The 3 simple perspectives that lead to product innovation
Encouraging design thinking through collaboration the IDEO Way
Hello again, designers!
Two weeks ago we talked about how designers can flex the soft power of design to influence better outcomes in tech companies.
Today I want to pick up where we left off. I want to start to frame how we can work better together in cross-functional teams and how designers can facilitate the process by matching our skill sets to those of our peers.
I have a lot to say on the topic, so this will be the first installment of a multi-part series on sharing the product design process.
The overlapping triumvirate of software creation
Stay with me while I establish the basics...
Three disciplines form the core of the product development and delivery pipeline in modern tech organizations: software engineering, product management, and design. From the outside looking in, you might think that these disciplines are vastly different; Their educational programs look different, their conference topics sound different, and hell, each even has its own separate Substack category! But when the rubber hits the road and a strong cross-functional team of expert practitioners gets moving, I've found that the roles are separated only by slight shades of gray.
A great product manager probably doesn't ship code, but they have a deep, technical knowledge of how the product operates.
A great software engineer probably won't design a UI in Figma but they will know a lot about architecting robust interfaces.
And a great designer probably won't dictate the business strategy, but they will have a keen sense of how to shape it into a cohesive experience that connects the desires of customers to the abilities of the product.
Each discipline has areas where they diverge, of course, but seasoned pros share enough foundation that they can work flexibly, collaboratively, and efficiently given the right environment.
Loosen the grip of control
Collaboration is the name of the game for getting the best output from this collective. Indeed the best product designs come from routine, tight collaboration throughout the entire product development process, from earliest ideation to last-second polish.
Facilitating and influencing this collaboration is a big piece of a designer's soft power, but as is often the case with power, it doesn't come for free; It requires some sacrifice. The reality of working in a cross-functional team like this is that it is both impossible for the designer to own every part of the design process and actually undesirable for them to try.
The designer's sacrifice is that they have to become comfortable with relinquishing some control over the design process.
They must learn to share.
Instead of trying to own every design problem, the designer must refocus that energy on creating the conditions in which their teammates with less formal design training can make good design decisions without their direct involvement. So, while great products should have design baked into every part of the process, every part of the process should not always be done by a designer.
It takes a surprising amount of confidence to let go of that control.
Shifting your focus from "How might I create the best design?" to "How might I facilitate the creation of the best design?" results in a decidedly different work experience. But ultimately, it's a trade-off that pays for itself several times over in both the experience of creating together and the quality of the work created.
Design thinking, but skip the cringe
For the unacquainted, IDEO is a world-famous design consultancy responsible for popularizing the concept of "Design Thinking" and influencing its spread across the corporate landscape.
They were behind the design of the first Apple mouse, which revolutionized the way people interacted with computers, the Steelcase Leap Chair, one of the first office chairs designed with ergonomics in mind, and the Palm V, one of the first consumer-ready handheld computers, among many other influential designs.
Despite the term "Design Thinking" getting used and abused in corporate America to the point of being cringe, I think there's still a really useful concept at its core.
According to IDEO the sweet spot for product innovation sits at the intersection of three product perspectives: viability, desirability, and feasibility. In the context of our cross-functional software team, the responsibility for representing each of those perspectives roughly breaks down to:
Product management making the case for the viability
"Is this product viable for the business?"
Design making the case for the desirability
"Is this product desirable for the people we intend to use it?”
Engineering making the case for the feasibility
"Is it feasible for us to build this product given our constraints?"
What I like about this model for considering team responsibilities is that it doesn't get into the specific tasks that any team member should or should not be doing. Who does what task ultimately isn't that important, what’s important is that each of the three disciplines knows what it's responsible for driving the team toward. It’s also important that each perspective is represented equally because the healthy tension of those differing viewpoints is what creates the force that ends up landing the output squarely in the middle of the three. The spot IDEO labels 'Innovation'.
It's a methodology that ultimately sounds like a riff on Raymond Loewy's MAYA rule of design mixed with the Goldilocks principle; not too crazy, not bare bones, just right.
Simple, lovable, complete
In the words of one of my other favorite product constructs, the collaborative IDEO-inspired mode of working results in a product that's SLC (simple, lovable, complete) not MVP (minimum viable product).
A focus on feasibility can help you keep it simple.
A focus on desirability can help you make it lovable.
And a focus on viability can help you deliver a complete experience that's worth paying for and keeps the business up and running.
At a high level, I think you're likely to end up with better collaboration and design output if you shift your team’s focus away from which role owns which task and toward which role represents each perspective.
I realize there are often significant headwinds to unlocking this perspective shift and achieving this mode of work. Whether it’s due to competing mandates within the corporate hierarchy or a simple lack of knowledge of the methods in each discipline’s toolkit, there’s still plenty of confusion on when a given role should be taking the lead versus when they should be following the lead of their teammates. So, next time we’ll be taking a closer look at clarifying how to share specific steps along the product design process to try to start resolving that confusion.
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IDEO - https://ideo.com
Design Thinking - https://designthinking.ideo.com
"Creating the First Usable Mouse" - https://www.ideo.com/case-study/creating-the-first-usable-mouse
Steelcase leap chair - https://store.steelcase.com/seating/office-chairs/leap
"Handheld organizer becomes a sleek accessory" - https://www.ideo.com/case-study/handheld-organizer-becomes-sleek-accessory
"I hate MVPs. So do your customers. Make it SLC instead." - https://blog.asmartbear.com/slc.html
Goldilocks Principle - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldilocks_principle