Opportunity-driven design

The standard UCD-based design canon operates from the basic premise that there is a user problem to identify and solve. User can’t do X so we design an interface/product/service to help said user achieve X or alternatively Y.

As I become more involved in “next gen” or “concept” design work, I’m sensing that the real question that drives forward-looking situations isn’t really about “solving a problem” per se, as much as it is “identifying opportunities” to exceed expectations, leapfrogging banalities and envisioning scenarios that were previously impossible or simply ignored. Of course, there’s still some subliminal or ambient “itch” (or “felt difficulty” as a former prof liked to say) that’s greasing the axles in your mind to turn forward, searching out new possibilities.

What’s driving this opportunity seeking?

* New technologies, esp coming out of research labs or code geeks trying novel techniques. Does it sound like “invention in search of a problem”? Perhaps. But that doesn’t necessarily make it horrible in its own right, per se. This is where a designer with a strong grasp of the humanistic / cultural / social potential can join the fun and suggest avenues that really amplify the technology’s merits, towards becoming something that enables a total human experience that people will seek and value. In other words, meaningful tech.

* New business models for revenue generation, but NOT through urgent cost-cutting or gritty price-wars. Instead through expansion of markets, tapping new domains and customer segments, seeking new geographies and thus demographics that represent strong economic potential. Or even defining new business territories, over-turning existing models on their head, as Steve Jobs / Apple did with music and tv shows, or Netflix did with video streaming or Google did with search/ads.

* New contexts, scenarios, social/cultural behaviors and attitudes emerging with younger generations, sub-cultures, social mixing of populations, as well as adoption of new tech (like texting, facebook, webcams, smartphones). This requires constant vigilance and sharp observations to intuit underlying insights on motivations and approaches for doing something–the why and how. Is there something happening on the edges and fringes of social groups that are poised to “cross the tipping point” and become massively mainstream? Why is that so? How big of a phenomenon is it and what are the opportunities to shape it into a meaningful form or service or product?

So it’s more than just fixing problems (whether quick band-aids or triaging wholescale re-work projects) but actively seeking out those moments for what’s next and better than what’s current. What are those opportunities for significantly improving the human condition, maximizing a business’s value, and/or capitalize on some new technology magic?

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