Posts Tagged design thinking

Design In/Is Business

Leveraging design and design teams to increase competitive advantage is getting more notice in large organizations thanks in part to events like the Design Management Institute’s (DMI) “Re-Thinking…The Future of Design” conference in San Francisco this past June. Key design leaders across a broad spectrum of industries shared conversations on stage about how they used design thinking tools to create value for, and facilitate change in, their organization.

What struck me most is that design teams increasingly seem to also serve as innovation teams for the business. John Fly, the VP of Strategic Planning at Miliken & Company talked about successful designers being able to toggle between solving both business problems and design problems and often solving business problems with design solutions. The biggest hurdle in this process usually comes from finding a common business/design language. However, understanding the business inside and out increases credibility and leads to better decisions for the business.

I was most focused on what Bob Schwartz, GM of Global Design for GE Healthcare had to say because of my personal interest in improving healthcare through design thinking. His decades in design management had obviously honed his business navigation skills and it was through a combination of analogies, storytelling techniques, and an empathy workshop that he was able to build consensus and unify his design team of 46, spread over 5 countries.

Pushing empathy as a key driver for design and business decisions led to the redesign of several GE products – particularly in the pediatric space where the design team created a MRI scanner and scanning process from the perspective of a child. A story was developed for the children to engage in before they came for the office visit and the scanner room maintained the story’s imagery throughout. This environment reduced anxiety during the procedure and ultimately improved test results. The success from this storytelling approach filtered to the sales force and acted as a powerful motivator to increase sales.

My hope is that more examples like this will bubble to the surface and motivate investment in design teams and the value of design thinking processes across the entire organization. Giving every business team the license to think creatively and more empathetically will foster solutions to support humanity and not just the bottom line.

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Design and the Art of Complexity

DMII recently attended the Design Management Institute’s annual meeting titled “Design Complexity and Change” at MIT. Without a doubt, this was another call to action for great design minds to help save our increasingly complex world from destroying itself. The message was echoed by speakers from corporate design centers within Nike, Virgin Airlines, and GE, within design education by John Maeda at RISD, and also from a political source pushing legislation to form a US National Design Policy to create national design standards within the government.

The motivation to engage design and designers in solving some of the most complex problems from pollution to social justice has finally come, even if only from a place of desperation. The decades of excess and deregulation have given way to economic hardships that demand more creative problem solving to ensure survival. Corporations have been discovering that design often provides a competitive advantage, but how many more times must we endure requests to make whatever we are designing look like it came from Apple? And really, does Apple-style design solve all problems?

Virgin DesignFor some, yes. Joe Ferry, Head of Design at Virgin Atlantic stated simply that they “design to survive.” A competitive advantage based solely on design (of every aspect from crew attire to corporate website interaction) has allowed the tiny airline to not only survive, but also remain profitable while almost all other airlines are stuck in the red. Virgin has transformed the unpleasant experience of flying back into a glamorous event by eliminating complexities and coveting details from mood lighting to the sexy leather bomber jackets pilots wear.

However, design thinking can be used for much heavier lifting than a sexy user experience or sleek interface. Nike is in the process of redesigning their products down to the component level to reduce waste and energy via a process they coined “considered design.” Lorrie Vogel, GM of the program, explained how integrating environmental impact into each step of the design and production process has yielded dramatic returns in reduced company-wide energy and water consumption and increased recyclability of their products.

But what stuck me as the most valuable use of design thinking was Dori Tunstall’s presentation on her work to form a National Design Policy. This document (and subsequent organization) would be responsible for creating national design standards for communications and materials produced by the government.

Dori emphasized that design plays a significant role in social inclusion as it translates values into tangible experiences. As an example, government butter and its generic, uninspiring package design pronounces to the consumer that they are not worthy enough to get a color picture on their food package like everyone else. National design standards could also help with daunting problems like simplifying the complexities of voting though coherent page layout and typography. Guidelines would set standards for legibility, literacy and accessibility for all government communications.

