What is Business Design?

Until a few months ago, ‘Business Design’ for me was nothing more than a cool term to use in MBA admission interviews as a way of demonstrating interest towards a particular business school. Probe a little more, and I’d have been clueless. Here’s an attempt to make up for that.

To understand Business Design, let’s first start with the more commonly known phrase ‘Design Thinking’. Design Thinking as Tim Brown states is an approach to develop products that are desirable, technologically feasible and economically viable.

Croseus, the King of Lydia who ruled in 560 BC was known for creating the world’s first ever gold coins for circulation. Earliest form of design thinking in action?

Phone’s assembling themselvespackaged air being solda bottle cap that saves billions of galleons of water, Business Design moulds the functions of business, technology and design to give the customer what he needs. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, design thinking is just about making a great cup of coffee as lazy as possible.

One of my classmates recently pointed out that the term “Business Design” has been trademarked by the Rotman School of Management, so it’s only fair that we resort to their definition:

“A human-centred approach to innovation that applies the principles and practices of design to help organizations create new value and new forms of competitive advantage. At its core, it is the integration of customer empathy, experience design and business strategy.”

Empathy towards your consumer – being in his shoes, identifying his pain points and needs. It is about prototyping – because without testing, how’re you ever going to know if your users will like it? It means breaking your features into key and peripheral to understand priorities. It means feedback, because that’s how you’re going to improve functionality. As Steve Jobs said “Design it not just what it looks and feels like, design is how it works.” And finally, Strategy – because that’s how you create competitive advantage.

Doug Dietz, designer at GE tackled kids’ fear of MRI machines with a simple solution – he redesigned it as an adventure – with pirate ships and space shuttles.

The classic Poäng chair of IKEA was developed with the intent to design a chair that doesn’t hold a user, rather one that let him swing a bit.

How do you prevent accidents to cyclists that take place at night due to lack of lights? Volvo came up with a unique spray that remained invisible by day but glowed at night. The safe stamp from Heineken does much of the same, telling you when you’re too drunk to drive, through a microchip that detects blood sugar levels and makes the stamp on your hand glow. Volkswagen, taking the inspiration up a notch, developed a baby stroller with an automatic breaking system. Innovative? Maybe. Great design? You bet.

Returning to your car with your hands full of grocery bags? If only there was a way to open the trunk without having to keep them down. Ford anticipated that and came up with the kick activated tailgate.

There’s even something for moms hoping to recapture the magic of family dinnertime – the Wi-Fi blocking pepper grinder.


Rather than aiming to solve a specific problem, design thinking begins with envisioning a better future predicament. It doesn’t seek to predict the future, merely showcases a variety of scenarios.

A study in 1972 explores this very difference. Two groups of students – one in arts and the other in science were given some colored blocks and asked to create structures from it, the only condition – they had to optimize the red or blue colored blocks. The scientists used permutations and combinations to utilize the maximum amount of information available to them and work. The artists on the other hand, carefully chose their blocks in an ad hoc fashion and worked to ensure the most legible looking construction was achieved. It was concluded that the first group analyzed, while the second synthesized. So perhaps design thinking is a form of divergent thinking that maximizes the number of options available, and once you’ve arrived that, you choose one and go ahead with it.

AirBnb’s ‘WHY HOSTS REJECT’ initiative, captured customer responses and ensured bookings matched expectations. The observations led to identifying problems like lack of sufficient information, errors in availability etc. and through data analysis and synthesis, a matrix was mapped. The hard part was over. As Sasha Lubomirsky, Head of User Research at AirBnB said “The taxonomy helped us to formulate those very well-informed hypotheses. When you understand the problem, the solution is way more straightforward, the ideas follow.”

In a session hosted by Mark Leung, Director, Rotman DesignWorks, I learnt how every organization consists of OPTIMIZERS – who drive business efficiency (Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Ops, IT), IMPLEMENTORS – who integrate ideas into the business, and IDEATORS – who uncover new possibilities. Business design is particularly relevant to the Implementors and Ideators. With a view on the future.

Business Design helps you to not only find solutions to existing problems, but evaluate whether they are (the most pressing) problems in the first place, and in the process, diagnose larger issues. When P&G went with ideas like music play and an activity tracker for it’s Oral B electric toothbrush and Braun trimmers, their agency pointed out how the company had overlooked a stark consumer insight– the guilt that comes with owning a toothbrush. And how factors like charging the toothbrush and buying replacement cartridges mattered more to customers. Tactical interventions like free refills/batteries was an easy and obvious course of action from there.

The Times attributed its fall in readership to the death of the newspaper industry. It couldn’t have been more wrong. IDEO, through in-depth interviews of various stakeholders, explored, understood and mapped different reading behaviours and patterns of people thereby showing that the real cause was the digital edition being a truncated one, which readers perceived as a decline in value, regardless of what kind of device they read it.

How is Business Design different from Management Consulting? Well, for starters, it’s about going out of your way to put user preference over all else. While consultants and advertising planners merely suggest/propose/recommend, business design goes the whole nine yards and sees the project till it’s fruition. Or as Trish Barbato, Senion VP, Innovation at Revera put it succinctly while addressing us at Rotman the other day “It’s more intimate, inclusive and iterative”

Business Design is also about sustainability.

Farmers in rural villages in Myanmar don’t have access to pesticide. To get rid of pests, they resorted to burning all the crops and wait until the next year. Proximity designs, a non-profit org zeroed in on a simple technique of flooding the land and killing the pests.

Treating neonatal jaundice is expensive because of the high cost of phototherapy. D-Rev, a non-profit product development company, developed a device that used high intensity light emitting diode lights instead of fluorescent tube lights that are usually used. The LEDs lasted longer and saved hospitals a ton of money.

In power scarce Vietnam where it gets too dark for kids to study by the time they walk all the way back home from school, Green cross and Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology came out with a shoe powered by kinetic energy that could light up their homes.

Or taking a cue from the movie Martian and exploring indoor farming – which would automatically mean more land to forests and a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide levelsOr redefining the patient and employee experience. Each and every one of it, a case in point where lateral thinking meets sustainability.

My personal favorite definition of Business Design comes from Brand Strategist Peter J Thomson who termed it as a living process rather than a one-time event. He compares it to the act of bailing the boat while still paddling, or adjusting the course of a GPS navigation system on the fly; the destination is not as important as the ongoing process of continual course-correction.

Blazers that heat themselves, devices that detect when you leave your house and control the temperature in the house accordingly, Soylent – a new Silicon Valley soy based drink that doubles up as a full and total meal replenishment – are the latest additions to the string of “What next, goats?” line of inventions.

Or maybe it’s just evolution.

But if there’s one thing about Business Design we know for sure – It’s been around longer than we thought, and it’s not going anywhere.

Reblogged on Linkedin



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