“There is no such thing as a commodity product, just commodity thinking.” — David Townsend
Anthony DiNatale was born in South Boston. He entered the flooring business with his father in 1921 and began a career of craftsmanship and woodworking. In 1933, he founded DiNatale Flooring in Charlestown, working job to job, primarily in the northeast United States. In 1946, Walter Brown approached DiNatale and asked him to build a floor for a new basketball team to use. DiNatale quoted him $11,000 to complete the project, and the deal was struck.
DiNatale quickly went to work, knowing that he had to be cost-conscious to complete the construction, since he had bid aggressively to win the project. He gathered wood from a World War II army barracks and started building. He quickly noticed a problem: the wood scraps were too short for him to take his traditional approach to building a floor. So he began to create an alternating pattern, changing the direction of the wood pieces to fasten them together. He kept creating 5-foot panels, and when he had 247 of them, his work was completed.
Walter Brown was the owner of the Boston Celtics. When the Celtics moved into the Boston Garden in 1952, the floor commissioned by Brown in the year of their founding went with them. The floor was connected by 988 bolts and served as the playing surface for 16 NBA championships between 1957 and 1986.
DiNatale was a craftsman, an artist, a woodworker, but most prominently a designer. He made use of what he had and designed what would become the iconic playing surface in professional sports. The floor became a home-court advantage for the Celtics, as competitors complained about its dead spots and intricacies.
Design is enduring. Design is timeless. And, every once in a while, design becomes a major advantage.
The End of Tech Companies is forcing every company in every industry to re-think their definition of skilled workers, their investments, and their growth strategy. Design is essential for companies that want to prosper in this new environment.
According to the KPCB report Design in Tech 2016, since 2004, 42 design firms have been acquired in technology. More importantly, ~50% of those acquisitions have occurred in the last year, with companies like IBM, Accenture, Google, and Facebook as the most active acquirers. Is this a fad, or a recognition that user expectations have changed?
Design is about tapping into how users feel when they use your product. Do they find it shockingly simple, yet highly functional, leading to an ‘ah-ha’ moment? They should. It’s been said that people don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves. When you’re trying to win customers, are you listing the attributes of a product or can you vividly describe how it will improve their lives? Users will be attracted to the latter.
John McCabe, the coordinator of user experience (UX) design at SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), says it best:
“Interaction, interactive, industrial, service, and graphic design all have core aspects that are found in UX design. They all understand human factors — psychology- they understand how people are going to go through a space. To me, I really feel that UX is definitely foundations for all design.”
Whether you make software or hard goods, there is a single, ultimate test of design and your product strategy: is your product available for download on your website and can any target user easily get started? For the vast majority of companies in any industry, the answer is no. Many of them then say that this approach does not apply to them. It does. In the era described in this post, The End of Tech Companies, it applies to everyone. And it’s not enough to have a downloadable whitepaper or demo. A user or a client must be able to experience an engagement with your company without talking to a single person. This is the ultimate simple test.
I once asked my team at IBM to think about a great product or service that they used in their life and to share the feelings that came to mind. Here is a sampling of what I heard: “Value.” “Changed my life.” “No effort.” “Amazing.” “Just works.” “Awesome.” “Intuitive.”
If you are at a company where the products and services do not evoke similar feelings, the company is in trouble. It may not be obvious yet, but time will be cruel.
Products, in any every industry, begin with design. That also means beginning with the user. But unlike in the past, we can no longer assume that the user is also a buyer, a customer, or a middleman or distributor. Today people frequently use a product without ever having established a relationship with the company that made it. That requires a significant change in thinking. A company cannot modernize product offerings without a design team. So hiring a design team (utilizing the available money for spending from the capital re-allocation highlighted in The End of Tech Companies) is step one.
Doing design right is hard, and there is a preponderance of false designers and false approaches. Companies will have engineers posing as designers or marketing leaders claiming design experience. You would not hire an engineer that had only studied outside of the engineering field, so why do that with design? Hire students from the best design schools that have committed their lives to creativity.
The catch is that they will not fit into your company culture. Accept that. The company culture is not able to design great products, which is exactly why it must change. A great design team will be very particular, picky, and discerning. They will want to do deep user research. They will work at a different pace. They will ask questions that drive the engineering team crazy. This is exactly what the company needs.
Great product teams obsess over clients, extract what they hear into market-level requirements, and consistently wow both their new and existing clients. And they have a process for reviewing what they have learned from clients, every week, without fail. This discipline of obsessing over what is heard, comparing notes with others, discussing, hypothesizing, and then repeating, becomes an enduring approach to ensuring that you are building the right things. The company will start to demonstrate a shared mind between design, product management, and development. Only then will you know that the investment in design is starting to pay off.
Any company can improve in the area of deciding what to build and understanding why. But it requires three non-negotiable decisions:
- Build a world-class design team, with professionals trained in design, and support them as they disrupt the culture.
- Define a process to ensure that client feedback, not just from existing clients, is at the center of all efforts. (This is how Slack grew so fast, as this article in First Round Review details.) Ideally, you want this to be your culture, as opposed to a process. But sometimes you need a process to facilitate the culture, until it becomes ingrained.
- Create a framework for thinking about all the dimensions of a product. IBM’s 6 Universal Experiences is a great example of this, but there are others.
Companies can take all the steps suggested here yet still fail in design. In fact, many organizations do. Success comes down to how the design team is integrated into the company culture: is design viewed as a “service bureau,” or does design have a seat at the executive table? This is the most critical aspect of design and design roles within any organization.
To be taken seriously and not be treated as a service bureau, design must be at the same level as other key reporting functions in the organization, whether it’s HR, Legal, Marketing, or Finance. All of these functions play a key role and almost always report to the CEO or a very senior leader; design must be the same. For design to truly fulfill its role, it needs the same voice and visibility.
If an organization is all about the experience, usability and a “wow” factor, then design is critical to leading and driving that. Look at the companies and industries that are known for elegant design: fashion, Apple, Samsung, Porsche, Mercedes, etc. In each case, design has a seat at the table. In some cases, design is at the head of the table.
This post is adapted from my new book, The End of Tech Companies, available on Amazon here. The book is only $2.99 and all profits from the book project will go to DOMUS, a human services non-profit that works with children in Connecticut.