Alan WebberSo many of the complexities we deal with in modern life can be simplified though design if we choose to engage our creativity. As Alan Webber noted, design can be used to solve problems, initiate change and announce innovation but, at the same time, change only happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the cost of change…

Article published on the DMI site here.

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Designing a Healthcare Unconference

As social media approaches adolescence its hallmark of “spontaneous user generated content” has also spread into all kinds of seemingly unconventional places like the world of conferences…that have been morphed into UNconferences. I’m always a bit surprised at how few people have actually heard of an unconference since the concept has been around for a few years now, I’m guessing it will become more mainstream in years to come.

Our friends at Wikipedia describe it as a “facilitated, participant-driven conference” which basically means and bunch of people show up at a designated place for a specific topic and spontaneously decide what the presentation topics are going to be. And yes, most of the time this results in pandemonium as participants jockey to get their talks in the larger, better-equipped rooms. But the net of an unconference can be far more productive as almost all participants are actively engaged in the content and structure of the event.

So, I’m working on one of these things. For those familiar with the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences with their highly polished presentations, invitation-only guest list and $5,000+ participant fees; the free unconference analog is called BIL (as in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure notoriety). And for the medical fanatics out there, a special TED was formed called TEDMED with pretty much all the same parameters as TED. It only makes sense to provide an all access and free BIL:PIL unconference as a community-driven forum for current and aspiring healthcare thinkers to share and collaborate. This October (30 and 31st) will be the first BILPIL to be held right after TEDMED in San Diego.

BIL:PIL logoThe BIL:PILLers are a bunch of scrappy healthcare renegades with a surprising amount of clout. We secured the San Diego State University BioScience Center and already have an impressive list of speakers willing to come and talk about whatever healthcare related topic they feel is relevant at that moment. This healthcare innovation unconference will bring together over 200 entrepreneurs, health professionals, technologists, and laypeople to describe the future of healthcare.

I’ve been working on the cat-herding part of the project but also managed to design the identity for the conference (within the brand parameters established by the original BIL franchise). I also created a visualization of the key content areas we hope to attract people to speak about :BIL:PIL Topics

Check out the site at, register and help “set healthcare free” with us this October!

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Design is the Strategy

DMILast week I assisted the Design Management Institute (DMI) with their “Re-Thinking…Design” conference here in San Francisco. During this dynamic meeting, several talks focused on validating and communicating design value in the business environment. Perhaps this focus had something to do with the fact that Roger Martin (dean of the Rotman School of Management) was one of the MCs. For someone so steeped in classical business education, his adamant support of design thinking was a remarkably refreshing thing. What struck me the most was the dialog he set in motion about how design IS the strategy.

Roger opened the conference with a compelling discussion about the process of migrating design into business thinking. Acknowledging the demand for ever-increasing innovation, he conceded that design thinking was one of the more successful ways to achieve the volume and diversity of ideas needed to help an organization successfully compete. However, the ongoing challenge is how to convey and garner support for this very non-linear and non-structured creative process within a left-brain-dominated and risk-adverse business environment.

Claudia KotchkaUniting two seemingly disparate disciplines is obviously a challenge, and so leveraging a pull vs push strategy for design integration was advised. Claudia Kotchka explained how she brought design light to Proctor & Gamble (P&G) by first keeping a cache of design success stories on hand and then actually making management participate in design problem solving exercises with the IDEO team. Only after personally engaging in the design process did the management team truly understand the value of design thinking and the need to integrate it into the overall business strategy. In fact, design is now so highly valued at P&G that there are several senior design leaders who sit at the strategic decision-making table.

Another approach is to attack design integration as an actual design problem itself. Jesse James Garrett, president of Adaptive Path, suggested that the organizational structure/decision-making process should be viewed just like any other design constraint within the project scope and thus navigated accordingly. IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, recommended to experiment and prototype in volume early in the process while savoring the surprises such as finding out that the accounting team is shockingly creative.

However, it doesn’t make things easier that designers are notorious for not accepting the value of business thinking. In fact, many downright oppose the constraints and rigid process of business operations. One of the funnier quotes of the conference came from Bill Buxton, principal Researcher at Microsoft, who simply observed that “designer rhymes with whiner.” But opportunity lies in these differences and finding a common language is well worth investing in.

