Welcome to the first installment of "Pinch & Zoom," an Emergent Order series exploring topics in design! We hope you enjoy.
Design lessons can come from unexpected places. Case in point: on my first day as a communications intern at my very first job, my new boss gave us a lecture about military strategy. The ultra-short version was this: a fighter pilot named John Boyd wanted to understand how to make better decisions, faster — specifically, faster than your opponent. He discovered that every flight decision followed the same pattern: first, a pilot observed his surroundings. Then, he oriented himself relative to those surroundings. Next, he'd need to decide what to do about this situation; and once he'd decided, he'd act.
No matter what happened — whether, for example, he'd successfully moved himself out of a vulnerable position, or failed to gain the advantage — the landscape would have changed and he'd need to figure out what to do next, starting with re-observing the new state of his surroundings. Boyd termed this cycle the "OODA loop," and while it was developed to describe air combat, it covers the essential processes of making decisions in any scenario. Boyd's big insight was that any action causes all players to re-start their loop — if you're in the middle of deciding whether to bank right or fire, and your opponent suddenly moves, you now need to re-observe and re-orient yourself — and that completing loops faster than your opponent is the key to disrupting his decision-making process, and therefore winning. Making the right decision was important, but getting to a "good enough" decision faster than your opponent was better.
Fast-forward to 2018: the tech industry is flooded with loop-disrupting strategies. Disruptive innovation, agile, "fail fast," minimum viable products, and lean startups are all methods of adapting quickly to changes in the competitive landscape, and forcing competitors to adapt to your strategies.
But even as pressure mounts to have launched that new feature yesterday, there's growing tension between the "move fast and break things" camp and the increasing demand for better user experiences. Customers 2020 Report says that by 2020, "user experience will overtake price and product as brand differentiators," and the competitive landscape bears that out: user research, experience design, animation design, branded content, and enormous teams dedicated to branding and brand strategy are all indications of just how much consumers value delightful experiences, top-notch branding, obsessive attention to detail, and more intentional design processes.
So which direction should a company choose? "Move fast and break things," or design with intention? There's no single right answer, but if your company is currently trying to solve that puzzle, our team is here to help. In the meantime, here are some examples of companies that have pushed themselves towards one end of the spectrum or another, and how they've managed the compromises along the way.
Ellen Marie Bartling
No article on iterative design is complete without reference to the iconic Google Ventures Sprint. If you're unfamiliar, this is Google's tried-and-tested five-day guide to understanding the problem you're facing, prototyping a solution, and learning from your experience. They've helped answer important, brand-defining questions for lots of companies, and we use their techniques all the time.
IBM is one of the biggest and most influential design-centered companies in tech. One of the keys to their success has been their Design Thinking Framework, parts of which they've made open and public on their website. Their methodology isn't just for designers — it's a way of designing processes and teams to optimize transparency, collaboration, and efficiency that cuts across disciplines.
When is it too soon to market a product? According to fashion startup Betabrand, the answer is never. In order to mitigate the risk of a potentially fleeting new trend, they created a digital 3D model of their latest shoe design instead of a manufactured prototype, posted it on their website, and decided to see if it sold. It's an ultra-lean minimum viable product strategy — so minimum that there's not actually a product yet — that's becoming increasingly popular with the fashion industry, where the pressure to capture consumer interest in micro-trends is high, and waiting to actually make the shoes means missing a huge window of sales.
Charles Eames, the famous designer behind the iconic Eames lounge chair, one explained his design philosophy as, "The details are not the details. The details make the design." In a world where there are 3.8 million apps in the Google Play store and seemingly hundreds of options for any particular service, the tiny, unnoticed details can make all the difference in a user's decision to adopt a product. Little Big Details is a fun blog that celebrates the under-appreciated design details that make our favorite products more delightful.
Have you noticed that pacificlegal.org has been looking especially nice lately? Last year, we worked with the Pacific Legal Foundation team to overhaul their entire website and help them reach a new donor audience. Our case study goes into detail about our research, strategy, and the design process we used to bring their new brand identity to life.