Business Design

Design drives value and disruption, technology enables it

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After I share my view on the central role of design thinking in digital, as I did in my last post, the old cliché is often brought up: if Henry Ford had used design thinking, he would have designed a faster horse and not a car. But I think that does design thinking a disservice. Henry Ford figured out what people really wanted was to get from A to B as fast and safely as possible. Sure, a faster horse would have achieved that, but a car achieves it even better.

His next challenge was to design a machine that was so simple and easy to use that he would be able to disrupt the horse and cart business. To accomplish this, Ford used the Benz internal combustion engine and the Olds method of line assembly in manufacturing to build the Model T. His innovation was design, not technology – he used what already existed. Technology was an enabler to deliver the experience.

Henry Ford is not alone. Walt Disney used animation technology first invented by Earl Hurd to tell stores that make you laugh and cry. The Nest thermostat wires into your existing thermostat wiring, and talks to your existing home wifi router. As does your Ring doorbell and many of the new consumer IoT devices competing for connected access to the home. Simplicity and ease of use, the experience design of the product, is central to its value. Design-led innovation, enabled by technology.

At IBM, we tag ourselves as a “cognitive and cloud platform company”. How does that fit in with our focus on design? For me, cognitive and cloud are technologies in search of a business outcome to enable. To milk the Model T analogy, if we lead with cognitive and cloud, we are putting the cart before the horse.

For design-led innovation, we need to place the customer (client, colleague) at the center, to understand them better than they understand themselves. How do we do that? IBM Design Thinking. Obsess around the problem and opportunity, not the solution. Once we have an insight around a customer need, we then move to see what solutions we need to deploy to deliver that experience. If cognitive is our internal combustion engine, then first define an experience and enable the delivery of that experience (business outcome) with cognitive.

Let me share a learning moment from a client interaction that illustrates my point.

The client is a leading industrial company. The CIO believed that “on time delivery” was a key value driver in the market, citing a quarterly survey of customers the regional marketing team conducted. The executive put together a significant funding request of the board for an 18-month runway to develop a mobile app with a map to help contactors track the delivery trucks on their way to job sites – holding up his phone, he said it should be “just like Uber”.

Our IBM team did two things:

  1. Visit customers, not just to ask them questions, but to observe them. We began to understand everything that happened in the week of a construction project, the day of the delivery, and the days following. It was clear that there was a lot of frustration among customers and very low trust in the supplier to deliver when needed. Contractors often even hedged multiple orders to get the delivery slot they needed.
  2. We asked the customers what they needed. An Uber-type app would be cool, they told us, but we really just need a notification – tell us when the truck is leaving dispatch (so we know you’re going to show up) and then another text when you’re an hour away (so we can arrange the site).

We shared this feedback with the client. Turns out, they had the customers’ mobile phone numbers in the dispatch system already and the ability to send text messages – they just had never enabled it. In 2 weeks and for zero marginal cost, the client could deploy SMS messages to customers and deliver the customer experience the customers wanted.

The key message here is to obsess over the problem not the solution. Use technology as an enabler to deliver a business outcome we have designed or a customer experience we have observed. As Brian Chesky, Founder of Airbnb recommends: “If you want to create a great product, just focus on one person. Make that one person have the most amazing experience ever.” This is the essence of business by design.

Once you know what you should do for your customers, what you can do is no longer enough. If the technology is not in place to deliver the experience or business outcome, then we need to work with our clients to create a technology roadmap to get them there. Value is created when customers are offered the opportunity to do what they want to do, not what they have to do.

Now we’ve covered the interplay between design and technology, but there’s one more critical element when it comes to building business by design. Read my next post to find out what it is.

Associate Partner, IBM iX

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