For too long designers have been content with receiving from technology and business pre-defined problem spaces within which to operate:
This began to change in the last few years, mostly as a reaction to the noticeable failure of many websites and applications created during the transition to online publishing and e-commerce. “User experience” has become a mantra even the nerdiest of developers could relate to. Design is no longer a veneer to be applied as an afterthought at the end of technology development:
Still, designers remain as enablers, not determiners. While bad design can cause a project to fail, good design is not sufficient enough to save it. This is because the fundamental decisions defining the problem space around a project are almost always made by business. Design, while no longer a mere appendage to technology, remains peripheral to business nevertheless.
An emerging answer to this problem has recently been formulated as “design thinking,” a way of thinking that engenders transformative innovation. The prominently visible slogan of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is “a new way to think.” In The Empathy Economy Bruce Nussbaum at BusinessWeek gives a quick overview of the “design thinking” landscape.
I am a designer first and foremost. With a tour of over two decades, I know what a combat zone of influence the enterprise scene is. So my initial hope is for design to get invited to the decision making table I described earlier:
Are there any inherent reasons why technology or business is better at framing the problems designers are then asked to solve? I’d like nothing better than a healthy dose of competition (between design and business at the table) before strategic decisions are made. Once they are made in the wrong direction, however, no amount of fabulous design or robust technology can save a project from its destiny with failure.
I can already hear some people objecting: it’s all teamwork! Is it, really?
When Sony’s Connect music store was shuttered recently, for example, was it “teamwork” that failed? Can we put the blame of catastrophic failure in not being able to take advantage of perhaps the industry’s deepest combined resources in music, movies, hardware and distribution at the feet of designers? Have designers failed Sony Connect?
What would a typical design critique of Sony Connect entail? The lifeless blue-gray color scheme? Anemic typography? Lack of white space for the eyes to rest? Poor focal layering? Absence of emotional engagement?
These are all visual/emotional observations which, even if they could be identified and remedied by the best design minds on the planet, wouldn’t do much to save Connect. Its fate was fixed long before the first pixel was manipulated by a designer.
Connect failed because Sony’s business leaders have been caught sleeping at the DRM wheel for too long. Sony made a strategic error by relying on digital music players that could only play music with its own DRM. Instead of selling the infinitely more popular MP3 format songs, Connect sold ATRACT encoded music that could only be played through Sony’s players. And this was during a period when three quarters of all legal digital music traffic ran through Apple’s iTunes, destined to be played on iPods, which predictably weren’t ATRACT compatible. Connect was a house of cards built on a DRM dream that had already plagued Sony’s MiniDisc players from gaining any market traction.
I’d like to think that a strategic designer would never let Connect go down a path in fatal disharmony with its potential users’ needs and expectations. When Sony Business handed down its business model and blueprint for Connect to Sony Design, the song was already over.
I call this compartmentalized design, where visual/emotional aspects of design are so emasculated by business constraints as to be practically irrelevant. I see the cure for this in strategic design, where today’s designers move up the food chain to handle business models and frameworks guided by a systems-oriented approach:
I’ll expand on this in a later article.
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