In an executive client meeting some years ago we were discussing technology innovation for their company and an executive vice president blurted out, "We just have to design an iPod-like product for our industry and revolutionize it!" Upon closer examination it was clear he was focused on just the Apple iPod. Our discussion took a hard left turn and veered toward a much larger perspective on what was really happening that drove the amazingly rapid acceptance of the iPod.
The big trends occurring before the iPod was delivered included: consumers had dozens or hundreds of CDs they couldn't manage or take with them when they left the house; the record industry was having its lifeblood ripped to mp3s and stolen out from under them (as were musicians); and the retail music buying process meant there were thousands of square feet devoted to physical products which could easily be delivered online. Add to that the acceleration in the speed and capacity of broadband internet connections and the confluence of trends meant the timing was right to rethink how music was delivered and consumed.
So iTunes was born, placed within that 360 degree view of what the industry and consumer were facing, and the iPod shipped in 2001. When it was released it quickly and completely revamped how the industry sells music digitally and how most of us manage, and listen to, those tunes. Apple's 'design thinking' wasn't just about the device consumers would carry around, its scope was the entire ecosystem (i.e., consumers, musicians, and the record industry) so Apple came up with an end-to-end solution which aligned the incentives, and met the needs, of everyone involved in that music ecosystem.
How did my client apply the principles of design thinking? Their category, one that hadn't been reinvented for decades and had top-line revenue growth that was flat, was instead revolutionized because this company leadership was motivated to go out and talk to customers, analyze how they were using their products, and were surprised by some new applications they hadn't thought about previously. This enabled them to build a 360 degree strategy and deliver and end-to-end process and solution which they tweaked by collaborating with key customers on new designs, new packaging, and how their products were positioned. Yes, there is a lot more to this story (e.g., senior management sponsored the effort; their early and atypical use of social media to connect with customers; how they leveraged YouTube for their video communications; how they implemented discussion groups that were managed by the community; and more) but their revenues grew 19% the next year and they performed this organizational change and growth by themselves.
What does this have to do with you and what you deliver?
What matters is what your customer needs and they might not even know what they need quite yet. In fact, Apple famously doesn't do focus groups since "customers rarely know what they need in the future". The challenge many of us face is that our firms don't focus on the customer experience with our products and services. We don't do a very good job at predicting or anticipating what the customer will need as influences on them shift.
In most cases we don't even bother to do the overall analysis -- like my client failed to do by instead calling out the most obvious aspect of Apple's design thinking about the music problem as though the iPod alone was the answer -- and few of us truly look at the context of what consumers are dealing with now and all the things influencing their buying habits and how they use our products.
In the home furnishings industry demographic shifts -- 76M Baby Boomers retired by 2029 increasing the housing supply; Echo Boomers frequently choosing to rent vs. buy -- along with trends such as decision-support by seeking online or through our social media networks as well as two screen TV watching mean that the way in which people buy and then use their furniture, lighting and their spaces in the home demand we re-conceptualize how we design and deliver our products.
Three useful design thinking resources you might take advantage of:
1) This Introduction to Design Thinking by the global supply chain management company SAP. While it is quite analytical in its approach, it contains a lot of useful information and is worth skimming if not studying.
2) A phenomenal resource for educators, but germane for organizational leaders, mentors or trainers, is this Design Thinking for Educators resource site
3) The other is from 2009 but still incredibly relevant. Tim Brown, the CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, says the design profession is preoccupied with creating nifty, fashionable objects -- even as pressing questions like clean water access show it has a bigger role to play. He calls for a shift to local, collaborative, participatory "design thinking." Watch it and consider its implications for your company or how you personally view what you deliver: