Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Design As An Essential Business Element

Last Friday's Wall Street Journal's book review section contained a nearly-hidden piece of interest. The book is entitled, "Change By Design," by Tim Brown. Mr. Brown is the CEO of IDEO, a design consultancy.

As early as perhaps four years ago, I began to take a stronger interest in the MFA degree than an MBA. There was, I believe, even an HBR article extolling the value of a Master of Fine Arts degree for its integration of design as an inherent value-adding component of products.

It is very much along this line that Mr. Brown's book is reviewed. Rather than treat product design as an afterthought, it is, with the aid of firms like IDEO, being used in the early stages of concept and product design to add features and functionality.

The review mentions a technique used by IDEO which is a direct implementation of a very old (c1975) marketing concept called Tauber's Problem Inventory Analysis. The consultancy shot video of a mock patient entering an ER facility to identify problems confronting the patient not currently addressed.

Often, breakthrough products and services are identified by this type of analysis where focus groups fail. Perhaps the most famous example of such a difference in approach is that of air travel.

It's a commonly-held tenet that air travel could never have been produced by focus groups, because it was a solution that simply did not yet exist in any form. But, as a problem analysis, the characteristics of air travel as a solution could easily be seen to fit various business problems.

As with many good management practices, the irony and disappointment is that they are the exception, rather than the norm. Otherwise, Mr. Brown wouldn't need to write a book about it, would he?

But, then, it's these type of exceptions that drive some companies to deliver consistently-superior total return performance, while most do not.

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