Strategic design commits an unnatural act

See more starkly beautiful colorized historical photographs by Mads Madsen

To design strategically, we must first defeat our own nature.

Great empires, businesses and products fail for countless reasons; their models are ill-conceived, their channels run dry, their reputations ring hollow. Or they simply fail to adapt as conditions change. In short, like all road signs in New Jersey, they suffer notoriously poor design.

These oversights should not surprise. They are our nature. We are a selfish beast.

My banana!


Our modern undoing  once ensured our survival. Our ancestors acted on self-interest or we wouldn’t be here. Watch primates when food runs short. Or two toddlers and one toy. Nature knows. In a harsh world, selfish eats.

Fortunately scientific, technological, social and economic advancements permit us an unprecedented luxury of magnanimity.

When times are good, we’re a little less likely to send grampa adrift on an ice flow.

grampa adrift

Maybe it’s time to try on some new genes.

Times change. Genes take longer.

In the Interaction Design (IxD) Masters program at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, chair Liz Danzico, my former colleague Jared Richardson and current faculty partner Criswell Lappin and I are doing our best to help our students try on some new genes.

Traditional Analysis looks Inside-Out

Design suffers whenever we consider ourselves before our users. It’s hard to shift that perspective. Ask Copernicus – we are hard-wired to place ourselves at the center of the universe. Makers constantly fall prey to thinking inside-out: product first, user second. Many of our most established concepts and strategy tools indulge this navel gazing.

value chain

For example, every business school teaches Harvard professor Michael Porter’s Value Chain Analysis. It usefully drives operational improvements. It obsesses about what we DO — starting with suppliers at left, through production, magically delivering margin on the pointy right edge — with no mention of a customer! It assumes or ignores the critical first step:  discover what the market actually NEEDs.

That’s thinking inside-out.

Innovation Design looks Outside-In

We know from human behavior, particularly the advancements in behavioral economics, that we are all prone to think inside-out. I wake up in the morning. “Hmm. I’m hungry. What will I eat?” Is my first thought about you? Hell no. It’s me! Me me me. Inside-out. Medals and sainthoods are bestowed upon the exceedingly rare enlightened few who act instinctively on behalf of others.

(For the same reason communism, an otherwise lovely idea, inevitably fails. I am truly sorry, but I simply cannot choose to feed your child while mine goes hungry. Our continuing social dilemma comes in finding the optimal degree of social cohesion through sharing at a level we can each tolerate. But that’s a strategic design for another day.)

So great design must put the user at the center. Design starts with your need, not my product.  I must fight my urge to talk, when I first need to watch, look and listen.

We must overcome our own nature. We are subjective when design demands objectivity. We are self-absorbed when success demands empathy.

We think inside-out. Great design thinks outside-in.

(Of course many people have recognized our anthropocentric nature. It’s the foundation of most Western creation stories, and it drives much of our shortsighted abuse of our environment. My former business partner Jeff Semenchuk — Chief Innovation Officer for Hyatt Hotels — co-authored his original insights on this subject in our article “From Production to Connection” at end of the last century.)

To correct this bias I propose three design principles:

  1. Supply follows demand.
  2. Form follows function.
  3. Structure follows strategy.

1. Supply follows demand

Strategic designers advocate for customers. They deny the siren song of shiny objects and sexy next technologies. They insist that design starts in the field, understanding a specific user and her tangible need, reframed as a problem to solve. Only then can they define an accurate solution, as Clayton Christensen would propose, by understanding “the job to be done” by the target customer.

A reformed view puts “demand” where it belongs, at the front of the process in the innovation value chain. You may recognize this as the inverse sequence of Doblin‘s value-chain, the Ten Types of Innovation, made famous by the remarkable Larry Keeley. For those who read left-to-right, this sequence reminds us to put the customer first, consistent with this principle of demand-driven innovation.

innovation value chain

Zooming out a bit, it’s easy to see that any customer is just one node in a complex market, with numerous segments, competitors and alternatives of every shape and size. But serving market demand without fully appreciating an individual need is just guessing. Good designers, like good investors, don’t just guess.

IVM market first

2. Form follows function

American Architect Louis Sullivan originally proposed the aesthetic “law” that “form ever follows function”.  In designing buildings, experiences, web apps or bread slicers, all innovators face this functionalist challenge. The need and its solution define the “iron triangle” of time, cost and quality.

When time is at a premium, Domino’s pizza gets there in 3o minutes or less. If you insist on something more appetizing than cardboard and ketchup, get in line at Lombardi’s. Shame about the wait. Want it cheap? Check out the frozen (and ironically branded) Tombstone deal at Costco. As long as you don’t mind buying a trunk-load.

These are fair trade-offs. They all find their market, because they serve real and distinct needs.

iron triangleOnce you translate demand into a coherent user need, and frame the solution, the focus shifts. Designers strive to solve the user’s need better, faster, cheaper.

iron triangle circles

Seasoned project managers recognize that the iron triangle may bend but not break. If you want your pizza faster, then it either costs more, or we take shortcuts in the prep – quality be damned. It’ll be there. It may or may not be edible.

Breakthroughs occur by simultaneously reinventing a better and faster and cheaper solution. That means a whole new set of assumptions to design a fundamentally “different” solution – a transformative version of “better” that changes the market calculus.

This simple algorithm cracks open markets.

iron triangle breakthrough

The holy grail of design: produce a solution that is perfect, immediate and free. Ever wonder why Google is worth so much? Consider a solution that enables you to navigate the complex opacity of an endless global network, almost instantly, for free. Priceless.

Incredible brands enter the lexicon, most powerfully as verbs. Seriously, you can google it. Grab me a coke, pass me a kleenex, hoover the rug (I’m on a flight from Heathrow).Whenever you first hear a brand enter the local vernacular, jump on it. More on that later. Gotta uber.

3. Structure follows strategy

Study the need. Beat the iron triangle. Build a better mousetrap. Good start.

Now build the business that designs and delivers on that product’s potential. That’s often the harder part of the challenge. Too often the supporting organizations evolve around the founders with the same egocentrism that condemns product design.

If not designed to reflect shifting markets, organizations grind their gears, increasingly ineffectual, rigid, chaotic. As first proposed by historian Alfred Chandler, the strategy must come first, the structure second. Otherwise the organization condemns itself to pursue only the narrow spectrum of strategies that happen to fit today’s structure.

This dysfunction underpins the innovator’s dilemma. See it in your organization? You bear witness to the death march of dinosaurs.

dinosaur spine

So, if you aspire to design strategically — if you want to design with intent and for impact — you must first overcome your own nature. Fight your instinct. Stop thinking inside out. Organize around the user. Break the iron triangle. Start outside-in. Make better.

In my next post, I’ll describe how we teach SVA students to employ these principles for strategic innovation in product and service design.

Make Better

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