Productivity and the Design + Usability Culture

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by: Idris Mootee

We’re playing with the new MacBook Air  in the office today and we all appreciate what Apple put into this machine. Apple is no question a company that focuses not on its product, but on innovation.

While there are talks of corporate innovation everywhere they have always been received with skepticism. It is simply not about some cool designs. Design is often applied in a very narrow fashion such as improving product and packaging appearances etc. Seldom you hear people linking “design” to “productivity”.

Many designers are out of touch with real world design problems and they approach design solely as style and brand simply perpetuates the notion of design as transparent and shallow. This is definitely not the best representation of “design” as a powerful problem tool. The design industry never full gained full business-centered respect and credibility is because of that reason. There is very talk about the explicit linkage between “design” and “productivity”.

Today we have the technological ability to do work faster; we may not be doing better work. The latest innovations each made it possible–and easier–for us to do more work faster. Productivity is the lifeblood of a nation’s economy. America’s efficient assembly line culture, spurred by Henry Ford and General Motors’ Alfred Sloan, proved this in the 20th century. Once the Model-Ts started rolling, US’s labor productivity growth started surging, averaging about 2% each year. That growth rate helped double the US standard of living every 35 years.

As the information age unfolded, Americans were living better than at any time in our history. Indeed, the Internet accelerated the US productivity revolution, pushing annual labor productivity growth up to 2.5 % between 1995 and 2000, and 2.8% between 2000 and 2004. Thanks to Google, Microsoft and Netscape.

Productivity growth has gradually slowed since 2004, some people wonder why. Certainly, technology has done its job and as a result, supply chains are efficient and lean, the financial services industry is automated, and manufacturing processes are flexible. Indeed, the average company in America now spends between $5,000 and $10,000 per knowledge worker on hardware and software designed to boost productivity. (And a full copy of Microsoft Office today costs around $500)

One way to explain it is that much of the productivity-enhancing technology (blackberry, browser, facebook, cell phones, msn etc.) now in use hasn’t made us more productive. Are we spending too much time on those communications or it actually enhances our life. It is estimated that interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, and blogs takes up nearly 30% of each day; on an annualized basis, this represents a loss of 28 billion hours for the entire U.S. workforce.

Another way to explain it is technology is getting to a point which is getting too complex and we are overwhelmed with information. Our abilities to adapt to different interfaces are slowly declining. Examples of poorly designed products and digital experiences are plenty. Although there are a few good ones, most have bad-to-horrible usability for two reasons: lack of incentive and the lack of a usability culture. Companies have had little incentive to emphasize usability. For physical products, customers have no user experience until after they’ve paid for the device. (In contrast, digital service customers get user experience up front: if a site sucks, they simply drop their shopping carts and switch to another site with no switching cost.

Here I am talking about the building of a design and usability culture. I emphasize design AND usability since design sometimes doesn’t necessarily include usability. At Idea Couture, design and usability are inseparable and they are firmly anchored on business economics. That’s what makes our company unique those other firms. TiVo (hello Heather!! Say hello to Peter) is an example of a company that integrates usability methods during early product development, employing user testing and low-fidelity prototyping with mock-ups. They do have that design and usability culture.

The computer industry has terrible usability. Enterprise software is the worst. They have no idea of what that is and for them they are just user interfaces. Just as non-marketers see brands as logos only, why spend tens of millions on your logo? Just as Jeffrey Rapport puts it:

– Firms will no longer conceive of competition as firm to firm or supply chain to supply chain, but customer interface system to customer interface system.

– There will be no people-less (front) office of the future – the front-office of the future will be people-rich.

– Management in the future must focus, in large measure, on determining the wise and appropriate division of labor between people and machines.

– A hundred years ago, managers trained people to do their jobs like machines; now we must “train” machines to do their “jobs” like people.

– Every interface is an opportunity for expression of a firm’s brand.

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