Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

After the Post-It Notes Are Gone

A wall filled with yellow and pink Post-It Notes shot as a close-upLate last year, I attended a design thinking workshop. There were about 30 people in attendance, all interested in exploring ways to respond in the wake of the presidential election. As the facilitator noted, there are as many ways to get involved and take action as there are people.

It was a lively morning. Stories were told. Ideas were shared. And, of course, by the end of the workshop, the walls were covered with Post-It Notes.

As my small group was wrapping things up, one person asked: “How can we maintain this momentum? I would love to see something come of this effort.” We exchanged business cards and made vague promises to follow up. In January, I initiated a group email. One person declined, one never responded, and I had a beer a few weeks later with the fourth member of our group.

And that was that.

From idea to execution
I have participated in dozens of design thinking exercises and brainstorming sessions and, sadly, experiences like the one above are not uncommon.

Today, more than ever, when organizations face wickedly tough challenges, they may turn to a problem-solving technique known as design thinking, or human-centered design.

The process is well-defined and intended as a collaborative exercise. It begins with empathy – seeking out and understanding the needs of your intended audience. Once the challenge is defined, ideas are generated – the more the better. Prototypes are built and tested as the process moves closer and closer to the best solution.

Except when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, with the design thinking process, there is often too much thinking and not enough doing. Despite the increase in recognition of design thinking from the press room to the board room, why has it largely failed to deliver on its promise?

Probably because that messy iterative part of the process – after the fast and fun idea generation session is finished – is really hard to do well.

An uphill battle
The most common mistake that leaders make is buying into the notion that a lack of good ideas is restraining an organization’s growth and innovation. Usually, it is the follow-through that is lacking.

Design thinking, like Six Sigma or other common business processes, is reassuring to executives. It offers the promise of a tested methodology – a step-by-step process that leads to a desired outcome.

When a new process is initiated, leaders often assume that the biggest hurdle has been cleared and turn their attention elsewhere. In fact, the toughest challenges remain.

It takes real commitment to fend off resistance when strategy turns to tactics, resources are redirected, and new ideas clash with the status quo. Long after the idea generation stage, it takes highly-determined individuals – with ongoing, explicit engagement at the highest levels – to overcome organizational inertia.

Design thinking is, by definition, iterative and open-ended. In an impatient, results-driven environment, people are tempted to jump at the first plausible solution – and look no further. Most people don’t have the security, authority, or attention span to embrace uncertainty.

What’s more, it’s human nature to seek out the familiar. Studies show that most people are more proficient at completing short-term, immediate tasks – doing what we are told to do – rather than thinking of new ideas and executing them.

Define and clarify the problem
Design thinking isn’t magic. It’s a method for solving problems with the user in mind. When design thinking attracts the attention of business executives, if executed poorly, it runs the risk of undermining rather than reinforcing the value of design.

It’s easy to get excited about new ideas. Two additional techniques familiar to designers might help transform those good ideas into better outcomes.

One way to refocus and test the viability of the discovery – or idea generation – stage of an assignment is to draft a one-page creative brief. This includes:

  • An executive summary that provides the context for the assignment.
  • The purpose of the project – what is the current state and how do you want to change it?
  • A defined target audience – prioritized, if more than one.
  • Specific objectives. What do you need to do to make this project successful? By what measures will this project be considered a success?
  • A timeline. Nothing happens without a deadline.

The creative brief refines and prioritizes project goals and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Think more effectively
Despite the absence of evidence that brainstorming is an effective method for generating more and better ideas, it has become a time-honored technique. Its value may be more about bringing the team together. People enjoy feeling like they are a part of the process.

Design thinking exercises provide a similar value.

Research shows that individuals are better at divergent thinking – thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas. Groups are better at convergent thinking – selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Is it possible we have the creative process backward?

Instead of convening to dispatch a pile of Post-It notes at a project’s inception, maybe we would be better off gathering as a group after working independently. This sounds a lot like a critique – a staple of my days in college art and design classes.

In a critique, fellow classmates (or project team members in a business setting), offer constructive evaluation and analysis to push the best ideas forward. This provides more structure to propel an open-ended, iterative process toward a conclusion.

Think and do
Designers are uniquely suited to contribute when there are problems to be solved. They can visualize options as well as analyze and synthesize information. Designers learn how to think that way through practice.