What it comes down to is that strategy is about inventing a new tomorrow. After decades of profit-maximizing objectives driving strategic decision-making, the economy has finally run out of steam and gumption. The time is ripe for the human-centered values of design thinking to be recognized as a valuable way to archive a more sustainable future. DMI’s agenda is exactly on this page and the conference, supported by all the dynamic speakers, called on us to learn the language of business, become part of the strategy and help facilitate change.

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Health eGame Night – Success!

KaiserLast night I moderated a panel of game developers who have produced games that fall in the $7B Health eGame category. Sponsored by HealthCampSFBay and hosted at Tech Liminal, we had speakers representing Kaiser’s Amazing Food Detective, CryptoZoo and Happy Year of the Ox.

What struck me was the diversity of games out there that actually do provide health benefits – which is why I asked each of the panelists to first define what they felt healthcare and wellness was and how their game applied. CryptoZoo’s Kiyash Monsef (a Cryptodocumentarian) explained how the parkour-inspired game fell squarely under “exergaming” definition but also heightened mental acuity through problem solving.

The goal of Kaiser’s game, as explained by Danielle Cass (PR) was to help kids make better nutrition decisions and get physical ; the game shuts down after 20 min and tells you to do 100 push-ups! When I asked if the game had met its goals, Danielle said they stopped counting downloads after 250,000 but had a hard time gauging follow-up. 

The panelists were enthusiastic that Health eGaming is a growing category with many more sophisticated games in the works from large firms like EA and Nintendo but also from grassroots teams and individual developers. Gaming offers the hope that play will once again get you off the couch and elevate your heart rate without making you feel like you are actually doing work.


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Biotech is the New [old school] Pharma

BioI just got back from the Bio (Biotechnology Industry Organization) annual conference in Atlanta and was struck by just how uptight the industry has become. Undoubtedly some of this rigidity can be attributed to the fact that over 90% of funded biotechs have provided no return on investment and the industry as a whole is suffering as much as everyone else in this bleak economy. But the idealism and creativity once hallmarks of the biotech movement seem to have faded and some new [design] thinking could help provide the needed therapy.

Steve BurrillIn fact, Steve Burrill a leading biotech investor and industry veteran, forecasted many of the same things I’ve been preaching here such as the movement toward a patient-centered model of health care delivery. During his state-of-the–industry report at Bio he dedicated almost half of his presentation to the sea change of IT-enabled healthcare. Some of his key points included:

  • Emerging “Self-Care Model” with home diagnostics and monitoring systems channeling data through mobile communication devices to then telecommunicate with labs.
  • Increasingly consumer-driven personal health planning through partnership with physician and aggregated digitalized health data (Burrill even cited Moore’s law on this one and conceded that Europe will probably beat us in getting to an efficient model).
  • Movement towards a convergence model as data sources become increasingly linked and accessible to both patients and doctors.


How all this ties to biotech is through the concept of personalized medicine. With inexpensive genetic profiling ($399) from firms like 23andme, an individual can work with their doctor(s) to establish a care plan tailored and tracked specifically to their medical needs, lifestyle and disposition.

Biotechs need to start playing with the rest of the team more – partnering with healthcare social media sites as well as electronic records and diagnostic tool designers to remain relevant and integrated in this fast-moving ecosystem. Drop me a line, I’ve got some ideas for you.


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How do we Design a Positive Future?

Future Salon logoI attended two different talks in the past week that explored the ingredients needed to design a positive future for society by leveraging intelligent and collaborative technologies. Steven Omohundro from Self-Aware Systems gave his talk “Evolution, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of Humanity” and a few days later Zann Gill discussed her views on Collaborative Intelligence during the monthly Future Salon hosted by SAP at their Palo Alto campus (I highly recommend attending as the talks are always very interesting, free, and the food is fantastic!).

