Bringing Users into Your Process Through Participatory Design
The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 2: Undertaking Risk

The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 1

The following 6 posts are culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). The talk was delivered on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at Think Big Partners in Kansas City, Kansas.

How many people here would consider themselves entrepreneurs? Designers? Both?

When the folks at KCDW reached out to me about giving this talk, I gave them the title "Envisioning the Balance: The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepeneurship." However, five months have passed since I came up with that title, and as often happens with thinking about a subject as large as entrepreneurship, I've come to realize the title wasn't correct. So I’ve decided to change the name of this talk as "What You Already Know and Wish I Wouldn’t Remind You About."

Everyone gathered here has critical knowledge and perspective about this subject. Many of you could come up here and deliver their own version of this talk. So it's my hope that over the next hour, my point of view on this subject will serve as a useful starting point for the Q&A session that will follow.

A little bit about myself: I've worked for the past five years at frog, a global product strategy and design firm. We help define and design many different kinds of products and services, and advise everyone from Fortune 10 companies to startups on how to better serve their customers and grow intelligently. We’ve also recently launched a venture design practice, where we invest in seed and early stage businesses. When I'm not at frog, I am a writer and teacher, trying to make design skills more available and accessible worldwide.

Over this past decade, I’ve helped design all sorts of products and services, as well as establish strategies for both business success and cultural transformation through design. I’d love to tell you some stories about the businesses that I’ve helped, and the products that I’ve worked on… but when you’re helping businesses to define the next next thing, much of what happens is confidential. There's nothing confidential, however, about what design means to entrepreneurs. It's one of the keys to not only satisfying and delighting customers, but creating high-performance businesses.

We’ve seen serious results from design-oriented companies that are in the Fortune 500. I read last week in an article by the Design Management Institute and Motiv that:

“Over the last 10 years, design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 228%.”

So there's a proof point regarding how this approach can reward markets and shareholders. And it's having an impact on the hiring and integration of designers into businesses both big and small. As Laurie Segall said recently in CNN Money:

“In the Silicon Valley hierarchy, coders have always ruled the roost, but right now there's a different skill set on the industry's most-wanted list: designers.”

New business ventures want the benefits of having designers as one of their founders, at the start of the startup. In Silicon Valley, it’s a recruiting dogfight for talented designers to join both early-stage startups, more mature tech businesses (i.e. Google, Facebook), and legacy businesses that are transforming not just their products and services, but their culture (GE, IBM). There may still be a heavily lopsided ratio of development to design, but designers are defining the details of the products we use every day. They get their hands on the important stuff.

So the key question I want to tackle tonight is: How might we bring design into businesses to improve their chances of business success? This isn’t just about how to create a great startup, or how to make an aging business pay attention to design. It's oriented around principles I've been using in my work to help businesses bring design to the core to how they operate, empowering them to create their best possible products and well-shaped businesses. This is my own answer to the question based on my own successes and failures, and should not be confused for the opinions of others.


Design in Entrepreneurship: Let's Define the Damn Thing

So, what do I mean when I talk about “entrepreneurship”? This is my personal definition:

Entrepreneurship is undertaking risk to create customer value by making needed things, receiving feedback on them, and improving business performance.

One of the first questions I always ask the businesses that I work with is, “Which of these activities are you not doing? Or do you wish you could do better?” I ask the above question this because you can’t be equally great at all of these activities. Most businesses don’t do all of them well, or focus on them in equal measure.

Designers often get trapped in working on products, focusing on function and decoration rather than looking across the whole business. Design is identified by many business owners as fitting into the activity of making needed things & receiving feedback, and we are hired into companies to provide basic craft skills to do so. There is no better example I can think of regarding this attitude than the "ugly baby" phenomenon.

If you work in a business, it's your job to make some form of product or service. Let's say that the product is a baby. It's your responsibility to make the baby, feed the baby, clothe the baby, We hope people will like our baby, buy our baby, and maybe even let the baby grow up into a fully functioning adult while somehow skipping those awkward, ungainly teenage years.

Now, have you ever been asked to help a business make their "ugly baby" look and function better? Businesses often put makeup on their ugly babies when they take them out to the playground, because they’re a little embarrassed about how the baby looks or behaves. Designers get the call for help, because they are great at baby saving. In the end, we babysit.

There's always a place for babysitting, and there are some days that I love to be focused exclusively on just that. But tonight, I'm going to talk about how designers can have a role in every one of these activities entrepreneurs need to pay attention to throughout the lifecycle of their busienss. From undertaking risk to gauging customer value to helping improve business performance, our aims are the same. And designers have unique skills they can use in concert with the entrepreneur (if they aren't the same person) to improve the likelihood of customer happiness and business success. Businesses that bring design into their core of how they function understand that design can touch and help improve many aspects of what a business can accomplish.

In the following five posts, I'll share with you the way that I've been working to bring design into entrepreneurship. The next post in this series will be focused on the subject of undertaking risk.


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