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Great design makes cool stuff look simple

By richard coughlin, PA business design expert

There's an insatiable demand for more cool stuff; more personalisation, increased sophistication, greater speed, extra features. It pervades the gadgets and services we use and it filters into the businesses we work in.

Sadly, more cool stuff often means more complexity for how we work. More products and services get added to the catalogue, more channels are added on top of old channels, faster service response times are added, more technologies are bolted on to old systems. This adds complexity to people's jobs and technical architectures, and requires more layers of business control. All of which makes a business less likely to perform and more likely to drive cost up.

I think this complexity is a result of lazy design thinking. Most importantly, complexity is not the inevitable result of more sophistication. By applying great design thinking, businesses can add sophistication and simplicity to their businesses.

We've done a lot of research into how to make business operations simpler, but there is one thought I'd like to share now.

To misuse a poor old joke: I wouldn't start from here if I were you.

The lazy assumption is that new stuff has to be additive to old stuff - bolting on digital marketing alongside the traditional marketing activity, adding new service features as a straight add-on to existing activity. This comes from an incremental view of change where each new activity is seen as a small step that you can absorb into existing operations.

An example of this is retailers that end up running two parallel order management processes for in-store versus online orders. Yes, some change may have to start incrementally, however good design thinking would ensure that someone is standing back and reviewing all the incremental changes together; asking if there's a smarter way of doing things. For the retailer, both order processes do fundamentally the same thing separately. Yes, on the day they first thought of adding online ordering, I am sure the easiest way of getting it off up and running quickly was to build a separate capability, but the result is complexity.

With smart design thinking one environment can deliver both in-store and online outcomes. By starting by understanding the whole businesses requirement for order processing, by understanding the underlying similarities and constraints of in-store and online operations, and by creating a unified single workflow, single rule set and single dataset, the result will be a single instance with greater sophistication but no added complexity.

It will reduce overall administration time, potentially improve order quality and certainly avoid the terrible situation where a shop assistant had to tell me "I can't help you sir, but if you want to go on your phone, you could order that online while you're here."

Complex processes are just one variant of complexity, the same goes for complex business policies and rules that have grown to accommodate more variety, complex (and sometimes competing) structures and teams, and complex, even baffling product and service offers.

We all want more cool stuff, but please, can we take the trouble to think about how to do it simply.

It does require a conscious decision to design sophistication and simplicity hand in hand, however strangely it's something that startups seem to manage with little trouble – maybe because they are not constrained by legacy operations - but that may have to be a topic for another day.

We’ve recently published the results of a study that debunks the myths of business complexity in the Dutch manufacturing sector. You can download the report here

Find out more about our work in business design.

Contact the business design team

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