Business design: how thinking like a designer can help any business

Image: iStock

We chat to Abbie Walsh, managing director at leading design consultancy Fjord about business design, how it can benefit designers and business leaders alike, and how it can help the tackle the future’s ever-evolving challenges.

No one would be anything but welcoming to a new problem-solving process - but call it ‘business design’ and there’s confusion. People restrict their impression of design to just aesthetics, but any designer can attest that design aspires towards more than beauty: it pursues fresh, innovative solutions, whilst always prioritising the user. It is a process, not a product, and well-suited to helping companies face real-world challenges. 

Unlike traditional problem-solving, which methodologically tackles a problem step-by-step, business design focuses on observation, empathy and the context and culture of a problem – especially the user, whether they are a user of the pay role (the employee) or the product (the customer). 

Far from the flow charts, power points and expensive suits that are often employed to solve big business trouble, design thinking solves problems by getting the super-speed lift down the glittering tower and actually chatting to the locals, learning and making sense of their point of view.

Abbie Walsh is here to tell us the day-to-day ups and downs of translating between two major groups (business and design), why the two are increasingly overlapping, and the insider's view of potential long-term climbs and falls as two influential worlds meet and merge. 

Business design’s day-to-day 

Image: the design squiggle

Business and design. Big words, big job. Even though it's only been part of  Fjord’s vocabulary for 3-4 years, business design has proven itself as a tool for rethinking not only “highly differentiated products and services”, but “entire systems”. And ‘entire systems’ sometimes means creating an interconnect, human-centred business from scratch.

For Abbie, business design is a “frame”: both a scaffold for designers to stay business-focused and a design-structured perspective for the clients to meet their time-pressured goals - making things, getting them out to market quickly and learning quickly.

This works harmoniously because both design and business are obsessed with the user, but from different, complementary perspectives. "The broader skills of design are around understanding and having empathy for users and customers. So, who are their customers? What are they motivated by? What are the gaps? What are the pain points?”

By listening to its customers, Fjord helped Scandanavian mobile operator 3 clean their self-service - and went one step further, to transparency. A clear, simple and immediate monthly bill was delivered to customers on phone app My 3. “This,” says Abbie “cut down the need for call centres by huge percentages, which obviously has a huge impact on cost.” Find out more information. 

That the customer is always right is nothing new. What might be painfully unfamiliar to anyone who has worked for an unaware, anonymous company is that employees are just as important. In fact, to business design, we all are (go us). Business design listens non-judgementally to everyone, which is why communication - a classic design skill - is key. 

“You might hang out and do diary studies with [employees and customers],” explains Abbie on Fjord’s user research process. “Or, if it’s an employee, actually work and be part of that environment with them, and really feel what it’s like to work there. And then, off the back of that, you start to paint a picture, and you start to create quite a detailed case study or map of what people’s motivations are.” 

Image: iStock

This map of the company that emerges - whether mountainous with potential or craterous with disaster - will prompt a wonderful fuzz of ideas. Whether crazy good, crazy bad or just plain crazy, every solution is a possibility, and team members will ask ‘why?’ more than an annoying five-year-old child (if possible). In this mesh of business, design and tonnes of different people comes the fiery, boundary-pushing brand of progress that is only possible with different perspectives.

“We help clients beat the competition in trying out new things,” says Abbie. When Fjord’s research, idea and prototype process is over, the eventual aim is for its chicks to leave the nest: business design should be as integral to the client’s renewed business’ survival as, well, flying is to a bird’s. “We go in and train them in design techniques, so they then can actually take on business design skills themselves and become more sustainable.” 

Finnish immigration service, Migri, evolved from Fjord's input. It came to Fjord knowing that immigration is complex, booming and influential – and that its confusive service was failing customers. Through workshops with designers, user tests and creative exercises, “we worked with them to simply the process of applications,” says Abbie. And there’s that word again: they made the application process more “transparent”. 

In improving the lives of customers with a new e-service (“93% of applicants gave it a positive rating”) and the finances of Migri, Fjord also made it “easier for employees to do their job. Migri now have design as part of their process,” explains Abbie. “They continue to improve this application process for immigration.” 

