The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 4: Making Things and Receiving Feedback
The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 6: Make Change Fun

The Dynamic Role of Design in Entrepreneurship, Part 5: Improving Business Performance


This is the fifth of six posts culled from notes I wrote in preparation for a talk at Kansas City Design Week (KCDW). Read the first, second, third, and fourth posts, and see the slide deck here.

Improving Business Performance Iteratively

With enough customer feedback on our hypotheses, we are able to hone in on "duh problems" that, if solved, create major value for customers while also creating new business opportunities for our clients. This requires steady, consistent effort, and going through smart iteration on both the product and business.

Iteration doesn’t just mean to create improvement for improvement's sake, adding countless features and complexity in the process based on every piece of customer feedback that you receive. I see iteration as informed learning. If you aren’t learning in an ongoing cadence, and shifting your effort based on that learning, then you are taking on additional risk as a entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs need to be able to move not in long, slow, measured phases, but in a fashion that’s dynamic in nature. What you learn informs what you make, why and how customers value it, and how much risk you are still carrying through the product design and development process.

Let me use an analogy to try and explain this.


Think and Create in Measured Cycles

Do you like to bike? So do I. All the rage right now in San Francisco (and everywhere else, really) is the “fixie” bicycle, which only has one gear. This means that no matter whether you’re on flat ground or grinding your way up one of those terrifyingly large hills, you have the same level of efficiency in how you spin the wheel a complete revolution. This can be great when you’re in the flats, but on those insane hills, you’re getting crushed—and passed by all those people on their 20-speed bikes that can spin at a higher cadence with less extreme effort.

I like to compare the process of holistic iteration to learning how to ride a bicycle that has only three gears. The gears are associated with the fidelity of what you need to create, and the volume of complexity necessary to make that product tangible for your customers. The lowest gear is what you use to make a rapid advance on an early idea. You can move quickly to flesh out what you think the product will need to be. You shift into second gear, and there is increased challenge and effort to take the idea and translate it into the moving parts and pieces necessary to get it into customer hands. The highest gear has to do with small changes to your product or service. This is incredibly fast iteration, so you may be going up a very long hill, but you’re able to spin quickly to make incremental progress up the hill, polishing the smallest functional details to get them into use.

Often designers aren’t part of the pedaling in the lowest gear. They get stuck in the higher gears, spinning hard to make the tiniest details of the product or service—but they don’t get to take what they’ve learned and use it to inform the idea generation and big-picture design cycles. Designers work best when they have a chance to spin using all the different “gears” of the iteration process, moving from the big-picture flats to the peaks that provide the perspective to zoom down and plan out big sweeping improvements.

If businesses have designers only pedal in one or two of the gears, it can have a dramatic effect when confronted with these big hills. Design-led businesses have designers shift between all of them. Not only that. Design led-businesses understand that shifting gears may require not only rethinking their product or service, but also redesigning how the business functions as a whole. This is why I originally called this talk "Envisioning the Balance." You need to keep pedaling the gears at the right cadences, pushing toward a vision, to keep from falling down.


Keep a Record of the (Messy) Process

Often, the product is the only record of change for a business. Keep a record of the big changes, the things that really matter, the information that supported those big decisions. If I’m working on a product, I’m trying to receive feedback on a business’s product or service on a weekly basis, reflecting on what the feedback means, and adjusting course in the right ways for the correct “gears” that product teams are in. 

You will forget the reasons why you decided to turn left instead of right. You don’t want to repeat the same mistakes over again. Customer feedback is priceless, but only if you know what you’re learning as a result of said feedback, and can apply it at the right times.

The final post in this series will be about living with change.


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