When design thinking is trotted out as a cure-all for the world’s problems, it can undermine the value and contributions of designers. It over-promises and under-delivers.

As Helen Walters, a writer and researcher of innovation, notes: “Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.”

Panning for Gold

photo of a creek with a gold panners pan in the foreground with dirt and flecks of gold in itIn 1848, James Marshall discovered gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley. As news of the discovery quickly spread, the influx of prospectors and dreamers reshaped the American West, By the end of 1849, the non-native population of California grew from less than 1,000 to more than 100,000.

More than $2 billion worth of precious metals were extracted from the region during the California Gold Rush, yet very few people made any money off the gold itself. Clever entrepreneurs made fortunes selling pick axes, pans, and shovels, as well as blue jeans, secure banks, transportation, and mail delivery.

Get-rich-quick schemes didn’t die on the American frontier, they have only grown more pervasive across the country in the decades that followed.

All that glitters
Marketing folks seem especially prone to chasing the latest trend – most of them driven by the promise that “there’s gold in them thar hills!”

25 years ago there was a rush to build websites for every type of company and organization. Designers asked clients, “What do you want your website to do?”

“I don’t know, but everyone else is building one,” they answered.

While the internet is not a passing fad, untold resources were spent as much to keep up with the Joneses as to meet any business objectives. Was that money well spent?

Same old song, different tune
Remember when digital advertising was going to rule the world? Ultra-targeted audiences. The ability to track results. But as online advertising continues to grow, so do questions. The biggest question involves click fraud. How effective can a campaign be if a client is paying for ads that are never seen?

The next big thing was going to be content marketing. More content exists than ever before, which makes it ever less likely that someone will find your needle in their haystack. “What I really want right now is another piece of content from my favorite brand,” said no consumer ever.

No one cares about your hashtag. People are far more likely to be interested in following the exploits of their favorite celebrities. What do consumers value? It sure as hell isn’t a contrived marketing slogan trying to pass itself off as a “conversation.”

Question everything
We all have biases and make assumptions. As Richard Stacy, a social media consultant wrote:

If you are facing a new problem and you don’t know what to do about it, you will do one of three things: you will either do what everyone else is doing, what some expert tells you to do, or whatever looks like the easiest and cheapest thing to do. Usually these all work out to be the same thing.

The antidote to both the path of expediency and the gold rush mentality is to pause and reflect. Asking the right questions is the best way to expose bad ideas. Questioning a good idea strengthens it.

Necessary assumptions
Scientists use a technique called Occam’s Razor as they develop new theories. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

A necessary assumption is something that is required for an argument to be true. If the assumption is false, then the argument cannot be valid. It stands to reason that the more assumptions one must make, the less likely a theory will survive increased scrutiny.

In the book, How to Kill a Unicorn, author Mark Payne suggests a powerful question to ask when evaluating which ideas have potential and which are simply distractions.

What must be true for that to work?

Reverse brainstorming
After numerous new ideas or solutions are suggested, the best way to focus efforts on the best ones is to conduct a sort of “premortem” by imagining all the ways that your decision could end up in disaster. Looking at it another way:

What must be true for that to work?

Let’s take a real-world example – QR codes. Those little black-and-white boxes were ubiquitous for a while, and then, almost as quickly, seemed to disappear. Were they an idea worth pursuing?

The theory goes something like this: There are hundreds of millions of people with smartphones. Marketing people want to reach them. A QR code provides a quick way for your audience to access information about a product or service. Let’s use QR codes!

What must be true for that to work?

  • Your audience must know what a QR code is.
  • It must be simple and convenient to use.
  • Using it must provide something of value that isn’t easily attainable by other methods.
  • Your audience must want to receive your message.
  • Your audience must know others who have happily and successfully used QR codes.
  • It must work flawlessly, every time.

Did you notice a few unlikely assumptions there?

Gaining foresight
There is often wisdom in being late to the party – or even declining the invitation. Sure, some decisions end up being bad ones in retrospect. But many more can be avoided by being just a little more rigorous in questioning what everyone else is doing. Just ask your mom.

By considering diverse perspectives and summoning a little more empathy for your audience in the decision-making process, you can get a clearer peak into the future.

Just as importantly, this newfound vision will free up time that was spent panning for gold to use on more productive endeavors.

