The digital revolution has exploded over the last 20 years, and it’s created an incredibly interesting irony: The impact technology has on how products are planned, produced and promoted seems to be growing smaller, not bigger.
That may sound crazy, but stay with me here. For most of history, innovation has been limited by what is possible from a very practical perspective: Simply, what do we know how to do? That is, until now.
Technology continues to change so quickly that the key differentiator for companies today starts with a more basic question: What do people want?
Our digital breakthroughs need balance
When the digital revolution began to take off in the ’90s, fascination with speed and the technology itself seemed to drive advancement. This placed human-centered desires for simplicity and ease of use on the back burner. Taking this approach has gotten us a long way—today, 3 billion of us are connected to the internet. But we’re also beginning to see the explosive growth begin to wane, which indicates the need for us to take a new tack.
The most powerful innovations come at the intersection of what people want, what is technologically possible, and what is viable from a business perspective. Necessity isn’t always the mother of invention. That initial wave of the digital revolution prioritized technological capability over people’s needs, and in turn our capabilities have advanced at a faster rate than our ability to fully utilize them. In this gap, there lies enormous opportunity. And this opportunity is where design can help win the game.
Design is the mother of innovation
A good designer is someone who understands what people need and can assemble technological capabilities in ways that people find valuable. Since we have been operating in such a richness of technological capability, the demand for this type of thinking has had to catch up—and this is the situation we find ourselves in today.
We see it in the powerful disruption of startups and the drive toward customer-centered business strategies. In other words, in a world where technological capabilities far exceed the needs of everyday interactions, the emphasis turns to how elegant and seamless customers interact with a brand and its products.
This is how design has become the mother of—not invention—but innovation and differentiation. It explains how startups can develop products and services that disrupt major industries that once seemed invincible. Meanwhile, the potential scope of design is vast. When applied to its fullest degree, design considers much more than the crafting of a product or service itself. It considers virtually every experience around that product, every action and every process within the company. It is the essence of a strong brand.
When viewed this way, we see how design can spark enormous transformations in business models, organizational cultures and operations. Everything—from product, to delivery, to the store it’s purchased in, and customer support—should be focused on customer needs and desires, as well as the brand values they expect to interact with.
Don’t think outside the box, expand it
The term “thinking outside the box” is often used by leaders wanting a creative shift or a new big idea. However, some of the more powerful brands today have used design more to change the shape of their box than to think outside it.
We’ve seen this in the gaming industry, where companies started paying attention to people who don’t consider themselves gamers—they drew them in by changing the way users interact with their programs. It happened in telecommunications when computer companies began producing phones. And it happened when transportation and hospitality companies stopped buying assets and built engagement platforms. In each of these trends, thoughtful experiences have been used to expand audiences.
Companies that are new entrants, either from an adjacent industry or a startup, have an advantage in this environment. Because they have been outside industry orthodoxy, they can observe with fresh eyes how technology, through the application of design, can be used to engage customers. They’ve been able to adjust to the dynamics of this economy while still small and agile. When in comparison, mature companies have had to deal with much more complexity and completely re-orchestrate their business to get to the same place.
Design-centered digital transformation
In this way, design is at the center of any real digital transformation. At its core this is a shift from being a company that delivers technology-centered solutions and processes to one that delivers people-centered solutions and process enabled by technology. It’s a big leap, but it’s one that is important for survival in the digital age. Technology may seem nearly ubiquitous, but insight is not. It never will be. And that’s why you need design.
Erik Kiaer (@askeladden) is a managing director at Doblin, a design and innovation center at Deloitte Digital.