A Large-Scale Distraction

Why don't we already focus our efforts on wicked problems? It seems that our powerful companies and consultancies have become distracted by a different type of problem: differentiation. Innovation describes some form of differentiation or newness. But in product design and product development, tiered releases and differentiation often replace innovation, although they often are claimed as such. Consider the automotive industry, where vehicles in an existing brand are introduced each year with only subtle aesthetic or feature changes. For example, except for slight interior changes and a few new safety features, the 2012 Ford F-150 is the same as the vehicle offered the year before. Ford. F150 Detailed Comparison. n.d. (accessed November 14, 2011). This phenomenon also is true of other industries, such as toys, appliances, consumer electronics, fashion, even foods, beverages, and services.

This idea of constant but meaningless change drives a machine of consumption, where advertisers pressure those with extra purchasing power into unnecessary upgrades through a fear of being left behind. Consultants and product managers craft product roadmaps that describe the progressive qualities of incremental changes. In fact, it's considered a best practice and a standard operating procedure to launch subsequent releases of the same product—with minor cosmetic changes—in subsequent months after the original product's launch. For example, between its 1990 launch and the end of 2004, Canon released 11 versions of its Rebel camera (in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999, February and September of 2002, March and September of 2003, April and September of 2004) Wikipedia. Canon EOS. n.d. (accessed November 11, 2011). And Apple has released a new version of the iPod every year since its 2001 launch.Wikipedia. iPod. n.d. (accessed November 11, 2011)

Apple's various iPods

This constant push is characterized as a "release cycle"—the amount of time between versions of a product reaching the market. For most of industrialized history, a release cycle for a product was a year or more; complicated offerings like vehicles typically took three or more years from product conception to launch. But technology has afforded advances not only in our products but in the way we make them, so the release cycle has shrunk—a lot. Advances in tooling and manufacturing, the influx of cheap and generic pre-made components, and the ability for software-based firmware upgrades have accelerated product release cycles to three to six months.

Tooling ensures only incremental design change. It describes the process of creating individual, giant machines that will cut, grind, injection-mold, and robotically create a particular product. The tools used to produce an Apple computer are unique to (and probably owned by) Apple, and their production is one of the most expensive parts of the product development process. For example, a simple, small die-cast tool to produce 50,000 low-quality aluminum objects may cost $25,000. It's in the company's best interest to use the tool as many times as possible before it begins to fall apart, so the tool begins to act as a design constraint for future product releases. Put another way, if our tool was designed to produce 50,000 objects, and we've only made and sold 25,000, it makes financial sense for the next version of our product to use the same tool.

Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) contributes to the increased speed of product cycles and is another deterrent to quality and innovation. These are generic parts that manufacturers can use rather than producing their own, decreasing the time to market by skipping the tooling process. For example, a camera company can select OEM camera bezels and internal components. After adding the logo to the sourced materials, this hypothetical company can begin shipping cameras. The company can then differentiate its OEM parts by investing time in software, adding digital features and functions to physical products to distinguish these products.

The primary driver behind incremental, mostly cosmetic innovation and a constant push of releases that leverage OEM parts is simple: quarterly profits. Every three months, Fortune 500 companies report their earnings to investors. If a company reports losses—or even less-than-expected gains—the price of a stock drops, investors lose money, and those with the most shares lose the most money. So stockholders want the company to make as much money as possible in three-month increments. And these short increments constrain any activities and initiatives that take longer than three months. Revolutionary products usually take much, much longer than three months to conceive, design, and build. Unlike a Version 3 product that can leverage an existing manufacturing plant, process, and supply and distribution chains, a new product's infrastructure must be built from scratch.

People who work at big companies try to create these revolutionary products. But each time profits are reported, the inevitable reorganization occurs—management's attempt to show investors increased productivity, refined or repositioned strategy, and controlled spending. This reorganization can literally move people to another area of a company or to another company altogether, and in this movement, product development initiatives are lost. Witness the early death of Microsoft Kin or HP's TouchPad—products that internal reorganizations removed from the marketplace before they could prove their efficacy. The Kin barely lasted forty-eight days on the market Helft, Miguel. "Microsoft Kin Discontinued After 48 Days." June 30, 2010. (accessed November 11, 2011)., while TouchPad was canceled after seven weeksKumparak, Greg. "It's Official: HP Kills Off webOS Phones and the TouchPad." August 18, 2011. (accessed November 11, 2011).; discussions of their death typically focus on internal fighting, misalignment with a given market strategy, cost minimization, or confusion about the products' position within the brand—rather than on the products themselves.

