Five Ways Design Firms Fail at Innovation

I know HBR is about the success story, so we are all awkward when it comes to writign about failure, the focus of the special online issue. I wrote a book about organizational and product failure, in 2008, and was told by designers even in that golden year of failures that “fail doesn’t sell.”  But if we do not tell the truth, we anticipate and attend to the wrong issues that lead to failures.

I admire the work of design powerhouse Ziba. But I find Vossoughi’s recent HBR blog article leaves out half the story of the failure of clients to innovate. In Five Ways to Fail at Design, designers blame the client for not following our wisdom and messing up their chances at innovation.

It’s common to hear of companies hiring a creative consultancy, applying its recommendations, and yet at the end of the contract, seeing little or no return on investment. The majority of engagements that end this way have resulted in solutions that were never implemented, or were not implemented to their full potential. The design failed, in other words.

Yes, the client company must do the innovation, but still our expectation is that the design firm can successfully plan and design the innovation. If competitive innovation was achievable by hiring design firms, then innovation would no longer be a distinctive competency of a firm.  So yes, some firms fail because they are not inspired innovators.  But more fail because they are poor strategists, poor executors, or they fail to listen to their users and the evolving markets that users co-create.

And a case can be made that corporate-level design projects fail because of the design firms. And innovation – defined simply as bringing significantly novel products or services successfully to a crowded market – fails for reasons that design firms can often do nothing about. Maybe we should separate failure processes we can recognize and deal with from those organizational problems we cannot mitigate.

Vossoughi suggests five big reasons for the failure of design, which are all client-centered problems  (I have summarized and bolded the two I see as prevalent):

  1. Refuse to change any other part of your business.
  2. Design outside of your innovation space. Designers don’t implement solutions, companies do. For that reason, the most innovative solution on earth won’t work if it’s pursued by a company that can’t properly execute it. At Ziba we call this capability the client’s “innovation space” — the arena in which they’ve already proven themselves willing and able to lead the pack. Some companies are technology innovators, others are product innovators or experience innovators. Learning which you are in order to direct later efforts is a crucial first step that most companies skip.
  3. Try to design for everybody. Design works as a differentiator because it responds to human needs, both functional and emotional.
  4. Insist on replicating another company’s success.
  5. Compartmentalize design into isolated tasks. It’s tempting to treat design as a menu of services, applying it here and there on bits of a project that need sprucing up. To a skeptical client this can feel economical and controlled, but it cripples the design effort by fragmentation

Now let’s consider how design firms fail. Those 5 assumptions show an astonishing lack of reflection on the part of designers, which often fail at planning and appropriately delivering what a client really needs. Let’s have some empathy for the businesses we consult for. As a small firm designer/researcher I work closely with client projects, and see the results of Big Firm Big Ideas that cannot be realized in reality. Here are my 5, OK 6 ways:

  1. The big firms drive up a large project to justify their reputation and send an oversized team in early to scope out a large chunk of “innovation space.”  What’s often needed is an early phase of research that helps the client understand the opportunity first to do a better job of planning.
  2. The big firms know they get one shot, and may not get to return for some time. So generative design if often done too early, to produce concepts to win over the client. Weak design research is done to prove the concepts. A better process is where a good opportunity is discovered early, and the right concept gets validated later with a stronger, contextual concept design.
  3. The big firms are not known for their social sciences and user research. You get to see these reports after a while, and the quality is highly variable. They don’t know the client’s business well enough to recruit good users, and they focus on Big Ideas and not the user’s work practices, which lead to understanding what products and services might break through the market noise.Most projects are not disruptive innovation, but every product manager likes to imagine his or her product will be the one. Its fun to design “as if” the product will be disruptive, but how often does a company really get that opportunity?
  4. Ziba is right about compartmentalized tasks. But to “design big” beyond the brief, a firm needs to be a real business partner with the client, and to care about the project for a year or so to integrate the design into the systems and processes. This is way beyond product design, it means prototyping, building and field testing multiple versions, a boring and high-cost process for big firms.
  5. Big Design Firms never send you their A Team. Its like a rule. They send a guru in to present and win the project, then staff the project with whoever needs the coverage. Or maybe those are just the projects I’ve seen …
  6. But the bottom line is few big firms really have specialized knowledge about the business and users and do not have the time or mandate to learn on the job. They use intuition and design experience to aim high and reach for a great concept, and hope they capture the client’s imagination. But if big generalist design firms do not have depth in your business or the real work of your users, they may design poorly for the context.

Admittedly, it is a difficult balance. A good design team can push the client outside of their groupthink and conceive of much better products than possible with their own team. We can create the prototypes and architectures that establish a new system or product foundation.

A continuing weakness across the industry is the design and management of research appropriate to the innovation problem. Conducting interviews at a user’s desk is not “ethnography.”  Different stages of innovation each require a different toolkit.  Often both client and design firm are weak in user research or what passes for ethnography in most commercial studies. But without this crucial capability, design firms deliver what they only think they know, and clients don’t know what they don’t know.  Research overly constrained by client confirmation biases can study the wrong thing. But under-informed design teams that do not understand a user’s work domain can miss the weak signals that a trained observer would detect and correctly interpret. The designers can always claim they “did the research,” and clients rarely have the qualitative research expertise on staff to guide research effectively. If I had to pick one shared weakness of both design firms and clients that accounts for project failure, it would be lack of depth in research methods and interpretation.

What have you found to be the case?