former Portfolio Director, Financial Service Design at IDEO, freelance Consultant
4 November, 2015
"I started years ago in broadcasting: my very first job was within a TV and radio company, then I went to a business school and after that I found myself uninspired. I think I was entranced by the creative industry before going to the business school and, when working in media, I felt like being a standard business person… was not really that creative.
In some ways when you get an MBA you learn that a lot of businesses act according to very similar rules. I got an interview with a small design innovation company in California and I basically very quickly found myself at home over there.. I think the best way to describe it is I went from doing typical business in creative fields to doing creative business in very boring fields! You know yourself, when you work in design innovation you find some of the most interesting challenges are in businesses that from the outside would seem to be very dull.
So basically I’ve been for many years one of the very few MBA in design environments – I guess I’ve been doing that for eleven years – and now I’m a business person who has quite a lot of experience working with design researchers, designers, technologists and other folks, trying to find that intersections between human need, design, technologies and business.
After working in that design agency in California for a few years I moved to IDEO London and worked there for 8 years. I have now been freelancing for two years.
Probably for a few different reasons. I guess the main reason is that I’ve sensed a change in the business. When I first started working in design, it was a new exciting tool to solve business problems. It was really the first time that designers where asked to move away from “pure form” to thinking. Clients didn’t even know what they were asking for: all they knew was “oh my god! You are talking to real people and you are prototyping things! That’s magic!” It seemed like they were completely entranced by this method and I think that was the original time when IDEO built its application including a very human centred perspective, to solving problems. Clients didn’t know what they didn’t know, you could just come in and wow them with new approaches.
So eight years later - many thanks to IDEO and the popularity of design thinking – design shifted from being an outsider way of thinking to being a core set of toolkit. So now those companies know what they don’t know - but they are just very bad at it. They now know what a design approach to business problems solving is, they’ve read enough books on how to do it and they’ve seen it done – but they don’t really have the skills in house to do it. What you find is that there’s less of a need to sell big design projects – from a business strategic point of view – and increasingly a need to offer coaching, support, ad-hoc help. So let’s say I wanted to take a break from selling big design projects with lots of designers and wanted to move into a place where I could solve client’s needs in a more flexible way.
In addition, I’ve done work specifically in financial service design for a long time: I built my own network there, I wanted to take advantage of that network. And the last thing is – when you work for a big design agency you can pretty much only work for big budgets: within the first year it was a combination of working for startups and doing a lot of work in emerging markets, Africa, south east Asia.. so basically I was realising that I could take more “edgy” work that would teach me more when I was outside of the requirements. You know, in agencies they don’t even answer the phone for less then a certain amount of money!
"I think what we’re finding is that design thinking and the role of design solving skill is becoming another standard pillar of the business toolkit."
So if you want to have an extension to where service design is going, you know that a lot of design agencies are being bought up and I think what we’re finding is that design thinking and the role of design solving skill is becoming another standard pillar of the business toolkit.
What I find interesting is where will pure design thinking agencies go in the next many years. McKinsey has a design group, Bain has a design group, companies are building their design groups in-house. Those groups don’t just do design thinking: they use design in the context of all the other parts of the business. Which is always the weakness of design innovation companies, because they are good big thinkers but they are not really good at financial modelling or technology planning: for all those other pieces they have somehow to borrow skills or to make assumptions. So now that design has become one of the five key business skill set, what is left for design innovation agencies to do? Will they actually start going back to do more formal design? Leaving more of the strategy to the business consultancies?
It’s still happening, you know. IDEO isn't going away anytime soon but I think that as they created something that was on the edge, that thing is now mainstream and effects finances, effects the type of work you do and effects talent also. More and more people from IDEO and from other companies now find themselves in big companies working for much bigger consultancies - or during stuff on their own, starting companies. Getting talent is harder because there’s more place to display good designers.. And the reason why I have work is because there is loads of demand for senior level experience on how to use design as a problem solver. In five years maybe that will change, maybe it will be managed more by people like you who are just new in the business, while people like us will become less "mainstream"… I think it’s an interesting moment for design innovation agencies because their skill set is not so special anymore.
IDEO is a design innovation company.
I don’t know about other agencies much because I haven’t work with them. When you work for an agency for quite a while, you don’t spend a lot of time analysing the work of other agencies. So I don’t really know their practice that well, besides what I’ve heard.
IDEO works mainly with private clients, as well as with the government in the US and in Asia. There’s a lot of opportunities, the dilemma is that it can take a lot of time to build a relationship and to work through government processes to get those contracts. You need to have a long business development cycle and a lot of patience. Me, personally, I did two government projects during my entire career.
IDEO London is one of the smaller offices, while in the US, San Francisco has more than 300 people, New York and Chicago are about 80 people.
Considering the work I do now, it tends to be a mix: process coaching – as working with senior leaders, trying to figure out how they should bring better design skills into their team, who should they hire, how should they implement even the basic stage gate process for introducing new products. Then a little bit of strategy. Upfront the question is “what should we make?”. So, looking at the needs of the market, a little we know about customer insights. In the last couple of years I’ve done a lot of work helping companies taking what they already knew, complementing it with a little bit of research and helping them prioritise which features, which products they need to be developing when.
Strategic service design is all about “trade-offs”, so which needs could we solve with which type of technologies, to achieve which business goals, and which of those need to be achieved now and which later. So a lot of this is about weaving the basic values of service design – what should we prototype - when, what should we prototype with users, how should we understand bigger needs.. All of this things bring into the strategy process. So then also the strategy is grounded in pure behaviours, so that their plans for long terms are grounded, built and tested alone.