Microsoft Kin

Ultimately, then, companies and individuals engaged in mass production are incented to drive prices down, produce the same thing over and over, innovate slowly, create differentiation in product lines only through cosmetic changes and minor feature augmentations, and to relentlessly keep making stuff. If we look to major brands and corporations to manage the negative consequences resulting from their work or even to drive social change and innovation, we'll be discouraged. Social change requires companies to escape the constant drive towards quarterly profits. Even those who find profitability in the social sector—and there are countless examples—require a longer iteration period than three months, so social change is destined to be ignored by the large, publically traded corporations that possess most of the wealth and capability.

What's Wrong With Making Stuff?

At this point, a good question to ask is "what's wrong with making stuff?" After all, developed countries have worked hard to master mass-production capabilities and to increase the quality of life through conveniences and efficiencies. Designers have touched every item you own and every building you enter. And at least some of them are driven by the urge to make beautiful things that help make your life better. But design runs deeper in our culture than just the physical products we own. Design also extends to services, such as—when you go to the hospital or when you grab a burger at McDonalds. Some of these services are designed to emphasize speed and efficiency, while others are focused on more emotional goals like encouraging pleasure, establishing brand value, or, in the case of the software and websites you use, making you more productive or helping you communicate with friends and family.

But although everything around you has been designed (except nature, and even that's starting to change!), not everything has been designed well. When we think about what good design means, we often judge the immediate features, functions, and aesthetics. Some things are ugly, or styled on a fleeting trend. Some things are hard to use or understand. Or they cost too much, perform poorly, or don't offer all the capabilities you might like.

Products are the visible and tangible output of a designer's work. Their results are easy to judge because we are immediately made aware of their consequences on our lives. We feel better, feel worse, get frustrated, accomplish our goals, talk to our friends, and so on—based on the design that helped or hindered us in our task. We can say things like "that was designed poorly because it made me miss an important meeting," or "that is designed well because it looks nice in my house."

But the less obvious results of design are the fundamental reason this book exists. These are the consequences of design, which tend to fall into two categories: diffused and selection.

Diffused Consequences

Cultural shifts are a direct result of individuals' work and actions, yet it feels far-fetched to give either accolades or criticism to a designer for something as broad as a culture shift. It's unlikely that a designer has considered his impact on culture (although designers do tend to have a sort of surreal experience when they first see their work on the shelf at Walmart). In fact, because culture is so abstract, large, and amorphous, few people in the world think about the impact of any individual in this way. But designers who do think about cultural impact are really thinking about diffused consequences: great power wielded without the ability to see direct causality from those powerful actions.

When a designer makes a product—say, a hammer—he designs all of the details of the hammer. This includes how it looks and functions, how it will be manufactured, and in many cases, how it will be packaged and appear on a shelf in a store. He probably works in his office, at a desk with a computer, surrounded by other people involved in developing the product. Before he designs his hammer, he has many conversations with engineers, marketers, and other professionals whose expertise he respects.

The designer considered the aesthetics of the hammer. He was inspired by new consumer electronics that were made of bubbly plastic, and so when he specified material, he added translucent strips to the handle, giving it a space-age feel.

Then the designer considered the shape of the hammer. He learned about human factors in college, and so he mirrored the shape of the hand to make the handle easy for people with arthritis to grasp.

And when he's finished designing the hammer, he may move on to the next product—say, a wrench set.

About three months after the hammer is designed, it rolls off the production line in a giant building in Shenzhen, China. It looks exactly how the designer specified it—each detail is "by design."

In fact, hundreds of thousands of these hammers, made exactly to specification, roll off the production line, exactly as designed.My student and friend Alex Pappas designed toys that were made in China, and he describes this as the "Oh, shit" moment—where a designer realizes the scale and scope of their impact. Companies spend millions of dollars to optimize production and minimize manufacturing errors so that they can guarantee that the hammer at Home Depot is exactly to specification.