Save

Leap of Faith

Photo of a cliff diver doing a backflip into the ocean at sunsetA friend of mine graduated from high school when she was four years old. She wasn’t particularly precocious. In fact, she had lived a similar number of days as our classmates. It’s just that she happened to be born on February 29 – Leap Day – and her birthdays don’t happen as frequently as most. Oh, to be an anomaly!

What can we learn from a Leap Year that applies to design any time of year?

Solving a problem
In Ancient Rome, there wasn’t enough information to make calendars very accurate. Early astronomers began to suspect that the Earth does not orbit the sun in precisely 365 days. Adding one day every four years was a corrective measure that kept the calendar in balance over time.

Many design problems mirror the evolution of our modern-day calendar. At the beginning of a project, a designer may not know enough to offer a better solution. First, we must establish a set of goals and determine what we don’t know. Through acquiring insights and exploring options, we design a way to meet or exceed those goals.

Design is most valuable when it is functional. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Always improving
There are few things more bland than the company newsletter. At one time, there was a reason for it to exist. But in most cases, people have long since stopped asking why it is needed or what might be a more effective way to share bad snapshots from company picnics.

Designers never stop asking questions. Is this necessary? Is it effective? What if we try …? Why do they …? To avoid just going through the motions, it’s critical to build in time to refine and improve designs.

The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus (310-230 BC) is generally credited with being the first person to propose that the earth orbits the sun. Julius Caesar popularized a calendar with 365 days and 12 months, with a leap day added every four years. 15 centuries later, Copernicus produced a mathematical model of our solar system. By 1582, Pope Gregory’s revision of the Julian calendar began to be recognized as even more accurate.

These days, deadlines are measured in days, not decades, but a successful design process is an iterative one.

Getting noticed
The most powerful use of design occurs when a company uses it to separate itself, its products, and its services from the competition. This is only possible because there is so little good design out there or conversely, so much that is bad or mediocre. Isn’t it ironic that if the general level of design were better, this powerful strategy wouldn’t work?

The previous paragraph was written almost 30 years ago by the legendary designer, Saul Bass. It remains true today.

The Leap Year is a curiosity, an outlier. It wasn’t created for strategic advantage, but it does get noticed. In addition to serving a functional purpose, good design stands out. In an undifferentiated market, that’s incredibly valuable.

Making the case
Ask a designer, and there is no doubt about the value of good design. It’s a self-evident truth. Others are less willing to take that leap of faith.

Galileo was branded a heretic by the church. For centuries, his scientific discoveries were rejected. Likewise, designers must justify their costs and efficacy to leaders who seem to take their cue from H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Fortunately, there is a growing number of companies that champion the power of design. And more consumers are interested in choosing products and services that solve problems, make life easier, continue to innovate, and stand out from the crowd.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design.

Related content:
Why is the extra day added in February?

Bright Future

FaceForwardIn 1915, five Minneapolis leaders came together to start one of the nation’s first community foundations. This past Friday, I joined 1,700 others in celebrating The Minneapolis Foundation’s centennial at the Face Forward Futurist Conference.

The day was filled with renowned speakers offering insights into the future of health, education, technology, and civic engagement, among other topics.

Can nonprofits grow the pie?
Dan-PallottaKicking things off, Dan Pallotta, founder of the multi-day AIDS Rides and leader of Advertising for Humanity and the Charity Defense Council, proposed that the way we’ve been taught to think about charity is all wrong.

Pallotta, who spoke on the same subject in one of the 100 most-viewed TED Talks of all time, outlined the numerous disadvantages of the current model of philanthropy:

  • All money must go to the people the organization is dedicated to serving.
  • No money should go to leaders, fundraisers, or marketing people.
  • No money should go to scaling the organization’s impact.
  • Failure is prohibited.

Pallota argues that looking solely at what percentage of a charity’s funds go directly to the cause is too limiting. “Instead of asking if a charity has low overhead, ask if it has big impact.” He believes that the reason more nonprofits don’t achieve remarkable results is because they don’t invest in themselves the same way that for-profit companies do.

Because of the prevailing mindset, the media, and industry watchdog groups, charities are forced to forego what they need to grow:

  • More attractive compensation for effective leaders – to lure and keep the best people.
  • Time and patience for meeting the long-term goal – changing as many lives as possible.
  • A willingness to take risks – to meet the demands of a highly competitive and rapidly changing business environment.

