eCommerce & Merchandising

Rethink Design Thinking: Function and Process Comes First

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Let me ask you something. If you wanted to understand how the game of baseball were played, would you ask a player how he plays the game, or would ask him how the game is played? There’s a big difference, so think before you answer.

Design Thinking can help people perform better, more efficiently, and more productively…but, it is focused on the user, not the business, much like the player versus the game; and that confusion can create some serious problems in the design of a practical and functional business solution.

Let me start by saying, Design Thinking is a valuable step in the process of creating useful solutions. Design Thinking, as noted on our website, is “a framework to help teams across IBM solve users’ problems at the speed and scale the modern enterprise demands.”

Just remember, Design Thinking is intended to “solve users’ problems,” not define business functions and processes. This is not a “chicken or egg” conversation, business functions and processes come before design thinking; so trying to solve user problems with design thinking before understanding the foundational business functions and processes, can actually create new problems while solving others.

Let’s look at this way, if you buy a car, you most likely do it to get you from point A to point B. No matter what the actual intent, the car works a certain way and altering the mechanics may in fact, hamper or improve the performance, but doesn’t alter the function.

Now, let’s say you decide you’re taking a trip using your car…this means you need to pack some luggage, make sure there’s air in the tires, gas up etc. bulldogYou can do all of these things by yourself, as each one is just a function or process you preform to get ready for your trip, and use your car to get there. But, maybe you decide to have someone else pack the car for you, or have the service attendant put air in your tires and pump your gas. But the functions performed in this hypothetical situation don’t change, you’re just adding people to the process. The car runs the same, you put in the key, start it, move the shift to “drive,” step on the gas, and off you go. You can, and car companies do, spend lots of time thinking about how all these steps occur, what they look like, how you experience them; but at the end of the day, the function and process related to driving a car is the same.

What’s important to note here are preferences. People don’t necessarily like to do things the same way; someone may like a digital display, another prefers a numerical, one wants the seat to recline, another to remain upright. You get my point.

The same principle is true for understanding and running a business. To truly understand how to run a business efficiently, you first have to strip out the human element, as empathy is not relevant. You first need to understand what steps are necessary in order to execute and deliver whatever the product or service is you provide; know the function and the processes to get there.

As an example, if we look at a typical retail business, you can provide a functional view, or organizational chart of how it operates; and there are just a few core functions. You can expand or dilute this if you like, but I would argue, these are probably as broad as I would go if trying to explain how the game is played to anyone not familiar with the business.


It makes no sense at this point to try and assign titles or personas, as you first need to understand each functional area, and then drill down to a point where you have specific tasks where people begin to play a part in processing information and taking actions. For argument sake, I’m going to expand this model to show a large retail company, where it may make sense to expand the top level of functions; and then show the processes under each so we can begin to see how the game is played.


Now let’s take one area so we can drill down and better understand how we get to a place where Design Thinking makes sense. I’ll pull out the eCommerce area and provide a deeper perspective on the functions and related processes.


What’s important to note is we’re not focusing on who is performing any task; instead, we’re first trying to understand the functions and processes necessary in managing this layer of the business. The application or execution of any area may vary significantly depending on the size of a company, the structure, the available resources, the skill sets, etc. So, if you design a system to work based on these variables, you are creating more of singular solution based on the particulars of a company or person, over the actual functions and processes necessary to play the game.

This can be a very detailed and complex model, but it is a necessary step that should be done before a developer begins to create a solution, and before Design Thinking plays a role in shaping the final execution. Without it, developers create solutions to problems, often disconnected and not addressing the overall business, which is a problem. In addition, designers create experiences that cater to the personalities of a limited audience, which limits the effective use of a single platform.

A good example of how functional thinking is blended with personas to build a better application can be seen in Commerce Insights. The approach focuses on building a central business work space where the functional elements of a business are crafted to provide a relevant view based on the user’s needs. It’s more about creating the functional structure before injecting the personas, so the informational view can be adaptable to the actual organizational structure and persona make up of any company.


In the meantime, remember, function before design is the key to building a solution that is ubiquitous, adaptable, and scalable; if you don’t invest the time to understand all of the functional areas, the relationships and the processes before you develop and design, you’re just adding to the problem you were trying to resolve. Build a solution for one, and then let everyone decide how many people they want to play the game.

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