Businesses Are Their Design: An Interview With Frog’s CEO Harry West

frog CEO Harry West on the #Design stage at #WebSummit talking about Designing the Next Industry Transformation.

frog CEO Harry West on the #Design stage at #WebSummit talking about Designing the Next Industry Transformation. frog design/Facebook

Businesses from GE to IBM are increasingly embracing “design thinking” as a core business practice. Few are better placed to discuss this trend than Harry West, who, as an MIT professor in the 1980s, convened one of the first conferences on the intersection between business and design. Today, Harry is the CEO of frog, a global design and strategy firm that created Apple’s award-winning early design language. Harry—who has no permanent office, desk or chair at frog—spoke about how design fosters innovation, common misconceptions and why executives should see themselves as marriage counselors.

Why is design important for today’s businesses? 

A decade ago if we had a frustrating experience with a company we might simply have muttered under our breath and forgotten about it, but a key inflection point was the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Consumers around the world saw what good interaction could be, which led them to expect, and then demand, that level of design in everything. Now, whether signing up for healthcare, waiting in line at the bank or paying taxes, if a company cannot deliver this experience consumers will look elsewhere. Companies have realized it’s their customers—not technology or the finance department—who are the ultimate authority that will determine their success or failure. So design is not just “important” to businesses; in a very real sense, today’s businesses “are” their design.

Harry West

Harry West Author provided

How does design spur innovation? 

Design is often misunderstood as being solely concerned with aesthetics—making things look newer and prettier. Rather, good design uses ethnographic research to uncover the unmet needs of consumers, which provides rich opportunities for innovation.

To give you an example, in the 1990s innovation in floor cleaning products was for decades confined to technical improvements in the detergent used while mopping. On behalf of P&G, we took a step back and observed how people actually cleaned their floors. Examining the entire process without preconceptions revealed something interesting—half the steps to clean a floor in fact involved cleaning the mop itself. This insight sparked ideas to change the total cleaning experience and led to the creation of the Swiffer—today a billion dollar business. This approach for product innovation has since expanded to services in the 2000s and now we also use it to innovate around entire enterprises and new business ventures.

What is the future of design? 

I see two important trends:

  1. In contrast to the Swiffer case when P&G could control almost all of the cleaning experience, companies today face “system problems” that are no longer confined to a single product or service. For instance, an insurance company cannot simply solve for the experience of signing up for insurance, but needs to look at insurance systemically—how do they first learn about insurance? How do they then sign up for it? How do they make a claim? These problems are more complex, as they might have both digital and human touch points and extend beyond the boundaries of a company.
  2. In the past we created “consumer personas” that amalgamated the needs of individual consumers into broad categories. By integrating the ever-expanding amount of data available, we will soon be able to design at a much more granular and individualized level.

To respond to these trends, organizations are becoming more human-centric by building their own internal design capabilities and they are developing frameworks like design language systems, and innovation toolkits to help their company deliver better customer experiences. They are also forming networks of partnerships to bring together the capabilities they need to create and deliver the service experiences that customers are now demanding.

What are the pitfalls around design? 

The confusion around how design and ethnographic research actually works. Naysayers love to cite Henry Ford’s supposed line “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. But to return to the Swiffer example, we didn’t go into people’s homes to ask what they want, but to infer what they will want. Ethnographic research is a creative activity to uncover what consumers want now and in the future. Without understanding this fundamental point all the “design thinking” in the world will not help.

What should people read to understand design thinking? 

The Design of Business by University of Toronto professor Roger Martin, who unpacks exactly why and how design adds unique value to organizations. Also the novel The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a wonderful example of how to look at everyday things with fresh insight; a key mindset for a designer.

What advice would you give executives about design and innovation?

Senior leaders need to discard the image of themselves as the emperor at the Colosseum whose role is to be the final judge and give the thumbs up or down. Instead, when presented with new initiatives, they should have the image of a marriage counselor who asks “How do we make this work?” I have been in many pivotal meetings when the former mindset halted innovation, while the latter allowed for experimentation and iteration that resulted in major business success.

David Dabscheck (@ddabscheck) is the CEO of GIANT Innovation.

Businesses Are Their Design: An Interview With Frog’s CEO Harry West