19 octobre 2018

Hiring designers to innovate... And then what?

The design of products or services contains nothing new; they are all well-designed in one way or another. But design provides fundamentally different results from traditional methods. The “designed” product or service is designed to be tailored to the specific issues of the men and women who use it, and of the organisation that provides it.

par Mathilde Vincent

(Title illustration by Denis Pellerin)

The age of robots has not yet come to pass

We are all human and as humans we make each moment, each interaction, an experience. Why? Because unlike robots, we are emotional beings and we all need to feel before we think. This is why companies should offer desirable and intuitive products and services: beautiful things that make sense and that people can use. How can we make beautiful things that make sense? By always placing the user – human, until proven otherwise - at the centre of our thinking in order to offer a coherent, intuitive and desirable experience. Easier said than done, of course.

Endless touchpoints

As our products and services meet the possibilities of digital, distribution and interaction channels are exploding, literally. Touchpoints between users and companies are multiplying and it’s no longer enough to ask the question of what the product or service should offer: we have to study how it can do this. Each touchpoint, each interaction channel must be thought of for the ecosystem in which it fits, and care must be taken to make all these elements work together perfectly. Because it's all those little details that make the difference, and that's where design comes in.

Indeed, design has this ability to aggregate, shape and make sense of information, in order to orchestrate useful, intuitive and desirable experiences across all possible and relevant channels. In this context, a systemic view is needed. Products become intelligent, connected to the user and therefore integrated into an increasingly complex ecosystem. The experience of a product no longer stops at it simply being handled. This ecosystem needs to be imagined, designed and created: this is the purpose of innovation through service design. It is a choreographer's job in a way, as it’s a matter of identifying and getting all the actors involved in the project to work together, to ensure its feasibility, viability and, of course, its desirability. This step can also be useful for rethinking an existing product or service, as well as devising new ones.

Hiring designers to innovate is making sure that we create a “human service” for humans.

The innovation process through service design: An exploratory AND operational process

Whether we talk about existing or prospective projects, the process of innovation through design is divided into two main stages. The first, exploratory stage consists in defining the scope of the innovation, identifying the most relevant solutions for both users and the company and conceptualising them in a tangible way. We will come back to this point later. However, the strength of this approach is also its ability to implement the concepts that emerge from this exploratory phase in great detail. This is when the operational phase begins, requiring both artistic and technical talent, which includes the implementation of all the service components. Of course, not all projects will follow this theoretical path: depending on the company's objectives, the partnership may be predominantly exploratory and stop at demonstrating concepts, while others may start with an already well-defined concept and simply develop or deploy it.

Experimentation is needed to anticipate development obstacles

This approach, far from being linear, is iterative in nature and each iteration is given substance in the form of a concrete and more or less complete visualisation. We mentioned this earlier, this visualisation of ideas throughout the process aims to create projection devices. Taking the form of functional prototypes or simple sketches, it’s a matter here of visualising all or part of the product or service being designed, in order to be able to plan its use. The general idea is to speak the same language. This interim goal actually provides a concrete basis for discussions that can be easily understood by all the stakeholders in the project. In this way, repeated experiments ensure that the initial vision of the concept is faithfully translated, while developmental obstacles are anticipated as much as possible. Far from merely serving to test a function, these devices make it possible to stimulate ideas, through "martyr" proposals for example, and thereby integrate new knowledge.

This global approach to design calls for people who are able to juggle their expertise. They must be able to carry out exploratory thinking while mastering the operational aspect at their fingertips, if only to manufacture these so-called intermediate objects. Each team member must be able to make a distinction between several skills in order to agree on the vision of a product or service, its execution and vice versa. Only a team capable of this will be able to develop an integrated design approach, specific to design and a fundamental source of innovation in this field. It brings together expertise, and therefore solutions, that are seemingly very different. When brought together, these solutions provide unexpected results and present new avenues to explore, thereby fuelling both the exploratory and operational phases of the projects worked on by these experts.

Hiring a service design innovation agency also means injecting this mindset into your organisation.

Three pillars of good cooperation

The vision:

The added value of design lies in its ability to break free from the frames of thought of the sector for which it is working. You have to accept that designers develop unimaginable ideas and solutions with you in order to challenge your thinking. Even if you don't put them into practice as they are, their visual format will always help to translate your ambitions into a clear and precise vision of what you want to offer your clients. This can be a clear asset for persuading others within your company.


An integrated approach to design very often comes up against the siloing of activities and functions within a company. Designers need to have a comprehensive understanding of your organisation - and therefore the widest possible access - in order to incorporate as many parameters as possible into the design. Collaboration will work best if it is done holistically and not compartmentalised between the physical service or product, the website, the mobile application, etc. Everything is connected. Like a chain, each action has an impact on the entire ecosystem.