Pallotta believes nonprofit organizations must behave more like entrepreneurial businesses, foregoing immediate results to invest in growth and a more significant impact.

The one major flaw in his argument? There is no direct cause and effect between money (either compensation or investment) and success. But it’s provocative to imagine what might happen if people cared enough to throw the same time, money, and effort at challenging social problems as we do at entertainment or other for-profit business ventures.

The theory of everything
dr-michio-kakuThe next presentation was by Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and host of the nationally syndicated radio program Science Fantastic. Kaku is the latest in a long line of physicists – from Newton to Tesla to Einstein and Hawking – to make science both accessible and revelatory.

Kaku placed today’s technology environment in historical context as a way to predict how our lives may change in the next twenty years.

Today, your cell phone has more computing power than NASA did in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Moore’s Law is the observation that computing power doubles every two years. Actually, it’s now doubling closer to every 18 months. Cheap processing power promises to make a host of innovations commonplace, such as:

  • Augmented reality. Google Glass was the first wave. In the near future, we will be able to access information instantly with contact lenses or implants.
  • Intelligent paper. It’s thin, bendable, and portable, with all the capabilities of a tablet computer. You can hold it in your hand or cover the walls of your home with it.
  • Longer, healthier lives – nanotechnology is expected to revolutionize medicine, eliminating some conditions at the molecular level and alleviating others through extremely targeted treatment.

Education is another area ripe for change. Technology cannot match the human ability to recognize patterns, glean insights, and apply them in innovative ways. In a world where mass customization will replace mass production, an ability to think becomes more important than an ability to make things. As Kaku noted wryly, “The problem with the American educational system is that we produce great people who can live in 1950.”

Toward the end of Dr. Kaku’s talk it dawned on me: With all of the daunting social challenges facing humanity, will technology help us do the right thing?

Secrets to a longer life
Buettner_woman_tp_jpg_610x343_crop_upscale_q85In 2004, Dan Buettner led a National Geographic expedition to find the longest living cultures – places where people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States.

After identifying five of these communities – or Blue Zones – Buettner and a team of scientists visited each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They found residents of all Blue Zones shared nine specific characteristics:

  • Family is put ahead of all other concerns
  • Strong social ties (loneliness shaves eight years off life expectancy in the U.S.)
  • Regular, moderate physical activity as a part of daily life (not workout programs)
  • Life purpose (living for something bigger than oneself)
  • Stress reduction
  • Moderate calories intake (no fad diets)
  • Largely plant-based diet
  • Low alcohol intake (usually wine)
  • Engagement in spirituality or religion

One piece of good news from this project: You don’t need to have money to live healthy. Since the initial research was completed, Buettner has successfully shown that we can create Blue Zones in diverse communities across the United States.

  • Residents of Albert Lea, Minnesota, built 46 new community gardens. 44% of adults participated in walking groups, logging over 75 million steps. Schools banned eating in hallways and stopped selling candy for fundraisers. After one year, healthcare claims for city workers dropped 49%, Participating businesses saw a 21% decline in absenteeism. And participants added 2.9 years (projected) to their lifespan.
  • In California, Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beach citizens suffered from high stress and an addiction to automobiles. Today they are happier, healthier and more engaged with their community than ever before. After enacting a series of initiatives to promote healthier living, nearly a third of all kids now walk to school, more than 60 restaurants added healthier options to their menus, smoking rates fell 30%, and obesity rates dropped 14%.

The Blue Zones Project has shown that environment plays a large role in longevity and public health. Personal discipline is like a muscle. In the wrong environment, that muscle gets fatigued and we make less healthy choices.

Asking the right questions
AtulGawande-New_Headshot_ProfilePhotoDr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, researcher, and author of the book Being Mortal, presented our final keynote address – on how to alleviate suffering at the end of our lives.

Modern medicine has transformed everything from childbirth to injury and disease, making once-frightening medical conditions easily treatable. But when it comes to aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Gawande suggested that the past 100 years might be considered the century of the molecule, in which we began to understand medicine down to its smallest components. Looking ahead, he argued, medicine must move to a century of the system. One in which we come to better understand how all those pieces fit together.

Today, our medical focus is on survival and safety above all else. In poignant stories of his own patients and family members, Gawande illustrated how modern medicine is like a machine that delivers pills and procedures – often unnecessary and sometimes even harmful.

