Building products in an age of ambiguity

Businesses as we know it keep changing, evolving and industries are being disrupted all the time by introducing new digital processes to change and optimise stagnant business processes. With this ever evolving business landscape it brings with an age of ambiguity that very few businesses are equipped for, the good news is a practice like design has been dealing with ambiguity for centuries.

In today’s digital age, we’re getting to a point of doing business vastly different. To build a profound business with a digital product it won’t be enough to understand just design and technology, it’s critical to understand business as well. Any solution has to be desirable from an end user perspective, technically feasible and then ultimately viable to support a business model that keeps driving growth.

It takes a new type of leader

We need leaders that understand the value of advocating for the user to really drive the desirability part of the equation. Within this realm we actually step back to evaluate the situation and ask if there is an actual problem, are we trying to solve the right problem, and is what we’re offering delivering a great user experience? We need to evaluate if we are at the root cause, or simply sticking plasters on symptoms. This someone needs to be comfortable with ambiguity, we need leaders that lead in a new way. Businesses needs to lean on new processes to deal with this uncertainty and they can learn a lot from the field of design in order to deal with ambiguity.

Designers live in ambiguity, we are used to start with a blank canvas and live with the pressure to create something. I know you cannot see what’s coming. As a designer we have ways to find patterns in data to see what’s coming. One thing is for certain, we have to stop referencing the past and hope to repeat the same result in the future.

All businesses are becoming technology companies

According to the latest data from Nielsen, the average adult spends more than 11 hours per day looking at a screen of some kind. This finding has vast implications for companies across the board. Today, whether you are a bank, a retailer, a hotel chain, or a car maker, you are also a technology company. The primary touchpoint between you and your clientele is often digital. In this context, design has become a key differentiator in the battle for customers’ hearts and minds, and the way to achieve this is by crafting a truly valuable user experience.

As more and more organisations begin to invest in their design practices and processes — some in very high profile ways — there is no clear path and indicators of where to start. There’s a lot of ambiguity when it comes to doing business this way, something that traditional business minds are not used to. The paradigm shift comes in when they learn to trust design to deal with this ambiguity, it’s something we do on a daily basis already, and we all need to realise that building the products of tomorrow will require a different way of thinking and operating and finding your way through the ambiguity is where it starts.

How can we handle Risk

When companies start off and are small, they are open to taking calculated risks in order to grow. It’s part of the mantra to grow a business. But then as the company becomes established and get processes in place, they become risk adverse and avoid taking any risks in exchange for stability and “predictable” results. This could limit their potential and dampen their growth in a serious way. This again is an area where design could lead the way through uncertain territory and through design engrained research (a.k.a. Just taking to your customers — a lot). We do this to ensure we stay on the right path for growth while navigating the ambiguity in what to build next, what would users actually want and need, and ultimately ensuring actual stability in the long run. Studies have shown that companies that are design-led in this way perform higher and achieve larger growth percentages year-on-year.

Start with understanding your users

As designers we are used to reaching out to customers to see what they think, feel and like. It’s about qualitative data. Whenever we create something — either new, or introducing new features — we need to understand the impact it will have on the users we’re creating it for. That is why we do design research. It’s not easy, and it’s definitely in the realm of ambiguity. Understanding our users traditionally comes form a lot of qualitative research, but we need to start taking advantage of the vast amounts of qualitative data around us as well, we need to marry to the two to get a more illuminated clear picture.

As design we need to learn to use this combined data set to justify making the right decisions. We need to find out how to have better conversations about our decisions. What did you choose and why did you choose it? Focus on value and validation. We need to make it feel tangible.

Design is not about my personal preferences, it’s more about making certain design decisions during the production of something for other people, so I better understand what the users want, how they react about certain things and how they would perceive certain choices. It’s not about me, it has to be informed by reality.

We need to marry design and business

Designers have the ability to lead the company through big-picture thinking and the ability to engage with business on a very high strategic level to work through the tough questions. And when it comes to the detailed execution, design can lead the way again as we have a lot of processes we can put in place to build a scalable model for execution in a reliable and repeatable fashion.

There has been a lot of talk about “design-led” organisations, and I’m not advocating for having an exclusively design-led organisation — I believe design has a lot to offer and it can add a tremendous amount to the conversation, but it needs to stand should-to-shoulder with technology and business. At the end of the day, I believe we should not be design-led, or technology-led but we should all advocate for the user and experience, the rest will naturally fall into place.

We need to establish mutual trust between design, technology and business. We all have our tools and processes and they have their place at the right time. If used at the wrong time it won’t work. A lot of the time some tools are used too soon and then they fail as the timing was off.

Learn the value of thinking like a designer

Design thinking is different to the craft of design. Anyone can learn to become a design thinker, you don’t have to be a designer. Design thinking is the thing that has elevated design in business and given us a seat at the table. Because of our thought processes not the visual artifacts we can produce.

When it comes to the end users we are creating for, people are not rational actors. There are perfectly good products at reasonable prices, then some other more expensive products come along, I.E. Any Apple product, and people are willing to pay the higher premium because they see the value in it. It’s emotional value. What do we aspire to wear, drive, own. According to Warren Buffet: “Price is what you pay, and value is what you get”. People will always buy when the value exceeds the price.

Thinking like a designer will help your business anticipate what your customers’ goals, context of use and behaviours are, and understanding those and creating within that will produce a better end result. At the end of the day, thinking like a designer within business strategy will ultimately bring more customers and drive revenue in the long run.

Welcome to the era of Trust

If you look at the largest IPO’s that are set to occur this year — Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and Pinterest — what do they have in common? They all disrupted industries by creating an easier experience that users can trust. In order to disrupt an industry, you have to build trust with your users. Designers help bridge that trust gap through intentional design. Designers act as a mutual 3rd party friend. They expose enough information for your users to feel comfortable, yet not too much to overwhelm them.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to design than the end results you see on your desktop or hold in your hand. It’s a way of thinking, experimenting and dealing with uncertainty. It’s the intersection of a business and its users. Product design is about dealing with the ambiguity and accomplishing business goals through creating user experiences focussed on retention and trust of the user.

Business is not just there to make a lot of money. You would not be satisfied by just making a lot of profit. There are other reasons to be in business than just money, having conversations with customers, learning what they want and finding out will give purpose to what the company does and what you do. To build products for the world of tomorrow you need to learn to deal with ambiguity, to embrace the challenges and always keep users at the centre of what you do.

Keep up to date in real-time by following me on Twitter where I tweet all about building great products from a design, development, product management and strategy perspective.

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Francois Brill

Francois Brill

I’m an all-hands-on-deck product designer. I thrive when I have the opportunity to create something that is simple, beautiful & easy to use.