And then I’ve also work on a bunch of new product development projects – early stage, research, concepts validation, building up an initial service model and then going back into plan it. Answering questions like "which aspects should we test first?", "how should we turn this into a path?", "what is a potential route to the market?", "how do we validate it?".
Those days I do a combination of senior level business coaching and specific product development, and, in the middle, I’ve overseen or coached design teams. So, again, it’s that gap – you have a senior leader which is really creative. With business leaders there’s a gap between their team and them. The design team doesn’t really handle on how to combine what they’re hearing from the business with the business insights to make the right plan and decide what features to build first. The business guy, which hardly understands how designer’s interact, doesn’t know how to properly brief the design team - and nobody gives proper attention to designers’ behaviours at all. It’s like I’m filling a gap. A lot of what I’m doing seems like filling a gap and bring service design into the process.
It's not that they're not looking for juniors, but the danger with service design is that they are often good thinkers but not good enough at anyone part of what it takes to build the service! I don't even know if it's possible to be a junior service designer. Service design is the combination of different design disciplines to solve a complex problem that involves a combination of people and digital interactions and spaces and so on, right? So in some ways a service designer is just a designer who is good at working with other disciplines to solve a complex problem. What you find at a junior level sometimes is people who aren't really good enough at business, they don't understand business quite enough to be able to drive meaningful business decisions: they don't have enough reputation or even the right set of skills and at the same time they are not even great formal designers!
"Service design is the combination of different design disciplines to solve a complex problem that involves a combination of people, digital interactions and spaces and so on, right? So in some ways a service designer is just a designer who is good at working with other disciplines to solve a complex problem."
Their work is "ok", maybe they can or actually even worse they can't actually make anything and so you might say "hey let's build a prototype" and they are like "well I can draw a service journey... we can put on some post-it".. At a junior level to be able to frame and think you have to be very, very good in creative to be worth-it.
Most businesses need that. IDEO would describe it as T-shaped person. However, I've spoken to a recruiter from one of the big consultancies and she said "I don't want anymore design thinkers!" At a senior level being integrator makes sense because you would know enough about all those things. I am generally an integrating general service designer now but because I've seen enough I think it's ok.
There is one thing that is very lacking, and I haven't seen anyone trained for, and is incredibly necessary in the world of design and business: let's just call them prototypers. People who know how to build quick tests don't need to have amazing design skills - but they need the ability to build things "just enough" to get the insights you need. What I found with clients is that there are good business thinkers that come up with concepts and designers who can design when there's a clear idea of what needs to be made, but there's nobody who is good at sketching, running quick user tests or building quick prototypes. Probably it is because design students are not trained enough to be extremely good at quick testing. I believe there's a massive gap that could be covered by the person that comes in, works with business thinkers and says "ok, this is what you want to validate: this is how we are going to validate it". It requires a little bit of skills in research, but definitely more skills in making.
It's all design thinking. Using design methods to solve problems. Within that, service design is specifically looking at designing complex services. Services composed by different touchpoints that require different design disciplines. So it's how to design them in an integrated way and which one to use, when. Should this involve more people, more screens, more space? It means deciding how to draw the levers.
I don't even know what that strategic design means. Maybe it is the application of design thinking specifically to solve business problems: using design tools in terms of framing, structuring and strategizing without going as far as making things. But that's a bit fuzzy.. Design without any making is a little bit weak.
I do a lot of work with service journeys. There's a lot of good work with mapping as it helps looking at the differences between what a business need, what people need at various steps in the journey, and help prioritise which of those steps bare the most uncertainties. It helps clients understanding whether their products are actually delivering on and what are people needs and motivations and then figuring out if there is any gap between what they are delivering and what people want.
I'm not really a fan of toolkits: I believe that different type of workshops require different types of facilitations. I just think that if you are a good consultant, then you are always adapting your frameworks. I believe those frameworks and diagrams are just a way of structuring methods and you always have to customise them. You can use them to inspire you, but consulting is about listening to people, helping them frame their problems in a way that makes more sense for them and identify where their knowledge is required. It's fundamentally a bespoke business.
Yeah, all the time! And I often find that there are problems that don't really need product innovation, but just a new thinking about marketing and distribution as maybe, for example, its just a matter of getting the distribution strategy corrected. I think this is one of the benefits of having an MBA: you can tell if you’re facing a marketing problem or a product problem, and so on. And then you can definitely bring design thinking to marketing. Marketing should be human centred and involve testing and prototype just as any other design discipline.
Sometimes you can find out that you really need to understand pricing: often service design overloads with very delightful features without really considering how the pricing would affect what they deliver. I remember there was a company that wanted us to design some sort of premium package and when you look at it, the reason that they wanted the premium wasn't in the packaging. They were really cheap beers sold at corner shops. Often if you want to be premium you can't have mass distribution at a super low price. Sometimes the problem of the consultancies is that you do not really have a design problem. New touchpoints, better experiences, sometime help but it's not mandatory. Good advisory sometimes is about being honest with people and telling them it's not a problem that you can solve. Or that your solution would really change the game for them.
I spend a lot of time in advisory and we live in a world where the time it takes you to go from insight to concept to build and test is much shorter. And when you are a consultant you often struggle to get close to delivery and execution. So I think that going forward any designer that is thinking and working on concept and strategy will have a real weakness so my aim is to be closer to markets and delivery."
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