As we age, a good life might be possible even without good health if doctors focus more on the person than the patient, asking questions such as:

  • What is your understanding of your health now?
  • What are your fears and concerns about the future?
  • What are your priorities and goals for the end of your life?
  • What would you be willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice?

The diagnosis? Conversation and empathy are the best medicine.

Drawing parallels to design
So, what does all this talk of the future have to do with my little corner of the world?

Dan Pallotta took a fresh look at the prevailing mindset that limits how effective nonprofit organizations can be. Michio Kaku pointed out that even with the adoption of astounding technology, the future belongs to those who are intellectually agile. Dan Buettner distilled what he learned from studying one group to propose solutions that work for others. And Atul Gawande advocated for a collaborative approach that starts by asking questions.

I know I’m showing my bias, but those sound a lot like the skill set – and thinking – that designers bring to the table. The future is bright indeed!

Designing Experiences

Blurred people walking in front of SALE window displayTwo weeks before Thanksgiving we confirmed the guest list. We would be providing a feast for 14 people. Suddenly, the dining room chairs looked a little shabby.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we drove to the fabric store to purchase materials for reupholstering our chairs. The aisles were cramped with bolts of fabric stuffed in bins and spilling off shelves. There was little rhyme or reason to the store displays. An impatient crowd gathered around the cutting table, trying to win the attention of a harried store clerk.

Despite this, we pressed on, crisscrossing the store until most of our supplies were found. We made our way to the front of the checkout line though a gauntlet of candy, toys, and other irrelevant merchandise.

“How much is this batting?” asked the woman behind the counter. “I was hoping you could tell us. It was in the scraps bin, but it wasn’t marked.” She replied, “You will have to take it to the cutting table to be measured.” Helpfully, I offered, “I’ve got a tape measure. I can measure it for you.” “No. They have to do it.” We left the cart at the cash register.

What is design?
Opportunities for design are all around us. In the preceding anecdote, there are easily a half dozen instances in which better design would improve the customer’s experience at relatively minimal cost. By design, am I referring to logistics? Store environment? Customer service? Yes, all of the above.

At its core, I believe design is about making things better. This can happen in a variety of ways, most of which have nothing to do with a company’s logo or tagline. The guiding principals of good design include empathy, curiosity, and intelligence.

Empathy is vital to developing a keen understanding of the audience, recognizing opportunities for improvement, and adapting to unpredictable environments. Curiosity includes a tendency to challenge accepted wisdom, take risks, and explore new uses for materials and technology. Intelligence helps us navigate complexity, consider multiple options faster, and turn creative ideas into concrete solutions.

Design is a two-sided coin. The best ideas must meet customers’ needs while also serving an organization’s interests. The two don’t exist in isolation. To design better, we need to clarify problems, dig deeper, and collaborate with a broader cross section of people on both sides of that coin.

Design is a process, not a product
People familiar with the term “user experience” – or UX – design commonly associate it with website or app development. It really could apply to any product or service.

The design process is a virtuous circle of observation, creation, and adaptation. Observation involves identifying users and understanding their goals and motivations. We translate our research into themes and opportunities and create prototypes for testing. Finally, we collect feedback and measure results to make improvements.

UX – or human-centered – design considers everything that affects a user’s interaction with a product or service. It is as concerned with how things work as with how they look. It is about making what you do more useful, usable and desirable for your users, and more efficient, effective, and valuable for you. A host of organizational problems would benefit from this approach.

Design is marginalized when it is seen as a series of isolated projects – an invitation to an event, a logo, a website. By the time a designer is usually consulted on projects like these, the opportunity to make a significant impact is minimal. Designers make their most valuable contributions when thinking and working systemically.

Multidisciplinary teams
The most urgent problems tend to be large and intractable. To paraphrase Einstein, the same thinking that created these problems is unlikely to solve them.

Divergent thinking is a method used to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Designers happen to be very good at this. The method is enhanced by bringing different disciplines together – people with different perspectives. Together, they are able to gain insights and recognize patterns of behavior that would be difficult to obtain working independently.

This synthesis – an ability to see things not readily apparent to others – enables multidisciplinary teams to design better experiences, products, and services.

Investing in design
Design is an integrative discipline. The fastest growing companies align their business and design strategies. It is powerful when employed to solve complex problems in collaboration with leaders throughout an organization. Absent a deep belief in its value, however, design becomes a relatively inconsequential tactic.

