Trying to Drive Better Product Design: Timing is Everything

With a new calendar year we began to evaluate our organizations and ourselves.  We look at what we think we are doing right, what may be wrong, and set goals for change.  One goal all good Product and Engineering teams always have is how to better design and ship great products.  While we often look within the technology space for lessons, looking at other domains can offer interesting insights on how to improve.  One very interesting space to look at is rehabilitation.  Lessons learned in this space are establishing methods to create some of the most difficult behavior change imaginable.  A recent NPR post What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits, outlines a serious problem faced by servicemen returning from Vietnam in the early 1970s.  An alarming number were addicted to heroin.  A program was created to change this and track success.  What they found is that those who dried out from heroin in Vietnam had a relapse rate of around 5% after they returned, but for those that dried out in the US - the relapse rate was around 90%.  What was the difference?  Certainly many factors, but a very clear difference was the environment.


Outsourcing Control to the Environment

Why does a government program from the 70’s offer insight to technology and product design today?  As you evaluate your organization its likely there are some behaviors you want to change to improve design.  Some which you may have tried and failed at before, or others that you feel limited in your capacity to impact.  When you think about this change its important to note that about half of what we do as humans is wired into habits and subconscious decisions. Effecting change often means tapping into that level of thought.  Our susceptibility to changing at that level is really low, but there are access points.   One of those access points is a change in environment.  Why is that the case? David Neal noted to NPR that, "People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment."


Creating a Culture of Design

In an interview with Co.Design, Mark Kawano debunked a few myths about Apple (4 Myths About Apple Design, From An Ex-Apple Designer).  Kawano is the founder of Storehouse and former senior designer at Apple where he also acted as Apple's User Experience Evangelist.   Why are Apple’s products so well designed?  "It's actually the engineering culture, and the way the organization is structured to appreciate and support design." Kawano noted to Co.Design.  "Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that's what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team."  Apple has embedded the importance of the human experience deeply into their culture.


Culture is Habit

Responsibility for great design does not flow out of one small team with a specific title; it belongs to anyone impacting the product.  But, how do you change behavior to embed design across your organization to deeply root it in the culture?  It’s important to consider what culture means.  Framed slightly differently, culture is habit.  Like individuals, organizations have habits.  These habits are a combination of many individual habits.  Additionally, you have key people in your organization whose method and approach has greater influence and drives the behavior of others. Which means if you can begin to change the habits of a few, especially the right few, you can start to impact culture.


Timing is Everything

As you aim to create change, four things to remember.

  • Environment: The calendar year has changed. Organizations are realigning to the new year’s strategic investments.  As a result, associates find themselves shifting desks.  As they meet new neighbors, create new paths to meeting rooms, and find new routes to their friends, their mind is primed to accept wiring adjustments to habits in a way that few other times offer.
  • Find the catalyst habit: Starting small is one of the key tenants to habit change.  It allows you to build momentum through small success.  Think about what these 2-3 small changes are to drive better design. It could be getting 1 – 2 key leaders to consider 1 additional person they had not previously included when collaborating on design approach.
  • Find the idea networks: As you figure out the catalyst habits, find the idea networks.  Your organization has informal networks that move information and great ideas.  These networks have high traffic points where key associates act as the intersection point.  Find those people.  If you can nudge them to make a small change in how they operate it can allow your change to reach exponentially more people.
  • Timing: Like a great joke, when pushing change, timing is everything. Life events prime the mind for change as we evaluate how those events will change us. Target found out having a baby is a big one (How Companies Learn Your Secrets), but any major event presents opportunity. We’ve already noted moving desks, also consider promotions or role changes that come with organizational realignment.  These changes prime us as well.  Has a person at a key intersection point in your organization’s idea networks had one?  If so, consider it good timing.