Steve discussed that along with the collaborative and social networking technologies blooming now, highly sophisticated genetic and learning algorithms are also being developed. By about 2018 these applications, running on the vast amount of processing power predicted by Moore’s Law, should be able to match a human brain’s computational power (according to Ray Kurzweil’s predictions). So, in about the next decade we will have machines that could have the hardware and software to think like us – what will our future look like with this technology?

The crux of Steve’s position is an issue every designer confronts; that the actual goals (of AI) should be clearly defined before commencing development:

  • Outcomes are not the same as goals since, for example, a disease can be eliminated quite quickly…by killing the patient.
  • Our rights need to be realigned; will there be any expectation of privacy or ownership?
  • Our role as humans will also have to be defined; who/what now constitutes an individual?

However, Zann focused on a different design approach based on her interpretation of the process of evolution. She is in favor of tackling issues in less defined terms, moving away from the definitive “is” and allowing the more ambiguous and collaborative “as” to help define direction.

So, what does that really mean? The categorization and indexing inherent to the current interpretation of evolution is artificial since the human mind works by association (like or as). Instead of setting ridged goals for the future, a collaborative network of individuals should drive their own agendas with input and collaboration from like-minded supporters. This does not mean design by consensus but rather design by evolving, hyperlinked decision support system.

Zann Gill’s Nine Core Operating Principles of Design:Zann Gill

  1. Start from uncertainty.
  2. Break from the traditional goal-setting mindset and use decision-making criteria, flexible to revise as needed.
  3. Harness the complementary dynamics of divergence and convergence to avoid consensus-seeking and other bottlenecks.
  4. By tolerating ambiguity, deviation, and redundancy, tolerance spectra become “windows of opportunity.” Tolerance transforms deviation into the next possibility. 
  5. Interpret variation in the context where it will be integrated.
  6. Assess interim performance.
  7. Recognize patterns emerging, anticipating pattern completion.
  8. Link collaborative, autonomous, self-organizing components into emergent networks.
  9. Converge on emergent innovation by seeking coherence.

Personally I think how we design our future needs to be a combination of goal-setting to protect our rights and design thinking to improve the quality of life for humanity and the planet. Zann referenced a quote by Buckmeister Fuller that rings true to this sentiment, “be architects of the future, not victims.


Exposing Product Managers to the Value of Design Thinking

SVPMA logoIt was interesting to see how Dr. Sara Beckman (who teaches new product development and operations management at the University of California’s Haas School of Business) framed the value of design and design thinking to a room full of product managers and engineers.

At this SVDr. BeckmanPMA meeting in Santa Clara on March 4, she captured their attention by first rolling out quantifiable research on how firms with “design portfolios” outperformed those who did not place strategic importance on design. I always had a sense that there was tremendous power in design but I hadn’t ever really seen research to prove design produced a significant ROI.
Apparently the UK Design Council has some compelling statistics (like a 40% increase in sales?!). While in the US, the Corporate Design Foundation has generated the US Design Index (which I can’t seem to find a reference for) stating similarly impressive gains to firms investing time and money into design.

Even though the numbers seemed a bit skewed, and Dr. Beckman acknowledged this, the PMs and engineers in the audience were paying attention. She continued to explain that it is design that creates customer experiences and that the question should always be “what can you do to help your customers?” I got the sense that this approach was a bit out of the norm for the group. This is understandable because design thinking is a bit of an eye opener if pure functionality and lowering costs are always the project drivers.

What became increasingly apparent during the course of Dr. Beckman’s talk was that this customer-focused design process of building a product story and experience are also the foundation of what most firms these days are striving for: innovation.

And in the spirit of Dr. Beckman’s presentation, I have found a report which comprehesively measures the the impact of innovation on the economy at



Ambiguity in the Design Process – Makes Me Just a Bit Uncomfortable

BayCHI logoLast night I attended the monthly program by BayCHI (Computer-Human Interaction), which is the local chapter of ACM SIGCHI (Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction) which was hosted by PARC in Palo Alto. 

