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strategy and business
Published: August 27, 2009


The Thought Leader Interview: Tim Brown

A Design Thinking Pathway

S+B: A method, by definition, is a set of steps taken in sequence. Can you describe some of the landmarks one might expect to see along the path of design thinking?
First is the design brief: What question will you address? In recent years, that question has often been asked in a broader and more strategic way. When I first started in design I would often be asked to take a device or a computer software package and wrap an interface around it: “something that people are going to like.” Now, at IDEO, clients tend to ask us how to reinvent a particular market.

A second landmark is observing the world in new ways. There’s a myth that creative people have wonderful ideas in their heads; it’s just a matter of getting them out. No one I know is like that. The wonderful ideas come from noticing things and exposing yourself to the world in different ways. At IDEO, we often use ethnographic techniques: We watch people in relevant situations or spend time with them and talk about their worlds — whether it’s a retail store, a hospital emergency room, or a recreational area. The more you observe, the more interesting your questions become, so that you can iterate between developing your design brief and observing. For instance, when we were hired by Amtrak to explore the customer experience for their high-speed Acela trains, we started by asking, “What steps do customers take, from beginning to end?” It turned out that the majority of the interaction took place before they ever got on the train: getting to the station, buying the tickets, finding the platform. All of this is very important to passengers, but you might not realize it unless you are prepared to observe them closely.

That insight was challenging for railway engineers. Amtrak does not own a lot of the assets that make up that part of the passenger experience. They don’t own the stations or the cab companies. It’s the same with airlines. Airport facilities, security, meal providers, and ground transportation are all managed by other organizations. It’s a complicated set of stakeholders that are theoretically supposed to pass customers along elegantly and beautifully. It’s tremendously difficult to design an interface for all this. When it’s done successfully, there is usually one group willing to say, “OK, I know that I’m not actually responsible for all these parts, but I’m going to take responsibility for the whole.”

Richard Branson does this with Virgin Airways. As far as I’m aware, Virgin is still the only international airline where you can get dropped off by a branded car at a special place in an airport, and go through the whole process as a Virgin experience. The British Airports Authority is responsible for much of the infrastructure, but I gather that Branson paid a lot of money to control the entire flying experience and deliver it to his customers.

S+B: How would design thinking apply to a self-contained product?
No product is that self-contained. In 2004, Shimano looked at designing bicycles for adults. When they observed potential riders, they found that many customers were put off by the high-tech, insider feel of the retail store. They were also afraid of riding in traffic. The company had to think not just about the bicycle designs, but about retail ambiance and community safety. Shimano doesn’t even release bikes in some markets unless local governments commit to safe-cycling campaigns for the initial launch.

Similarly, with a new shampoo, the complexity comes not from the visible package but from the manufacturing and distribution systems that the consumer never sees. A designer might be involved in sustainability, conducting life-cycle analyses of the various materials going into the product, and finding ways to influence the various providers in the value chain to reduce weight or use new materials.

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