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Does success depend on the size of the business?

Posted on 17/07/2018

Second article in a series looking at five key insights from KTN’s recent Break Through Innovation Event.

At a day-long conference last month designers and entrepreneurs involved in the Design Foundations projects were invited to share their experiences of working together with a wider audience. KTN presented this event specifically as a way to ‘Break Through Innovation’, a space where businesses could continue the momentum of collaboration and start planning how to get their products to market.

This article is part of a series of articles looking at five stand-out insights of the day, which illuminate both the perceived challenges of going through a human-centred strategic design process and the lucrative results it can produce.

In part two of this series we asked, does success depend on the size of the business?

During the ‘Break Through Innovation’ day the audience heard from representatives of different businesses about how they have benefited in multiple ways from working with designers in their early stage innovation process. For some attendees, however, there were doubts about their capacity to engage with designers. “For some, design research can feel airy fairy and a bit time wasting”, commented Taryl Law, co-founder of the education start-up How Do I? In her experience, she continues “others can view design as an expensive process that has no definable outcome, but I appreciate how the design process embraces ambiguity and can often lead to unsuspected insights and innovations”.

Service designer Patrick Towell interjected with his theory that design is counterintuitive because, while it may look soft and fuzzy from the outside, it is a process that is in fact very good at dealing with complexity. By investigating the brief from a human-centred perspective, strategic design doesn’t look for quick fixes. It asks what is the experience like? What is the user-need? How do we design emotion into the product or service for a richer reward? Patrick continues, “Typical industrial design characterises everything as a task. But in some service industries there is no task, there is only experience. How do we turn the ‘task of search’ into the ‘joy of discovery’?” Gianpaolo Fusari, a healthcare designer from the Helix Centre, agreed. “Ambiguity is second nature for designers”.

Unfortunately, for the co-founder of a start-up micro enterprise ‘ambiguity’ does not seem like safe option. “It’s a risk for me to come here today,” says Taryl. “It’s different as a startup entrepreneur of a micro-enterprise”, she explains. “when your resources are limited you consider how you spend your tie quite carefully”. And within that short statement lies the rub. When boot-strapping every element of your business to try and get it off the ground, where is the time, space and budget for inviting designers into the process? When KTN are not awarding funding to specific innovation projects who has the money to pay for early-stage design interventions?

Hearing Oliver Moffat from Baxi, a 152 year old company that operates as the biggest supplier of heating and hot water in the UK, talk about the rewards of taking a human-centred design approach, it appeared this established business has more resources to accommodate an exploratory process. “We can too often forget about customers, focusing too much on product optimisation”, Oliver admits. The design collaboration helped Baxi shift their perspective and ask, “What does heating and hot water mean to a person?” The answer, “A hell of a lot more than we previously thought”, laughed Oliver. It was clear they learned a lot and the funding allowed them to build a new approach within the business. “We assembled a cross-functional team, got senior buy-in, and created a tool-kit”.

However, a larger organisation does not guarantee greater capacity to engage with design, sometimes the bigger the business the harder it is to effect change. Gianpaolo Fusari worked on a Design Foundations project with an NHS stroke rehabilitation unit at St Mary’s Hospital in London. He observed that the public sector is under a lot of stress and strain which makes it a hostile environment for new information and learning. “We hijacked team meetings to try and work with them, as there was no other time available in their schedules. We saw they are severely under resourced”. Gianpaolo experienced difficulty in finding staff that had time to engage in a meaningful way with the design process. “If someone would be seconded to our research team, who would pay for the backfill of that person’s post?”

In high pressure working environments, does the quest for certainty and optimisation mean small businesses and larger organisations are missing out on greater rewards because taking time to rethink the current model seems an inefficient use of time?

Simon Bennett from Locate East Sussex councils echoes this opinion at another table discussion. “Most councils”, he says, “are firefighting the whole time. They’re not really thinking about innovation”. Designer, Duncan Fitzsimons from 7th Design and Invention admitted that as a designer embarking on an exploratory process it can be challenging to, “Get clients to step back from what they think they want, because it might not look like a secure project plan”.

Through listening to these conversations, it became apparent that both large and small companies struggle to find the time and budget to invest in design activities, but the perceived risk is more acute for micro-enterprises in their precarious start-up phase. However, it also clear that the design process, by nature, deals with ambiguity and can de-risk any innovation project across sectors and stakeholders. There are clear benefits to working with designers and creating budgets for this collaboration work from the start of a project will help set the frame for engagement.

Read More about the Insights:

1. Does following a design formula help or hinder?

2. Does success depend on the size of the business?

3. What does it mean to have your ideas challenged?

4. Why does transparency matter in the design process?

5. What is the true benefit of an external perspective?