Rethinking Design: An imperative in the world of smart connected products

By Dr. Sanjay Rajagopalan

Today, every person has an implicit understanding of what it means to live in a hyper-connected world. The first-generation iPhone was launched about a decade ago in June 2007. Prior to this, we did not know what an App Store really meant. Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) had been recently founded.  Über (2009), Apple’s iPad (2010), Nest (2010), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), Slack (2013), Amazon’s Echo (2014), Pokémon GO (2016) along with many other iconic products and companies that have come to define the smart and connected life we know today, did not even exist.

While we can marvel at all of this looking back, the pace of connectedness hasn’t slowed down since 2007. If anything, the pace has actually accelerated. If this is true, what kind of world does the next decade have in store for us? What does life look like in that era of ultra-connectedness? For instance, what will the iPhone of 2027 enable us to achieve with features such as unlimited battery power, full-fidelity virtual/augmented reality, generalized ‘society of mind’ artificial intelligence (AI), human-grade natural language capability, built-in personalized healthcare, direct-to-brain interfaces, infinite integrated access to content and ecosystems, etc.? How will it affect work, play, health, prosperity, life, humanity, and the environment? Should we be doing something today to shape and prepare for that world? Should we be afraid? Are we even asking the right questions?

What is Design Thinking?

With 20 years of experience in strategic design projects that leverage Design Thinking, I am often asked to define Design Thinking – and this is how I like to describe it:

Design Thinking is a method to improve the creative confidence of individuals, teams and organizations that are interested in pursuing great opportunities, which are complicated by significant ambiguity.

The world of smart and connected products fits perfectly into this category of things that seemingly presents a great opportunity, but with significant ambiguity about how exactly to realize the opportunity.

All of us are born into this world with a natural curiosity about everything around us. We experiment continuously, i.e., we learn by trying things out and doing new things for the first time. However, as we age, most of us are schooled out of our ability to experiment, to learn by trying out new things and to take small (but frequent) risks. Design Thinking is a structured methodology that can help us re-discover and re-build our ‘creative muscles’ and regain our ‘creative confidence’ – a term coined by Stanford professor and IDEO co-founder David Kelley.

The key principles of Design Thinking

There are several widely accepted frameworks for Design Thinking. In general, these techniques complement other methodologies such as user experience design (UXD), agile, scrum, lean development, etc. Typically, Design Thinking equally emphasizes and balances the concepts of problem finding and problem solving. The practice cycles between 3 phases:

1. Empathetic observation: The focus of the empathetic observation phase is to understand and observe the world inhabited by the end-consumers or users of the product or service. It is ethnographic in nature and the goal is to get to the hearts and minds of the stakeholders, i.e., going beyond what they say and understanding what they do, how they think and how they feel.

2. Problem synthesis:Based on insights gleaned from the first phase, the designer moves into problem synthesis. Here, the focus is to form a unique point-of-view and frame the problem statement as a question such as ‘How can we address the core issue identified through empathetic observation?’

3. Iterative prototyping and testing: This phase is about brainstorming possible solutions and rapidly and iteratively prototyping and testing these solutions with real users.

The key is to cycle between these three phases quickly – in a matter of days or weeks instead of months and years. It is also critical to work in diverse teams that can ignite richer design discussions and to stay continuously focused on three different success metrics – the desirability, technical feasibility and commercial viability of the solution.

During my career, I have seen this technique applied successfully to a variety of organizations, industries and domains. It is effective in startups and in any entrepreneurial initiative within a larger company or organization. It is applicable to product innovation as well as organizational design, workplace and workspace design, process improvement, curriculum design, etc. All in all, it is a great technique to accelerate progress in the area of smart and connected products.

Getting started: The Wayne Gretzky Game

If you are wondering how you, as an individual or organization, can begin this journey of rethinking the ‘design of everything’ in the upcoming era of ultra-connectedness, you are not alone. Alan Kay, a Turing Award winner and a great pioneer in computing, describes a technique for beginning a difficult transformational journey. Alan’s technique is based on an observation about Wayne Gretzky, the most successful ice hockey player of all time. In fact, it is to this technique that Alan credits the overwhelming success with innovation at Xerox PARC that spawned the entire personal computing industry and created trillions of dollars of economic value.

It was said of Gretzky that rather than skating to where the hockey puck was, he skated to where the hockey puck was going to be – not just where it was headed but where it was going to be two or three passes later. It is a lot like looking several moves ahead when planning your game in chess. This uncanny ability to predict the future before it happens was what made Gretzky successful at hockey.

Alan famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” His technique for inventing the future goes something like this:

Step 1: Start by stating what is inevitable, or undoubtedly true, 30 years in the future. For example, it would be ridiculous to imagine that 30 years from now, every human being on the planet would not have access to an AI that is 10 times more powerful than the most powerful AI available today.

Step 2: Dial that back by 15 years and state what would need to be true in 10-15 years for the 30-year obvious situation to materialize. For example, in 10-15 years, a personal AI assistant would be available to at least 80% of the population on earth.

Step 3: Think of how you could apply funds and resources to achieve the 10-15 year goal within the next 5 years. For example, with a billion dollars in funding, a new type of computer programming language, faster machines, and an R&D team of top global researchers in AI, we could reach the 10-15 year goal much sooner.

Step 4: Take action on Step 3 at a smaller scale today, much like creating a ‘flight simulator’ of that future world. For example, source some funds and set up a team (or even a lab in your garage) to build a re-programmable demo version of a generalized personal AI assistant that anyone in your team can use, change, interact, improve, and learn with. If you are successful, then approach people with the resources to achieve Step 3 and convince them to support your work.

The Imperative

Today, leaders and innovators need to jump-start the global innovation engine by activating the Design Thinking muscle and learning to play the Wayne Gretzky Game. Whether these leaders are in governments, industries or in academia, they need to imagine and invent that future world of smart, connected products.

In his book, Being Digital (1995), Nicholas Negroponte observed that “The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable. The change is also exponential.” I believe that book was written to address this particular future – the world of smart, connected products. The time is ripe for each one of us to choose between being an innovator and a key proactive participant in this unstoppable future or an irrelevant bystander during this transformation. Choose wisely.

The author is SVP and Head of Design & Research, Infosys

Published Date: May 04, 2017 12:14 pm | Updated Date: May 04, 2017 12:14 pm