Broadmeadows-based manufacturer Integra Systems recently received mentoring from design specialist Roger Simpson under the Victorian Government’s Design2Thrive program. Simpson shared some of his design insights.

The process known as ‘Design Thinking’ has been adopted as standard practice at some of the world’s most successful companies – Apple, Google, Samsung and GE, to name just a few. Similarly, some of the most prestigious seats of learning teach courses in this progressive approach to problem-solving.

Rikke Friis Dam, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Interaction Design Foundation and product designer Yu Siang Teo, explain the main phases of the Design Thinking process as taught at Stanford University’s renowned school design institute:

  • Empathise with your users.
  • Define your users’ needs.
  • Ideate by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions.
  • Prototype to start creating solutions.
  • Test your solutions.

As they explain, these steps are not linear: “You should not understand the phases as a hierarchical or step-by-step process. Instead, you should look at it as an overview of the modes or phases that contribute to an innovative project, rather than sequential steps.”

Roger Simpson, design consultant and mentor to the team at Integra believes that ‘Design Thinking’ as a term is highly misleading. Instead, he poses the alternative of ‘Design Doing’ as far more apt description of an effective design process for delivering a best-in-class product.

“I think it’s an empty phrase,” he answers bluntly when asked why Design Thinking is so important. “I think that Design Thinking has been invented by people who are not designers to try and create some theory around the practice of design. Designers don’t sit around contemplating their navel and waiting for a light bulb moment. I think the processes that designers go through are far more important than a catch-cry term.

“It’s not about the thinking, it’s about the process,” he emphasises. “It’s about going out and trying to discover what gaps and opportunities there are, and what are the unmet end-user needs. I don’t think that’s got anything to do with thinking, but it’s got everything to do with processes around doing.”

When Simpson talks about Design Doing, he’s talking about experimentation. He believes the process is fundamentally about being really close to the end-user, being – as he describes it – “in touching distance of the end-user”. The ability to listen, learn and observe what’s happening are just some of the essential skills needed to discover gaps and opportunities, and then turn those discoveries into solutions.

For Simpson, the most important part of the Design Doing process is to think from the perspective of the end-user. Through this approach, ‘disruption’ takes care of itself.

“What’s going on in [the end-user’s] brain? What do they need? What haven’t they got?” he expounds. “You’ve got to find out what they aspire to, what their unmet needs are, and always be thinking from the point of view of the person who’s going to be using the product or service – not the channel partner like Bunnings or Woolworths or someone, but the person who’s going to be actually using the product in the end.

“It’s all about process,” he continues. “I’m not saying process is boring – it’s exciting – but it’s about researching, and not through market research but through real presence in the marketplace. When you’re close to end-use products and services, that’s when discoveries are made, and great products and services are crafted.”

To implement a focus on the end-user experience in the workplace, Simpson believes in top-down implementation. He uses Australia’s four major banks as an example of industries that can talk the talk yet struggle to walk the walk.

“In any corporation, the person who’s CEO of that organisation, and that company’s board, they need to deeply understand why it’s important to focus on end-user outcomes. If they don’t believe in that, they will be motivated by other priorities. How do you fix that? Well, if the people that are running the organisation don’t believe it’s important, nothing will change. So that’s not such an easy thing to do.”

In Australia, many businesses may project an image of putting customers first yet, in reality, their practices suggest otherwise.

“You don’t need to look any further than the big four banks in Australia. They would claim in their vision, values and purpose or mission statement to be doing everything for the end-user – the customer – but, as we’ve seen, their practices, arguably, show they’re not at all prioritising end-user needs.”

When asked if there are countries that have a more end-user-focused approach, Simpson cites Denmark as a prime example. A small country in terms of landmass and population, and without natural resources to the extent of Australia, the Danes boast a number of global brands that are considered best in their category: Velux Windows, Kvadrat fabrics, and the rejuvenated Lego, among others.

“They’re really interested in what works for their existing end-users, and also people they might like to have as customers,” Simpson explains. “They have a kind of open development process where they guard against assumptive thinking. That’s really important. Those Danish companies know the world’s changing really fast, and they know they can’t stand still, so they don’t assume they can keep doing things the same way as they’ve done them before.”

Which isn’t to say that Australian manufacturers across the board need to smarten up. With an admitted bias (as a keen surfer), Simpson cites Torquay-based Rip Curl as a classic example of one Australian company wisely executing an end-user focus and reaping rewards on a global scale.

“Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer [the founders of Rip Curl] were shaping surfboards, and then they decided they wanted to make wetsuits,” he explains. “They were using the best wetsuits in the world, mostly from America. And they wanted to make a wetsuit that was better than the stuff they were already using. So, their ambition on day one was to not copy the stuff they were using but to make a better wetsuit.”

“It started as a little craft industry. They made the best wetsuit in the world and they actually still make the best wetsuit in the world. As a surfer and a watersports person I can tell you that’s my view!” Simpson laughs. “And I think that’s been the difference between them and their other competitors in that space. I think the driving force for Rip Curl was to understand the end-users and deliver the best products. Now they’re into fashion and there’s a bit of arbitrary stock in there, but I think that’s the difference between Rip Curl and those other companies that haven’t survived.”

While Rip Curl isn’t Australia’s only Design Doing success story, in Simpson’s eyes, some Australian companies have still yet to come to terms with what they need to do to survive.

“We tend to think that all we need to do is be competitive, have a competitive product, but I think the counter argument is, if you can’t have the best product, don’t compete, don’t bother, don’t do it, do something else. Find another product or service where you can be the best.”

“It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, or what you’re trying to do,” he concludes. “You’ve got to have the best product or service in their category. If you don’t, someone who has got that aspiration or has access to those products will simply come over the top and gazump you. You won’t survive. You’ll be pushed down to trading on price only, and you’ll find there’s no advantage in that if you haven’t got a product that is the best in the category.”

And how do you get best in category product? Design Doing, of course.