Design Rule of 3 

Though complex changes might emerge from Fjord’s intervention, the guiding principles are simple: design thinking, design doing and design culture - and, for Abbie, the latter is what brings them all together.

Design thinking - traceable to Herbert Simon’s book Sciences of the Artificial - has, according to the book, “no judgements”, offers a “way to apply design methodologies to any of life’s situations” and is “always linked to an improved future.” Design doing, its practical application, forms what should be every designer’s day-to-day aims.

Design culture is what allows these pursuits to spread across an entire company and touch its customers. “The culture at Fjord is what makes it work, and it’s what makes me want to come to work every day, because it’s brilliant. A lot of our clients see that and they want to be able to have their own strong culture.” 

Helping clients do that is, of course, in Fjord’s interests. The most common barriers to a forward-looking culture are hierarchies, silos and specific, rigid roles. “It’s quite hard to break that down. And that’s where we’ve developed more of the tools and techniques around collaboration, so helping create a common language that people can use across silos.

“The new generations that are coming into the workforce aren’t interested in hierarchies. They want to come to work and really have an impact. They want a purpose at work. And businesses - it’s like a double whammy - need to be able to respond their customers’ needs and their employees’ needs.” 

Business design hopes to prepare businesses for the future, but has no shame in returning to a paper-and-pencil level of tech. If Fjord runs an “enriching and exciting design workshop and you invite people across a business, who normally don’t work together, by the end of that workshop you’re going to have people that are really brought in, and really, really want to make something good happen. And that can have a really lasting impact.” 

Ditch your crystal ball  

If being future-proof does actually exist, business design is it - and that’s because it’s not a product, but a process, approach and a way of thinking. It can help “the client define what the future looks like.”

And Abbie believes clients need to be prepared for the future more than ever. I might be adding another voice to the already piercingly loud, unavoidable choir, but the certain - or as certain as any guess can get - future  is digital. No longer can businesses “sit still and replicate what you’ve done for years. You have to rethink how you run as a business, and we’ve done that at Fjord, and our clients are more than happy to do that.

“These businesses are really having to change, not just slap on a new website, but having to fundamentally change in order to compete. The facts are that these big businesses that survived for years are now surviving for less and less time, and that digital-focused companies are becoming the new long-term businesses. 

Fjord is plugged into the digital world, aware of which businesses will be most disrupted by the shock, and how to turn that shock into a creative spark. “It’s a big part of what I do,” says Abbie. “I’ve got a team of specialists who work in business design, as well as designers who do the craft of design.”

Image: iStock

Now customers have the world at their fingertips, their expectations are correspondingly larger. They ask: if my card is contactless, why can’t my phone just unlock everything? “The experience we get in one sector or business,” explains Abbie, “we expect now from everything. And that expectation is going up and up and up.”

Business design is one way to stay up-to-date with your customers’ increasingly tall demands. And big industry players are responding with design - from Capital One’s acquirement of design firm Adaptive Path, to IBM who are “building a team of a thousand designers,” says Abbie. “It’s becoming the business shift away from pure technology and product-based players. It’s much more about hiring designers. There’s a lot of need and demand for business design.”

All those old, supportive columns of business - hierarchies, silos and rigid roles - are crumbling. “All of that is up for grabs. Design helps us think about those things in a new way. And that’s what design is all about. Distilling the methodology of design really enables, across disciplines, collaboration and breaking down silos.”

In this fast-changing world, businesses and designers need to stay relevant. Abbie’s advice to business leaders is, "rather than being completely bombarded and feeling totally helpless, actually think about how to build capability and be ready so you can build that change positively.

“Business design is a really useful set of tools and skills that can help you frame what you need to do, have a vision, and then be able to understand how to achieve that, and how to make sure you team, employees and culture are fit for that.

“So my advice is: embrace change; design is really, really useful as a tool; and that, together, design and business impact is a sweet spot for both designers and business leaders."

Find out more about business design from Fjord’s business design director.

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