So, rather than chasing the next viral hashtag, or obsessing over the headline kerning on a sales flyer, smart companies take the advice of Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian:

Give your customers excellent products, excellent service, and excellent value. Then let them do your social media work for you. They’re a lot less expensive than social media experts and a lot more reliable.

Investing in your customers’ experience means taking advantage of a designer’s most valuable skills. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need better advertising, they need to be designed better.”

Related content:

Designing Services that Deliver
Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence

Perpetual Beta Mode

Illustration by Tom Fishburne. People sitting at a table thinking about different types of lightbulbsI coach my son’s sixth grade basketball team. If there’s one thing I know from watching youth basketball, it’s that there is a very slim chance that five players will do exactly what they’re supposed to do at any one time. It’s a fluid game.

Despite that, my boys want to learn “plays” – a set of instructions that determines who does what in hopes of putting the ball in the basket. They want certainty. My most difficult task as a coach is to provide structure while teaching them to read and react to dynamic conditions on the floor.

Middle schoolers are similar to CEOs in one way – they are accustomed to working in a linear fashion. Projects have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more important that work is handed in on time than done well. And recess is always right after lunch.

More organizations are starting to see the folly in adhering to a rigid system of working. In its place we are finding a more adaptive approach, one where continuous learning moves the organization closer to its goals.

Perfection is overrated
Nobody wants to be the “logo cop.” When I am asked to help with a new identity or brand refresh, clients will often regale me with stories of crimes committed against their logo. “How can we stop it?” they plead.

Seeking brand consistency is a worthy undertaking. And while consistency has value, it should really be considered the floor – not the ceiling – of achievement.

Do your logo guidelines document all the things “thou shall not do” to the logo? Time spent getting every last detail right remains an often fruitless effort to exert control over people. Instead, invest in setting a clear and compelling brand strategy – a foundation from which people can identify relevant stories for your audience.

A brand and messaging guide should serve as a launching pad, not a stop sign. Establish recognizable patterns – absolutely – but accept and encourage variation and evolution as the natural state of your brand.

Small bets
Solving problems is easy if you have a formula, but it only works when all the variables are known. In rapidly changing times that’s rarely possible. Key information is missing. Opportunities are fleeting. Solutions fail.

We cannot solve today’s problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Agile project management is rooted in software development, but its methods are now being used broadly. Why? It promotes adaptive planning, ongoing improvement, and a rapid and flexible response to change. Done well, it accelerates execution.

Similarly, designers are taught to solve problems through observation, idea generation, and rapid prototyping that responds to user needs. It is an iterative approach that produces solutions that traditional methods cannot. Done well, it accelerates ingenuity.

Both methods address uncertainty by placing many “small bets” – ideas that can be tried quickly and cheaply. This practice reduces the risk of missing the mark and increases the chance for true innovation. Small bets reveal what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve your ideas.

Minimum viable brand
The Industrial Revolution may be a distant memory, but the transformation of production methods and processes continues unabated. And today, it’s not just about manufacturing. Any service that can be turned into a cheap commodity will be. Want a logo for $99? Done. Want a website that designs itself? Sign up here.

The speed and agility of the marketplace almost guarantees that whatever big idea you’re working on has probably already launched. “Wait and see” turns into “missed the boat” in the blink of an eye. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean people will want it.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter if your letterhead is the perfect shade of white, or if people like your Facebook page. It is necessary, however, to rally colleagues around your brand’s strategy.

At a minimum, this would articulate your brand promise (what you stand for), what separates you from competitors, who you seek to engage (your audience), and what you want to say (key messages) and show.

If these basic brand elements are clearly understood and communicated within an organization, you can launch ideas quickly, on demand, with fewer resources.

Beta is better
Perpetual beta testing is useful for measuring performance, understanding user preferences, and previewing new ideas. It embraces change as necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. It also guarantees that the most time and money will be spent on the most effective ideas and projects.

Traditional organizations move slowly, learning little, as they seek certainty in an uncertain world. Modern organizations create, listen to feedback, and continue to improve.

Related content:

Is It Time to See Brand Guidelines in a New Light?
What Are Little Bets?
Start-Ups Need a Minimum Viable Brand

Illustration (above) by Tom Fishburne

Art or Science?

