Design begins as a way of thinking—the trick of looking at the world with the intent to improve people’s experiences. A designer’s goal, then, is to seek insight, uncover deeper dynamics, reframe problems, and strive to find holistic, unexpected solutions.
Consider how Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Westin Hotels and Resorts, improved his guests’ experiences. Studying the full journey a guest makes during a hotel visit, from entering a property to checkout, Sternlicht realized that the guest spends 80 percent of that time in bed. Rather than focusing mainly on other customer “touch points,” he introduced the plush “Heavenly Bed,” a quality mattress graced with high-thread-count white sheets. Franchisees initially fought the innovation-after all, cheap beds and beige sheets were easier to manage. But the beds were a massive hit, accounting for increased market share, increased customer satisfaction, and global growth. Demand for “Heavenly Beds” was so intense that Westin sold them directly to guests, racking up $11 million in its first year.
Insight, like inspiration, favors the prepared mind, benefiting from time spent thinking and musing. Increasingly, the act of generating insight is becoming a facilitated process that involves mapping out intangibles of business.
Technology, particularly the wide range of Web-based collaboration tools, is rapidly extending the way managers can generate insight. Quantifying online behavior, mapping consumer experiences, and mashing customer data now reveal trends previously unimaginable. The beauty of insight is that one never knows where and when the next great idea will come from.
SEEKING CLARITY THROUGH ITERATION
Design is a public process, not a personal event. Design is not just a matter of seeking random inspiration or generating ideas. Much of the creative process is about exercising critical judgment and testing ideas as they occur. Creative design involves a kind of constant dialogue between speculation and judgment. The designer asks: Is this right? Does this work? Does that feel right? Does it look right?
That intertwining of critical judgment with imaginative speculation is the DNA of the design process. It’s true in the arts, in the sciences, and certainly in business. Most of the things that are true about creativity are exemplified in the process of design.
Before Google revamped its Web site in May 2010, its design teams produced hundreds upon hundreds of sketches, creating alternatives that were “un-Google.” The point was to expand the range of possibilities and test assumptions. The act of making these options visible kept the design team focused and exploring. Continually sorting, refining, and ranking the pages on large physical studio boards helped the teams come to a critical insight and alignment. In a way, it’s ironic that the world’s largest digital company uses analog tools to help clarify its work. Large wall boards, which allow teams to see everyone’s ideas simultaneously, illustrate both big-picture ideas and details in a project. There is a reason why design studios accommodate many sketches, drawings, and illustrations: to ensure the iterative process of speculation remains open and full of momentum. Google’s design team saw a rich set of options that created parallel, structured conversations.
However, digital tools can also magnify and accelerate the iterative process by exposing alternatives, improvements, and refinements to a wider audience. Open-source software is a prime example of this principle at work.