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Arvind Lodaya is trained in Product Design and has worked extensively on innovation, design and branding. He is a consulting Innovation Strategist for Tech, B2C, G2C and Consulting firms and also a Visiting Professor at AUD and IIT-K

Human-Centric Design has become an essential part of any business’s toolkit today – regardless of size or maturity, vertical or technology, sector or geography. Does this mean that everyone “gets” design now, and are people tapping into its full power and potential to meet their organisation’s objectives and goals? Sadly, the answer is no. And more often than not, design teams themselves propagate and perpetuate a “lite” version of design which compromises the real power of design.

Here are some common shortcomings in an organisation’s design deployment that have come to my attention – be it startups or mature MNCs. Make sure you aren’t guilty of one or more of these!

1. Using design as cosmetic surgery

With words like “brand refresh” and “makeover” flying thick and fast (and the ridiculous ease with which digital allows us to make changes), is it any surprise that design gets linked with superficial appearance? While there’s no doubt that appearance is a key aspect of marketing communication and behaviour/perception triggering, reducing it to a series of mechanistic “if X then Y” generalizations is a clear sign that you’re missing the forest for the trees.

The right way? Simple, see beyond the surface or the ‘skin’ – and revamp your brand (or product) all the way down to its DNA to structure and systems to key assets before you attempt to remodel its exterior ‘skin’— because just like our body, these are not discrete, autonomous entities but are elements of a single, unified organism. And instead of using competitor or industry leader for reference, get the cues from your customers (see points #3 and #4 below).

2. Using design as a band-aid

So you have a crisis situation: maybe a new player has popped up and is pulling away your customers. Your response? Call in the design, tech and marketing teams and come up with a strategy to stop the bleeding. Hopefully, this should work in the short term but for it to become stronger in the long term, it requires a lot more reflection and experimentation.

What does this mean in design terms? It means going back to the source – the customer – and learning from her/him exactly what has changed or is different now than when you formulated your original product or service idea. It means revisiting their life journeys and the fit of your offering in it – and its value contribution, given the ever-changing competition (which may well come from outside your category altogether, see #5 below).

3. Using design to enact management fancies

If you were to ask your design leads for the brutal truth, most of them would admit that at least 90% of their agenda is set by the folks up above. Isn’t that normal, given top management drives agendas for all the functions in line with its vision and strategy? Sadly, the answer is “no”. Maybe this is acceptable and even effective in a feudal organisation culture, but not so much in a modern-day professional organisation. Just like your other professional verticals, design too needs to be accorded its own authority and power to influence the organisation agenda. Which means, it must have the veto or ability to say no to the latest management fancy – no matter how seductive it is.

Of course, such potential conflict situations are best averted through open communication, negotiation and collaboration between various lobbies, but it is an inescapable fact that power has a habit of obscuring professional judgement – and this affects designers as much as other professionals. One way to nip this in the bud is for management to brief design on ends (i.e. the possible consequence of your design fancy) rather than means (the fancy itself).

4. Boxing design into “sprints” and/or “workshops”

With the plethora of tools, sprints/-thons and workshops that envelops us, we can’t be blamed for thinking that that’s how design works best – get a bunch of people in a room and squeeze out the ‘innovation’ from them in a time-compressed way, which can then be handed over for implementation to the other verticals subsequently. The good news is that this does work – pretty much in the way that instant noodles work as substitutes for real cooking. So don’t altogether reject or discard “boxed design”, just use it where it’s most useful – which might be to rapidly generate a wide range of user insights, or review your current engagement model, or anticipate possible disruptive innovations that could threaten your current business/ops model.

5. Using in-category benchmarks to brief your design team

In a highly competitive scenario (like a 400m race), it’s natural to keep glancing at your competitors to get a fix on where you stand. It’s natural then for businesses in high-competition environments to closely track and monitor their rivals and attempt to match them feature for feature. However, that also has the unfortunate effect of curtailing your design team’s creative and breakthrough potential – it redefines their job from being innovative to keeping up with the Joneses, which is, in fact, a fairly routine technical and operational job description.

Face it – coming up with a red action-button as against your competitor’s green, requires little design skill. Is there a way to keep your eye on both the forest and the trees? Sure there is, and a hint to this was provided in #3 above, viz. brief your team on the ends rather than the means and allow them to come up with their own innovative solutions (yes, including a red action button) that you can choose from. Often, the greatest innovations emerge from out-category analogies, so encourage your team to explore and pull in ideas from totally unrelated fields – you’ll be surprised at how exciting your design environment suddenly becomes.

6. Doing design in the studio

One of the lethal changes that Google has wrought on our work culture is that it has seemingly made “information” accessible at our fingertips, literally wherever we may be. So we no longer need to look out the window when we can Google the weather. Or we no longer consult a doctor when we can Google our symptoms. Imagine this happening on a massive and near-ubiquitous scale, and forming the foundation of the most crucial business decisions of your organisation. Reality still has a role in decision-making, and it’s still crucial in design decisions.

People are unpredictably unique and different, living and loving in their own special and ever-evolving ways – and it is this empathetic understanding and jaw-dropping insight that inspires design innovation and needs to inform design decisions. In case you still haven’t got it, this is about deGoogling: pushing your design team – yes, starting with the lead – out into bazaars, chowpals, railway stations and other theatres of life regularly and frequently, and certainly before committing to any major design undertaking.

We welcome your feedback, ideas and suggestions for topical and relevant topics in the design and innovation domain. Feel free to contact us.

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