The Cultures of Design
By Steve Portigal, Founder, Portigal Consulting
In our engagements with different organizations we see a large range of cultures-of-design. I use that term to capture the aspect of an organization’s culture that drives how they determine what to make for their customers. I’ll outline a few prominent archetypes (of course there are more!), and while they may teeter dangerously close to caricature, in their extremity they can be illustrative of the complex nature of culture.
1. The Squeaky Wheel – A key individual has a great deal of influence over the both big picture and the details, and ensures—often through force of personality—that their wishes are addressed.
2. The Cult of Personality – A key individual has articulated a vision, and ensures—often through force of personality—that people buy into and execute that vision.
Whether or not The Cult of Personality is the same as the Squeaky Wheel depends on perspective: does their vision align with yours? Have they been successful? Do you have to work directly with them?
Consider Apple as one data point (and because its culture is complex and ever-changing, we can treat this as a thought exercise and consider the Platonic ideal of Apple and not get bogged down into what really goes on there). Compare Segway, and Dyson. We know all the legends: Steve Jobs and his infamous “reality distortion field;” Dean Kamen’s brilliant niche technology, but its failed revolution; James Dyson’s five years and 5,127 prototypes to create the Dual Cyclone.
3. The Department of Committee Meetings – Lots of time spent on internal processes, to the point of avoiding decisions, unless everyone can agree. Most things just never happen, or at best are me-too and too late. Sometimes you can find a Squeaky Wheel type in this culture, who uses their influence to veto any decision.
4. User-Pleasing – Whatever any customer asks for is implemented literally. There’s no competency for prioritizing requests, interpreting requests, or designing solutions that address the underlying needs (i.e., fixing the technology is better than fixing the error message).
5. Uncover New Needs and Solve Them – Many User-Pleasing cultures believe that they are working this way and fail to understand why their Frankenstein’s monster solutions end up satisfying nobody. Indeed, Uncover New Needs and Solve Them is likely the idealized self-image that most cultures have for themselves. Sometimes this is lip-service only, but in many cases, there are processes in place to both maintain humility and gather deep insights into the community. For example, when launching in a new market, Lululemon Athletica sends “missionaries” to every exercise and yoga class they find in order to make connections with key influencers, establishing relationships they leverage throughout the design and marketing process. That’s a tremendous investment of time and human resources. The willingness to truly commit those resources can often mark the difference between a culture that is actively engaged in this user-centered approach and one that merely aspires to it.
If you can look at your own organization and characterize the approaches you see, you are better prepared to design a mechanism that can help your own culture evolve (a wicked problem, if ever there was one). Diagnosing the current culture is only the first step, but I believe it’s a crucial one.
Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps organizations to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers. In addition to regularly speaking at design and marketing events, Steve writes regularly for Core77, and the Portigal Consulting blog, All This ChittahChattah. Steve is an avid photographer who has a Museum of Foreign Grocery Products in his home.
This article appeared in the August
2009 edition of the eBulletin.
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