Category Archives: Design Thinking

Design Vs. Innovation?

Look around. If you live in a concrete jungle, try to move outdoors and get a bit closer to the nature – you will probably appreciate this blog post better, and might even get more out of it than this blog post!

There is plenty of sunshine (hopefully you live someplace with loads of it!). The eternal source of energy and life without which we might simply be frozen back into an ice age, and might never survive as living beings. The sunlight makes photosynthesis possible, and though there is no such direct comparable with human beings, we simply need it! Lack of sunlight could be bad or even fatal, but excess of it could cause problems as well. So, what’s the best way to enjoy sunshine? Just 10-15 minutes of daily exposure can create enough Vitamin D naturally that your body needs.

Let’s keep moving.

You see sources of life-giving water – small rainfed streams or perennial rivulets that carry the life-giving natural resource not just in the form of water, but also minutest amounts of those vital nutrients that our body must simply have in order to keep functioning well. Unfortunately, we have taken it for granted for last few centuries of industrial growth, and who knows – we might be condemned to drink recycled water in future! We can’t survive without it for more than a few days (and check out the rule of threes for some interesting trivia on it). And yet, having water aplenty doesn’t mean we drink all we can, for an excess of it can cause water intoxication, which can lead to other problems – even death!

OK, let’s go a bit more further.

There is something that we feel all around us, and yet never see it. Yes, the air that distinguishes us from other planets that have no lifeform on it. A few seconds without oxygen, and we will be all but dead, and yet too much of it can cause oxygen toxicity.

What are we driving at?

Take any natural resourcesunlight, water, air, heat, cold, heights, depths, or a common human habit like seating, walking, sleeping, working, exercising, even video gaming, or any form of intakeeating, drinking, meat, spices, sweet, fatty, fast food, soda, alcohol, vitamin, and so on. While a lack of it could cause short-term challenges and even be potentially health-damaging in the long-run (though it might not be the same case in, say, soda or fast good or video gaming), the excess of it could cause yet another set of problems, often manifesting in the long run (and hence they tend to get trivialized,perhaps).

So, what’s the point?

Nature seeks balance.

A mere abundance of any natural resource doesn’t make us overconsume it beyond what is needed by a healthy human body. The best of us create a quality of life by maintaining a wise balance between the near-term gratificationsvs. a wisely thought-out ‘no’ for the sake of long-term sustenance. Yes, sometimes we all lose that balance, but the ones who are able to quickly able to recover from their occasional indulgences finally get to enjoy life to the hilt.

Ok, but what’s the point here?

Just like nature creates a high-quality life by creating a balance – which essentially means removing the excess till it is just about right – we need to understand and imbibe it in developing products too. For example, just because you have all the real estate available on the web page, you don’t actually end up using it, of if you like purple-pink combination, you don’t end up using that everywhere on your web site. Rather, using it judiciously lends itself to a much more aesthetically appealing design. Examples are well known, like the web interface or Apple’s user interfaces starting with iPod. Long back, perhaps in late 90s, I was at the Philips Medical System’s training center in Best, Netherlands. We first saw the console of one of the modalities, it was like200 control knobs on it – perhaps operating such a machine was more complex then the surgery itself! However, Philips realized that such overengineered product was not really user-friendly and then redesigned the entire console that has just two knobs. Now, that was a major paradigm shift back then.

Steve Jobs said this as the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference in 1997-

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

You might have seen the so-called featuritis curve that is a comical take on how the user satisfaction first goes up as features are added to a product. However, the user satisfaction then comes down rapidly as even more features are added to the product, eventually leading more to dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

The Featuritis CurveHere’s the thing – it is not just valid for products meant for customers – I have seen this pattern repeatedly holding out for much more mundane things as well. Take software process. Long back, when I used to work for companies that adopted CMM or ISO9000 as framework for process improvement, we ended up creating voluminous process documents. We even had over one and a half dozen metrics to show how serious we were about process improvement. Over time, we learnt (at least I surely learnt) that process is not about adding things but about removing things that don’t make sense. In that spirit, I believe that the size of your process documents must reduce as you gain more mastery over the process – just like how it should be for a product. Some of the guidance for a product owner says remove one feature every week until the time you feel there is nothing that can be removed from the product anymore.

So, what is design then? And how does it relate to innovation? We seem to use these terms very liberally and sometimes it is not clear how do they co-exist in a single context. Here’s my perspective: design is about eliminating things that are too distracting or confusing to the user so that the end result conforms to its end-users expectations about its utility and usability, and in some cases, it exceeds those expectations. However, a good design might not always sell – the world is full of examples that the designer thought was a cool idea but the customers couldn’t care less! So, we clearly can’t party on design alone! We need innovation which is all about figuring out what the users want, and then Development / Execution on how best to deliver those features or services to them at the desirable price-point. While Innovation addresses the ‘what’ aspect of a product or a service, Design addresses the ‘how’ aspects, and Design Thinking must address the ‘why’ aspect  – there is no point bullnosing something without first establishing why do we need something in the first place. I don’t believe principles of design can solve that problem (though application of design thinking could lead you closer to truth, but that is not design). Design is one of the ways in which we bring about innovation, though other aspects of innovation could be brought about by things such as improving hardware resources, or bundling different services, or using low-cost components, etc. In our industry, several aspects of ‘design’ remain under the hood – for example the decision to use a private cloud or a particular database might never be known to the end-users and hence might have no direct bearing on their assessment of a product design that appeals to them, but those decisions will have a major bearing on how the end product or services impact them.

Nature has a great way to play around with both Innovation and Design and keep evolving in that process. In my mind, nature’s self-regulating behavior about eliminating the excess is all about creating a sense of design such that we experience bliss without either overconsuming those previous natural resources, not starve ourselves without them. It is likely that a good design will actually impede further innovation because innovation can lead to departure from established standards of design – howsomuch good they might be! So, there has to be a sense of balance between these two forces as well – one is liberating beyond the known boundaries, while the other is putting constraints on those liberties and building something that is of utility and is usable for intended users. 

However, it is worth thinking how did nature ‘stumble’ upon those balances? For example, how did nature ‘discover’ the golden ratio or the value of pi? Why is pi not an integer, or why there is a notion of health and ageing as opposed to perpetual yough, and so on. Surely this is an endless topic. But starting with big bang (or whatever else makes sense), nature must have had to experiment bigtime to start with lower lifeforms to end up with what we have today. Do we know if evolution of species has stopped, and if one were to come back to earth after half a million years, we would still see the same species, by and large? We don’t know, but certainly the evolution can’t happen without breaking the established boundaries and conventional rules of creation? So, is promiscuity is the key to evolution, and I say that in the broadest sense as a means of experimentation as a source of learning, not just for some fanciful one-night stands!

Even the ideas need to procreate in order to produce better ideas! Innovation tells which ideas should procreate, and Design tells how they should procreate! They both must be present in a ‘cooptetive’ manner – competing and yet collaborating at the same time. If Innovation always wins, we will have chaos because there will be high amount of uncertainty, change, failures and very frequent learning curves. On the other hand, if Design wins everytime, we might all end up thinking, dressing, behaving alike? I think both of these extremes are dangerous, and successful initiative is all about recognizing the power of these two opposing and yet complementary forces that collectively bring the best out of a product or service…and even our lives!