Venn Diagram showing the intersection of design, business, and technologyDesigners are forever moaning about the perceived value of what they do. When big decisions are being made, MBAs sit at the head of the table while designers are lucky to get a spot at the “kiddie table.” The problem lies with the widespread perception of design as “artsy” – a tertiary tactical skill, not a reliable method for making strategic decisions or solving challenging problems.

Scientists need empirical evidence. Business people focus on the bottom line. Lacking the data to definitively demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, designers are often miscast by the other two as providing “window dressing” – valued for creativity, but not integral to success.

Getting over that hurdle is difficult. Isolating cause/effect relationships in design can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and businesses are skeptical of fields with anecdotal, not quantitative proof. However, isolating the effects of any of the myriad decisions a business executive makes in an average year is equally troublesome. Life – like most forms of measurement – tends to be messier than we would care to admit.

Facts vs. Feelings
Despite evidence to the contrary, people trust facts. They prefer to know things. Two plus two equals four. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. How much does that cost? When will that be finished? Guessing wrong on a school exam adversely affects your grade. Guessing wrong in business can cost you your job.

However, some things stubbornly resist measurement – like the future, art, or emotions. When did my wife fall in love with me? Was it when we met walking dogs through a neighborhood park? Was it when she drove past my house with her sister and confided, “That’s the man I’m going to marry”? Was it our first kiss? Prove it.

We make decisions every day with uncertain prospects for being right, for getting a good “return on investment.” We make decisions based on history and patterns of behavior, regularly using intuition and instinct as guides. And when pressed to explain our choices, we might say it was a “gut decision” or “it just felt right.”

But trusting and acting on “feelings” is usually considered too dangerous in a business setting. Risk aversion, the fear of being wrong, sends us in search of numbers. This evidence, intended to bolster confidence in our decision making, often has the unfortunate tendency to simply confirm existing beliefs or theories.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative
Acknowledging the need for justification, the Design Management Institute commissioned a study: What is the real value of design? In the report, one chart demonstrates that a carefully chosen index of “design-centric” companies yielded returns 228% greater than the same investment in the S&P 500 over the past ten years. That seems conclusive! Except that data can be arranged to support almost any position.

Numbers can be powerful and persuasive, but they can also be used to bolster weak arguments. Both quantitative and qualitative research reveal important insights – quantitative research tells us how many; qualitative research tells us why – but they work best used together. The DMI report reveals this truth (and its bias) in the research study’s subhead: An exploration into why companies that lead with design outperform the market.

The ability to trust that our answers are correct – that they are worthy investments – depends on what questions are being asked, who is asking, who is answering, and why they are being asked in the first place.

The value of synthesis
Qualitative or quantitative, we can always collect more data – even if we don’t know what to do with it. Just because consumers liked your offerings yesterday doesn’t guarantee they will behave the same way tomorrow. All data looks in the rear-view mirror.

An influx of information won’t inevitably lead to breakthrough products or services. The ability to interpret and humanize data – to connect the dots into a meaningful narrative – is the most valuable skill a designer has to offer. Good designers have the ability to solve problems that haven’t been solved before, to see patterns where others see chaos, and to distill the essential from the extraneous.

Computer algorithms are able to predict what you will like given enough online behavior to analyze. The ability to empathize with an audience while synthesizing known information and experiences makes designers the closest thing that exists to a human algorithm.

Investing in results
Successful outcomes are nearly always a group effort. Divvying up credit for individual performance is about as easy as quantifying how much flavor the carrots, potatoes, or onions contributed to a bowl of beef stew – not that it will stop people from trying.

Executives seeking return on investment don’t trust design. Don’t feel bad, they don’t trust untested ideas or new technology either. Just as the team with the best record doesn’t always win the championship, the best design (or idea, or technology) doesn’t always win. Executives trust successful outcomes.

Design is a worthwhile investment when it is welcomed at the head table as a valuable skill. Treated as an afterthought, its dubious value is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is design an art? A science? A business? At its best, it’s a little of each.

Related content:
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics – The Ultimate TED Talk

There’s Only One Best Practice

network of dotsSitting in a conference room, answering questions from my client about an impending website redesign, it dawned on me that what they really wanted to understand was best practices. What steps do we need to take to mitigate the risks of initiating this project? What must we do to increase the certainty of a successful outcome?

