I am doing another interview in my Design Thinking series and the topic of this episode is the impact of moving design principles into what is commonly called the Fuzzy Front End (FFE). I personally prefer the term Managed Front End, because, while it is fuzzy, full of unknowns and chaotic at times, it is also manageable. I spoke with Design and Design Thinking researcher and practitioner, Giulia Calabretta. She is an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. She contributed a chapter with a coauthor to the Design Thinking: New Product Development Essentials from the PDMA book titled, “Integrating Design into the Fuzzy Front End of the Innovation Process.”
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers, Developers, and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- What drew you into the field of design? Giulia’s background is in business and management and she has always been interested in innovation. She believes Designers have the best tools for helping companies with innovation. Designers are human centered and should be part of the innovation plans of companies. When they are, the innovations are much more successful.
- We need a common understanding of the FFE. How do you describe this early stage of product innovation? It is a messy moment in the innovation process. It begins when people in the company wish to do something new, recognizing a customer need or problem they can take action on to solve. This involves searching for opportunities, idea generation, and idea selection aligned with what is best for the company.
- What challenges exist in the FFE? Uncertainty is a key challenge. Companies don’t know exactly what course of action to take and if they will be successful with the course taken. To deal with the uncertainty, some companies will attempt to collect too much information and then have the challenge of knowing what to do with it. They may also involve numerous people throughout the organization in an effort to limit risk but this greatly complicates the decision-making process.
- What design practices help with problem definition? One way designers help is to broaden the perspective on innovation. They are good at reformulating specific objectives to consider the broader reasons behind them. An example is public transportation company 9292 in the Netherlands. They provide services to help people understand their best options for public transportation to get from one place to another. When Google maps became popular, 9292 found their service was being used less. They enlisted designers, asking them to create a new website to bring customers back. Instead, the designers asked the company what they really wanted to achieve and after a series of creative workshops (generative sessions) determined that the larger goal was creating deeper relationships with customers. After reformulating the problem, they determined that a new website was not the best solution. Instead, they created a series of personalized mobile services for smart phones, elevating 9292 to be the preferred public transportation planner in the Netherlands.
- How does design help us manage information in the FFE? In dealing with uncertainty in the FFE, an overwhelming amount of information can be collected while still not necessarily having the information actually needed. Designers have creative ways of doing user research as opposed to traditional market research to determine what customers really want and consider valuable. An example is Context Mapping, which is a visual journaling process consumers can do without a researcher present to map their behavior over a period of time. An example is applying Context Mapping to understand the relationships between a consumer’s shopping behavior and their eating behavior. The consumer takes pictures over the course of a few days of him or her cooking, eating, shopping, etc. A smart phone app is used to prompt the consumer to take pictures at certain times. This data can then be used by designers to lead to deeper insights to improve the shopping experience.
- Managing stakeholders properly is another key challenge – are there design tools for this? One problem we encounter is that some stakeholders are resistant to innovations. Another issue is that some stakeholders may reject and innovation because it does not align to their objectives or key performance indicators. Designers can help with both by reducing resistance to new ideas and helping stakeholders with different interests to find agreement. A practical tool is early prototyping to make ideas take shape and help people realize that the ideas are possible. Rapid Collaboration approaches, such as hackathons, help people with different perspectives work together.
- If a group recognizes the value of adding design practices to the FFE, how can they integrate a design resource into the product team? A culture change is needed that supports designer involvement in early product development. Also, designers need to earn their role in the product team. An example is at Deloitte Consulting that is integrating designers into their innovation teams in a leading role as part of their effort to become a more innovative company. They are raising awareness of the importance of designers in innovation. To aid this, designers have the responsibility to learn the language of the business and be able to speak in terms of business functions such as sales, marketing, production, etc.
- Connect with Giulia via her LinkedIn profile.
- Giulia’s chapter dealing with the integration of design and innovation in the fuzzy front in appears in the book Design Thinking: New Product Development Essentials from the PDMA
- Assistant Professor Calabretta’s bio page area at Delft University of Technology
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” – from The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa:
Listen Now to the Interview
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.