Working with a service design innovation agency means agreeing to embark on a process of systemic co-creation. Co-creation, as the best collaborations take place when all parties are able to make proposals. But this does not mean that everyone can do everything at the same time: we were talking about a systemic process. If the service is to be considered within its global ecosystem, it is vital to make good use of everyone's skills at each stage of the design and, above all, let them express these skills. A designer does not replace an engineer or a marketing expert, and vice-versa.

How does it work in practice?

It goes without saying that you should meet several times with the agencies you are planning to work with. Innovation projects are rarely a matter of two weeks and good cooperation depends to a large extent on good understanding within the team. During these meetings it is important to try to plan to work together with the people sitting opposite you.

What do you need?

What deliverable are you expecting? Is it an idea book, a functional prototype, or not, or a product that can be marketed as is? Asking yourself these questions before meeting with the designers is obvious, but you don't necessarily have to know what you want in great detail: a designers' job is also to help you define your needs by identifying the problem and proposing ways of addressing it.

One thing is for sure, not everything is always relevant and the designer(s) that you talk to should set out the conditions for using their methods. Using a bazooka to kill a fly is not always necessary…

All this needs to be discussed with regard to your project and/or your company. Do you have a well-defined trajectory? Is your strategy set in stone? What are your short, medium and long-term objectives, if any? This will greatly aid your choice of agency - or freelancer. If you know exactly where you are going and the only constraint is a very short completion time, you will definitely not choose the same type of agency (large or small) than if your trajectory is still undetermined and subject to change, even if the deadlines are identical.

For example, at User Studio we get involved early, or even very early, in projects and most of our clients have deadline pressures due to a highly competitive environment or unexpectedly high demand, they are not necessarily sure of the direction to take and their strategy often changes during the course of the project.

What are the terms of this cooperation?

Generally, we will start by setting up the project team. According to the situation, you will need to be quite quick in deciding which people join the team, from your side of the table. The ideal would be to have decided on the final decision-maker from the outset. He or she must be part of the team, or the team must include a representative of the decision-maker who can very quickly consult him or her and provide feedback on issues and guidelines. Knowing who is at the helm is absolutely crucial to the success of any project.

In addition, decisions must be made on the financial arrangements. Indeed, although most of the time contracts take the form of a flat rate per day/person, it is quite possible to consider other types of partnerships. Royalties, shares, etc. Many solutions exist or have yet to be created.

As for the timescale, let's get straight to the point: there is no standard timeline. Each project is unique in terms of its organisation and timelines. Having said that, and according to our own experience, the average project will last between 3 and 6 months and will be structured in several phases: if it is an exploratory project we will start with scoping meetings. This is followed by the inspiration and observation phase to allow for ideas to be developed and finally the presentation of concepts. If we are talking about an operational project, then this link becomes much more complex depending on the nature of the object to be designed and/or implemented. Overall, it is a question of defining a vision for the project, devising the functions that will enable it to be implemented and putting all of this into the most relevant form possible for all of the stakeholders.

Obviously, as with any design project, the iterative approach requires a close and ongoing relationship between you and your agency. The duo "initial briefing" and "final presentation" will absolutely always be supplemented by other informal meetings or progress updates.

Finally, how can you evaluate the design?

Whatever happens, it is you who will have to live with the project. It is not the agency or the freelancer and it is very important that he, she or they understand this from the beginning. This means that you must really like what you see at the end of the project. You must feel that you are capable of using, selling and defending it. This is often perceived as irrational, deeply instinctive, but it’s also the designer’s job to convince you. We are fully aware that design is still a young discipline and that the evaluation criteria are not easy to formulate and understand.

We've said it before, but design is all about making it your own. In business terms, this would mean creating a relevant supply/demand mix. This means that a “good design” is judged as much as much by the collaboration, the internal design work as by its potential commercial success. Of course, correlation is not causation and design is never solely responsible for success or failure. So, the first evaluation point, which is totally qualitative, would be the quality of the cooperation: did the project stakeholders manage to work together, smoothly and efficiently? The specific approach of design often requires the designer to educate and introduce his or her approach. Just as they must understand the challenges of engineers, marketing specialists, etc, the latter must also be prepared to listen to them, even if we know that it is usually the new guy who has to make the effort to fit in.

Design is not intended to produce only "disruptive" or "game changers" on the assembly line. Its approach is often relevant for producing this, but things designed by a team that has fully incorporated the design don’t just work well, they tap into the target’s emotions, they are so obvious that commitment becomes natural. Over and above the "wow effect", this fact is due to another principle: simplicity. The aim is to satisfy users as much as possible with a minimum level of investment from them, be it financial, physical, social, intellectual, etc.

Everyone can have good ideas, but only the perfect execution of a good idea will make a real difference to your customers. Attention to detail is paramount here and requires a significant amount of time, relying on both highly specialised expertise and a systemic approach. And this is what innovation through design can do. To see what this looks like in practice, you can find case studies and examples of particularly well-designed services on designdeservices.org.