There were two talks, both very interesting and both pretty different in their expression of the design process:

Dancing with Ambiguity: Design Thinking in Practice and Theory by Larry Leifer, Stanford Center for Design Research – This talk focused on the usual Stanford design thinking process: tear down all your conceptual walls, prototype out the wazoo, then present a final direction that most firms can or never will commercialize. That’s not to say there isn’t tremendous value in this infinitely flexible and ambiguous process but my experience being a client on the receiving end was a bit frustrating because the end result of such a process was excruciatingly difficult and costly to implement and eventually required substantial retooling.

As sexy as the ambiguity sounds, I think there actually aren’t all that many projects that you can wholeheartedly apply this process to and which is also why I found the second talk by Kim Goodwin much closer to home.

Designing a Unified Experience: Bringing Interaction, Visual, and Industrial Design Kim GoodwinTogether by Kim Goodwin, Cooper – First of all, Kim was a practical and incredibly accessible presenter and I’m really looking forward to reading her book Designing for the Digital Age. Moreover, her premise that design disciplines need to be more comprehensively integrated within the overall design process is a dogma I’ve been hawking from my soapbox for a few years now.

Kim’s position is that the best way to provide a unified customer experience is to unify the design process by better integrating the interaction, visual and industrial design disciplines. Similar to Professor Leifer’s radical collaboration concept, designers must be allowed to play together early and often. The difference is that the framework in which this collaboration takes place was in Kim’s view a bit more structured and drove harder toward a fully documented, manufacturable end deliverable.

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DMI 2008 Remix Conference – A Social Contract for Design Thinkers

Posted on DMI website:

DMII was inspired to see our industry leaders go out of their way to volunteer their time and skills to improve a system for the benefit of all, just as Marcia Lausen and Susan Verba have done in their Design for Democracy campaign presented at the DMI Remix conference in October. Their presentation on redesigning the 2008 presidential ballot illustrates that, as design leaders, we not only have the ability but also a duty to facilitate the communication process beyond day-to-day client demands, to causes bigger than ourselves.

The intensity of the participants at DMI certainly demonstrated no shortage of passion for good design. What is more, it isn’t hard to find poorly designed processes, products or communications against which to leverage this passion. Like Susan’s approach, it is a matter of selecting an issue that your experience and knowledge could best benefit from and then just diving in. For me, improving wellness, the healthcare experience and medical technology are areas in which I have found endless design holes in desperate need of emergency care.

I discovered at a lunch during the conference that Darrel Rhea from Cheskin also has taken the healthcare issue to heart. Several years ago, after giving a lecture at the Harvard School of Design, Darrel was introduced to and became involved with a group calling themselves “The Collaborative at MIT” which has a goal of taking on large social issues through design thinking. As their first area of focus, this group chose to tackle the issue of stroke treatment. By re-conceptualizing the stroke victims, caregivers and the healthcare institutions as an ecosystem, over the last three years they have been able to create real breakthroughs in the redesign of the model for care.

The greatest challenge is not coming up with the ideas but rather to get the system to endorse and integrate the seemingly obvious improvements. Like many visionaries, both Susan and Darrel have beaten their fists against institutional walls, and on occasion brute force and a very squeaky wheel worked. However, the Collaborative found that enrolling industry superstars and thought leaders have made the pill of change a bit easier to swallow. With the support of luminaries from leading hospitals, stroke treatment centers, government institutions, insurers, and corporations, progress is starting to be made which could translate into thousands of lives saved every year. Buoyed by that success, the Collaborative is now embarking on yet another important cause: childDMI Remixhood obesity.

Despite the seemingly endless list of next projects to which you can selflessly donate your precious time, there is respite in that you do actually get something out of it. Flexing your design-thinking muscles for the greater good serves to reinforce and deepen your understanding and value of the process itself. As Darrel puts it, “getting involved in this project has shown me how scaling up design thinking really can help solve the world’s problems, and at the same time makes me a better practitioner on less grandiose daily work.”

Without a doubt we do have the ability to make a difference. We have the obligation and must muster up the motivation and carve out the time. Perhaps applying some design thinking to your own interests and then mapping causes to them will light the path to solving a social issue.

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