

Ayan Mukerji talks to Doreen:

Ayan: What do you think about the evolution of Design Thinking over time? How has it changed since you were running one of the best design services firms in the world three years ago?

Doreen: Traditionally, designers, and by extension product designers, were largely viewed as only valuable to create aesthetically appealing products. However, all that changed with the release of a slew of consumer products that satisfied not just aesthetics but made solid business sense as well. The business world has finally accepted the value of good design, and as a result, and have started to value designers as well.

Ayan: What skills do people need to develop to become great designers?

Doreen: To become a great designer, one must become curious and passionate about creating better experiences for the end users. In addition, they need to really understand the applicability and the inherent value of design in a way that will help them guide their organization on to the right path.

Ayan: Even with great designers at the helm, why do some products fail yet some others achieve massive success?

Doreen: Companies that have succeeded in creating winning products have understood the problem they are solving, how their offering provides a solution, and who, at the end of it all, will be using these products. They don’t go about it the other way around, where they have an idea/solution already, and then force-fit it into the problem. Though this might sound like common sense, many companies have come up with products without ever having spoken to even a single intended end user. The products that succeed are the ones where the designers have figured out where in the value chain they matter, and how then to execute.

The importance of doing the necessary research before coming up with a solution to a problem, can’t be stressed enough. When I look at products that are successful, it’s because they solved problems that really were meaningful to people. And when I look at companies that weren’t successful, that’s because they solved a problem nobody really cared about and/or the product is really hard to use.

At the end of the day, people – end users and customers of your product – look for the value that you can provide. They may not tell you what their pain points are or what they exactly need. However, they will provide valuable insights that shed light on their unmet needs. Hence, talking to the end users and/or customers to understand their needs is of paramount importance for any product designer.

Products keep evolving, as the customers’ needs evolve, to stay relevant in the long run. I believe successful companies that want to keep growing have to constantly keep cannibalizing their existing products.

One perfect example of product evolution is Netflix. Netflix shut down its massive DVD business by taking movies and TV shows online. There were many naysayers for the new business model, predicting that the company would soon go out of business. But it didn’t. Netflix repeatedly cannibalized its own business model, and reinforced its commitment when it started making content and producing shows. In the process, unconventional, niche, indie TV shows and movies got to see the light of day, those that would have never passed muster with the traditional, profit-seeking TV networks. Another such successful example is Apple, who cannibalized its own products, starting from iPod to various versions of the iPhone to the iPad.

Ayan: What are the ingredients of a good design-centric organization?

Doreen: Not every company can be a Netflix or an Apple. To succeed, it’s not just essential to have good, passionate designers, but it is equally important to have a design-centric organization. A good design-centric organization is driven by interdisciplinary teams that can work together as a cohesive unit to solve problems. Scientists, engineers, marketing etc.. different groups within an organization must bring something to the table to make a better product. And when teams in an organization work together cohesively, it would mean creating better products and services. This is a characteristic of a great product company. Although there is a product manager who envisions the complete product lifecycle, to be truly successful, the actual product design and development process need to be envisioned by a cross functional and cohesive team.

Ayan: With new age technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Automation, et al disrupting conventional business models and organizations, will the role of a design thinker become redundant?

Doreen: It’s great that machines are getting smarter every day, but the only way they will take over human tasks completely is if humans train them. Whether it’s purchasing, or engaging with people, they are all purely human characteristics. Hence, the role of humans and all that they bring to the table are still very relevant, even in this rapidly evolving technological landscape.

While ML, AI, and other such technologies might get you the information you need, human intuition and intelligence are essential to make sense of that data and to utilize it effectively. Though it is undeniable that new age technologies will disrupt conventional technologies, the role of human emotion on ‘why’ you do anything, cannot be negated. This is where ‘critical thinking’ comes into the picture. Business leaders today, need to possess critical thinking to be able to succeed, which is a humanities problem. Along with that, skills to articulate, write, express their ideas, solve complex problems, and being empathetic are all vital to working in dynamic teams, whether you’re a business leader or a design engineer.