Don Norman’s Plea for Design In Business at DMI Boston


As a first time Design Management Institute (DMI) participant, I was pleasantly surprised to see Don Norman give the opening keynote at the Experience Innovation conference in Boston earlier this month.


Norman wrote the Design of Everyday Things 25 years ago, and he has served as a advocate for design in business ever since. His focus has been primarily on product design via consulting work for companies such as Apple, but Norman is multifaceted. He literally developed the term User Experience, which he describes as certainly NOT just about web design. Instead, user experience refers to the sum of physical, mental, and emotional responses that a person has when interacting with a product, service, or process. Similar terms and frameworks exist, such as journey mapping, user centered design, human centered design, and voice of the customer strategies; none are as universally used yet so ill-understood. Whatever you call it, the act of understanding the user is critical for good design.

Given this notion of user experiences, this is a good time to answer a key question that you might be thinking: why is a blog called Open Innovation Central writing about design?

First and foremost, design is more than just choosing how things look; it also refers to how things are perceived and how they interact in a larger ecosystem. This was the essence of Norman’s user experience speaking points. Describing design with mere physical attributes such as color, shape, and size is superficial; understanding the way users interact with products is incrementally more powerful. Design is one of the primary driving forces in our everyday decisions, including the purchases we make, the cities we live in, and the companies we work for.

Coffee Pot Masochist - What's wrong with this picture?

Coffee Pot Masochist – What’s wrong with this picture?

To put it simply, design matters. Bad design makes user experiences suck.

Open Innovation as a business strategy is no exception to this fundamental rule; the same goes for crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, open source, and idea management. Understanding customer needs, goals, and incentives is the first step in developing ANY Innovation strategy, especially approaches that call for new ways of thinking or interactions with new and unknown groups. Such understanding comes from empathy which is a vital design skill that business and engineering folks sometimes miss. In fact, a lack of empathy (understanding your customers / users / employees / investors / incentives) is the key reason why innovation campaigns fail.

Norman took this idea deeper and made some interesting points as to who the ‘user’ really is in a business context. According to Don, as a product, service, or business model designer, the user is actually your boss’s boss.

What Norman was describing is an understanding of incentives; whoever’s name is on your paycheck will ultimately determine how empathetic you can be with your new design, whatever that may be. So, what is a design-minded business person or a business-minded designer to do? Should you take everything I’ve said about the importance of thoughtful design and throw it out the window? No. Don’t worry, there’s still hope.

A designer can meet both the needs of the end-user AND their boss’s boss by being more quantitative in their justification of design decisions . Customer preferences and usability data make up the secret sauce. Any decent marketer knows that decisions are only as good as the data behind them; decisions made with no data aren’t good at all. Designers need to shift their thinking to embrace this mindset and become more data driven. Speaking the language of business in a compelling and believable way will sway bosses back towards a more user-centered approach.

Designers aren’t the only ones who need to change their ways; business people also need to embrace design principles to make better decisions for their customers’ sake. This is the crux of why DMI exists, and why they chose Norman for the opening keynote  – to wake everyone up to the need for cross-functional thinking. The DMI way is to bring design, business, and engineering people together in one room to collaborate. They recognize that solving complex problems needs to be a team effort; each functional group can and should learn from one another and improve in their weakest areas.

As designers, your job is to teach empathy to other groups or, at the very least, get data to back up your design choices. Business people and marketers, your role is to educate the designers in the ways of the MBA – bridge the gaps between Photoshop and excel by being empathetic in your analysis and avoiding death by powerpoint.

Whoever you are – remember that not everyone thinks like you do, which is why they hired you!

Norman advises designers and business people alike to “ask the right stupid questions” of one another; this is how novices can stand out. Bridge those gaps! According to Don, “every problem has a simple solution, and it’s WRONG“. Solutions are usually complex and hence require cross-functional thinkers. More design or more data isn’t always the answer, sometimes cross-pollination is necessary. Given these thoughts, I will continue to partner with organizations like DMI to grow toolkit in this regard. I hope you will keep working at it as well.

For more information on DMI and the conferences they put on, follow them on Twitter @DMIfeed or check them out here. Happy Designing!

-Chris Kluesener, Open Innovation Central

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