While many famous quotations turn out to be apocryphal, there is one attributed to Albert Einstein that I like even if he didn’t actually say it. It went something like this: “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding the solution.”
Whether you are saving the world or just responsible for designing a new product or service, that allocation of time spent thinking versus doing still pertains. So I like to reshape Einstein’s attributed quip this way: If you have an hour to create a product or service, spend 59 minutes figuring out how it will elegantly solve a customer’s problem, then spend a minute designing it.
Designing new products and services for customers takes a great deal of courage. Those of us who are tasked with that responsibility know that we are risking our reputations, and generally a great deal of our company’s money, recommending a particular design. But there are some simple ways to improve our odds of producing a design that will be a success.
First, remember that great design springs from creativity. Your goal is to delight your end user. Yes, I said delight. Your goal is not merely to meet a need. Your goal is to so gracefully address a need that you delight your customer. This requires creativity. And according to at least one expert on the subject, design creativity requires four essential qualities: empathy, intuition, imagination and idealism. Now, these probably don’t sound like qualities you will find in the average engineer — but they are critical to creative thinking. So, as you bring together your team to develop products and services that elegantly solve your customers’ problem or problems, be sure that at least some members of that group are empathetic, intuitive, imaginative and idealistic people. And listen carefully to what they say because their input is as close as you are likely to get to hearing the voice of your customer within your corporate office.
In speaking of that, we frequently are tempted to seek the opinions of our customers when designing a new product, but unless the product or service you are designing is an improvement to or an extension of an existing one, this generally is not a good way to find creativity.
Be bold. You know what is technologically possible for your company and how to best leverage that technology.
Second, keep in mind the words of one of my strategic planning mentors: Strategy is less about what you choose to do than what you choose not to do. When it comes to designing products and services, this is better stated slightly differently: Great design is less about how much your product or service does than it is about how simply it does it. This is sometimes called “the complexity of simplicity” and it frequently is described by reference to the iPod.
I prefer to point to an earlier creator of beautiful and simple designs that performed incredibly complex functions in a way that delighted customers. Danish radio and TV manufacturer Bang & Olufsen’s elimination of nearly all buttons and knobs from their equipment made us first realize that, in the area of design, less is almost always more.
Perhaps your life and designs are a little more ordinary than those of late visionaries Steve Jobs and Peter Bang. But focusing on creativity as the driver of innovation is entirely relevant to every design process. Whether you are creating a new handle for a kitchen peeler or revamping the system screens used by your company’s call center personnel, creativity and elegance mark the difference between useful designs and delightful designs.
Frank Napolitano is the CEO of GlobalFit. Before joining GlobalFit in 2006, he ran strategic planning for the largest gym chain in the Northeast. Napolitano has held corporate leadership roles since 1984, including CEO positions at five different companies. Before that, he practiced law and public accounting with two national firms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.