It’s my job to know these things, to guide them from point A to point B, and help them meet or exceed the project’s objectives. And it’s prudent for the client to adhere to best practices in many facets of the organization’s operations. It assures an acceptable standard of performance, a threshold of competency.

What best practices won’t do – what they often inhibit organizations from doing – is encourage people to set their sites higher. Scaling up the impact of nonprofit organizations requires a mindset that leaves best practices for those who wish to blend in, to be as good as – but not better than – what already exists.

Just do it
Nike’s longtime tagline leaves no wiggle room for the impassioned athlete. There are no excuses. For the vast majority who fall short, there is honor in putting forth one’s best effort in pursuit of the pinnacle.

Back at the office, we’re more often encouraged to hold our passions in check. Curiosity killed the cat. Look before you leap. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no shortage of wisdom devoted to avoiding unnecessary risks.

Imagine what our world would be like if there weren’t dedicated individuals with a passion for helping others? Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector has grown faster than both the business and government sectors, yet problems of poverty, education, the environment, and public health are as vexing as ever. We don’t lack passion. We lack alignment.

If you start with the premise that most everything we know is out of date, then the need to reach beyond conventional approaches – to discard “best practices” – becomes imperative.

Connect the dots
Imagine a symphony orchestra. Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents.

For maximum impact, we need more people, departments, and organizations working better together. We need to be playing the same tune.

The most valuable skill set today is the ability to connect the dots. Collaborators will inherit the earth, or at least improve it. People (and organizations) that can assemble and marshal diverse resources – ideas, agendas, funding – have the best chance of enacting systemic change.

There are no marketing secrets or shortcuts. Creating remarkable products and services is the only best practice worth pursuing. And the best way to do that is through more frequent and effective collaborations.

Related content:
How Do Nonprofits Get Really Big?
Measuring Nothing (with Great Accuracy)

Twas the Night Before Deadline

Santa sleigh over blue forest with snow falling at night

 

Twas the night before deadline, when all through the office
Everybody was stirring, so nervous and cautious.
The layouts were hung on display in the hall,
In hopes that the boss would soon make a call.

Designers were huddled around glowing Macs,
Writers were bleary buoyed by coffee and snacks.
To reach their objectives, they toiled and strained,
But uncertainty dogged them and questions remained.
When down by the front desk there arose such a clatter,
They sprang from their cubes to see what was the matter.

Arms full of trinkets brought home for his friends,
Out tumbled coffee mugs, tote bags, and pens;
The boss had returned from an industry conference.
He tossed out new jargon that seemed to be nonsense.

More rapid than FedEx his big ideas came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Curation of content, engagement will spiral,
“Go leverage our channels, make sure it goes viral!
“On Facebook! On Pinterest! On Tumblr and Twitter!
“Optimize! ROI! There’s a lot to consider.”

His minions were puzzled. Was this a direction?
Should they blindly take action or risk insurrection?
Chasing marketing trends, they’d seen this before,
Yet the lack of success was hard to ignore.

And then, in the back, sitting calmly without blinking,
The web guy asked softly what all had been thinking:
“What’s our primary objective? What are we doing?
“What do we know about the audience we’re pursuing?”
We all turned to face him, intrigued by his candor.
Would we find clarity and wisdom, or enrage our commander?

“By the skin of our teeth, by the seat of our pants,
“It’s no way to work. We leave everything to chance.
“Employing random tactics does not count as strategy.
“It’s not ‘integrated.’ It’s a marketing tragedy.”

The boss smiled wanly, his confidence waning,
He wasn’t used to his colleagues complaining.
Then he straightened his tie and tapped on his phone,
“He’s tweeting!” an intern exclaimed with a groan.
Next seen by his followers, the privileged few?
“We can’t all be leaders #sotrue”

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon filled us with that familiar dread.
The launch date was nigh; it was business as usual:
Adrift, yet hopeful, almost inexcusable.

We sprung back to work, just like Santa’s elves.
We laughed at our fate in spite of ourselves.
This lack of a plan would be quite ironic,
If industry-wide it wasn’t so chronic.

Then we heard in the distance, could it be so?
The sound of sleigh bells o’er the fresh-fallen snow.
Would our wishes be granted? We were good girls and boys.
A research-based plan would be better than toys.
Santa laughed as he rode through the cold winter night:
May your customers be merry and your strategy bright!

by Dan Woychick

Think Like a Human

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit