Design Panel recap: How concepts drive business innovation

Last week I attended this interesting design panel held at Hot Studio in downtown SF, moderated by Wendy Owen of Hot Studio: Make It Real: How Product Concepting Drives Business Innovation 

A wide range of panelist perspectives were represented… from a UX consultant (Lane Becker) to prominent design executive (Kaaren Hansen of Intuit) to design-driven change agents at two of the nation’s oldest companies, GE and AAA (Andrew Crow and Michael Crane, respectively).  Below are some of my personal takeaways to share…Enjoy!


** It’s extremely challenging but rewarding to overturn legacy attitudes embedded within teams and organizational structures, often manifested in internal heavy artifacts like, “it has to be in Powerpoint” to be even looked at. 

** Remember that you are doing “radical disruption” by suggesting even small tweaks like whiteboarding or sketching before spec’ing. This requires some “appetite for ambiguity” on part of the change agents (designers) AND the product teams, to figure out the best relationship moving forward. 

** Principles can often trump process: Forces key stakeholders to let go of the crutches of a process and focus on what matters most, values of user-centered thinking like empathy, prototyping fast, and learning from mistakes. 

** You have to design your way forward with constant, continual, iterative experimentations and learnings based upon humble framing–“I don’t know, but let’s try and see!”.

** Don’t get hung up on “validation” (which Kaaren says presupposes a correct definitive answer, can constrain your ability to see fringe ideas, inhibits openness to new possibilities unforeseen during testing). Avoid the arrogance of pre-defined correctness.

** When concepting, inspiration matters more than validation. When refining and evolving a business model, customer feedback (validation) is more valuable. Know when to focus on either one.

** Prototypes tell stories, not Powerpoints. Forge emotional connections with the stakeholders, but more importantly, get them to try it out themselves and experience the reality of making something that physicalizes their assumptions.

** Having a “change manager” in addition to the typical product & program managers can help within teams, assuaging fears of radical change. Basically for relationship management (calming therapy ;-) 

** For many organizations “failure” is the, ahem, F-word ;-) Gotta move beyond that, and instead adopt a “learning-first” attitude through rapid, mistake-prone, iterations of trial-and-error with assumptions and goals. It’s scary but rewarding!

** Kaaren cited a 3-tiered way of thinking about project planning, called “Horizon Planning”, based upon an HBR article (I think it’s this one: To Succeed in the Long Term, Focus on the Middle Term by Geoffrey Moore) It focuses UX Investment planning so you’re not caught “boiling the ocean” which always fails (in a bad way). 

** Instead of “20% time” (which is a branded effort popularized by Google), foster “unstructured time” for collaboration and exploration. Equivalent to organizational day dreaming…let the minds wander. Need space and time for that.

** When presenting your post-project debrief to execs after the project shipped, focus on: how the project originated, what efforts did it take, really show ALL the work it took, and indicate the persistence required. Makes it real! 

** Fun analogy from Andrew Crow of GE: baking vs cooking. When baking, you’re following chemically defined recipes that are essential to achieve exact results. When cooking, you’re experimenting and it’s okay to screw up. There’s messiness and play! And if it fails, that’s ok…you can always order a pizza ;-)


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