This designer I'm describing is a real person, and after he finished the hammer and the wrench set, he went on to design a leaf blower, a series of garden shears, large rain barrels, hose nozzles, and big plastic toolsheds for back yards. This person has had an impact on a huge number of people. If the hammer, leaf blower, and other tools are easy to use, he can claim some small part of users' happy experience with the tool. If the hammer falls apart after a few uses, he can bear some of the responsibility for the need to buy a new tool so soon after the first. And because more than 100,000 people have used this specific hammer, he'll probably have contributed to a wide variety of consequences—some good, some bad, but most banal. It is, after all, just a hammer.

But now think about this hammer in the larger context of all hammers, or all tools, or all products. Hundreds of kinds of hammers, toasters, cars, DVD players, socks, shoes, plastic trays, fake garden rocks, glassware, water bottles, chairs, and those little twist ties that hold your carrots together at the grocery store—they're all designed. And when you consider them—in the context of all things that are designed—the hammer is helping to shape culture, change behavior, and advance a set of values and priorities. Or, to be more specific, the designer is shaping culture, changing behavior, and advancing his set of values and priorities. The designer shapes trends and movements and paradigms in the slow, pervasive way that culture ebbs and flows.

Causality is when one action leads to another occurrence. It's commonly juxtaposed with association, where one action is related to another event occurring but doesn't directly cause it to happen.

Imagine that a hammer buyer is driving a nail; her hand becomes sweaty, and the hammer slips and smashes her thumb. It might be that the sweat—or the handle's poor grip—caused the hammer to slip.

Now imagine that as the person hammers, she talks on a cellphone, cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder. Again she smashes her thumb. This time the causality might be the physical presence of the phone or the cognitive load of talking on the phone while performing a feat of manual dexterity. Or it could be the sweat, the grip, or more than one or all of the above.

Causality is important because it begins to form the basis of our laws, rules, norms and social convention. If working while holding a cellphone causes accidents, we would avoid accidents by using a hands-free kit or a Bluetooth headset. But if, say, the cognitive load is identified as the problem, holding a cellphone is merely associated with work accidents.

The hammer designer has contributed diffused consequences, in which he wields great power but cannot see direct causality from his actions, making it difficult to know the extent of his influence. But some examples in popular culture can help us visualize it.

GAP Logo, old and new

One person's design led to massive public outcry. When Trey Laird of Laird and Partners redesigned GAP's logo, which shows up on millions of shirts, pants, and bags, the Internet exploded with reaction, most of which was negative. Nearly 14,000 parody logos and less than four days after launching the redesign, GAP reverted to its original logo. Optaros. "It's a Consumer's World. Brands Just Live in It." October 25, 2011. (accessed November 10, 2011). The redesign had caused consumers to react negatively, and the negative reaction caused the company to lose money and brand equity.

Another person's design led to massive financial loss. Sales of Tropicana's Pure Premium juice fell by 20%, at a loss of tens of millions of dollars, after Peter Arnell of Arnell Group redesigned Tropicana's brand language. This was exactly the same juice as it was before, but the new design caused consumers to change their behavior, which in turn caused Tropicana to restore its original branding less than two months after making the change.Zmuda, Natalie. "Tropicana Line's Sales Plunge 20% Post-Rebranding." April 2, 2009. (accessed November 10, 2011).

These are design consequences, making diffused causality explicit through consumer backlash and the viral nature of social media. But design consequences also can be less obvious, with a more subtle impact on the world around us. Such consequences include our dependence on oil, the amount we pollute, our inability to attend to a task for a long period, and even the size and configuration of our houses and neighborhoods, the way we interact in groups, and the types of music or clothing we admire. A designer makes a thing, and the thing changes our lives.

Selection Consequences

Our hammer designer chose to design tools instead of restaurants, software, or systems that clean drinking water. He might like tools a lot, or his might be a well-paying job, or tools might be all he thinks to design. But his subject matter's selection brings consequences—still diffused, and still just as invisible and difficult to realize. So the seemingly simple decision of "which topic to focus on" will change culture's fabric and people's behavior, while dramatically advancing a value system. What if most of the U.S. industrial designers stopped focusing on consumer electronics or any other individual consumer segment? What if Apple produced flower pots instead of iPads, or the designers at Nike designed airplanes? These subject-matter decisions would have massive repercussions, known as selection consequences.

Continue to the Next Chapter:
A Changing Workforce

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving