As our world changes, the challenges to business grow. Old ways of thinking are being replaced by open minds and creativity. Design is playing a central role in helping solve problems and drive the future. We invite you to see how design is shaping the new business.

A Zilver Innovation initiative

Expert exchange: Fjord – John Oswald

John Oswald is Fjord‘s Business Design Lead in London. He helps prove the business value of great design, either through business cases, clear and concise stakeholder communications, or KPI models. His clients at Fjord have included ITV, Vodafone, RIM, Nokia, Orange and Barclays, as well as startups.

We invited him to participate on our expert exchange, here is his contribution:

How do you think design is contributing to shape better business strategies and to make sense out of complexity?

The traditional essence of a design company is simply to understand user needs and how they can drive elegant, useful and valuable design solutions. It’s a noble aim, and one that ideally leads to elegant, innovative solutions.

But the path to these solutions can be complex, and at Fjord we believe there are things that design companies could do better in order to make sense to their clients.

We’re privileged to work with a great many companies at various stages of development, from small start-ups with a fantastic idea through to major multi-national operations rife with organisational complexity, who also have big ideas but who face different challenges in realising them.

Every company in its own way tries to allocate resource for maximum competitive advantage and financial return. That’s once you strip things down to their core, of course, and go deeper than what companies say they really do or excel in. If you look closely every proposition, product, campaign or service is being developed and marketed to fulfil this underlying principle of competitive advantage.

Design helps the clients we work with see their world differently, to see slightly different opportunities, and ultimately helps them transform. But it is a real challenge getting to a stage where, as a designer, you have the permission to help clients do this. It’s an even bigger challenge getting a great concept to the stage where it’s launched and being used day to day by thousands, if not millions of people.

Working with various clients has taught us some very important lessons about getting this right, in ways which ultimately help shape strategy and cut through complexity:

3 tips for achieving success with your clients

1) Don’t take things at face value.

Perhaps 80 per cent of briefs and requests we receive as a design agency, although logical and thought-through at first sight, actually miss some deeper point. A few well placed ‘why?’ questions can quickly unravel things and help us and our clients see a bit more clearly.

2) Balance user-centric approaches with the need to create financial value.

Most of the work we do is what we like to call ‘breakthrough’ projects that involve a concept that changes things quite significantly for the company we’re working with. It might be a challenging UX, which actually relies on some underpinning business model that’s a little bit different to the norm for that client. The trick is always to explain it and look at the new design through the lens of ‘how does this fit within the client’s business model?’, and ‘how does the client need to change to make it happen?’. And finally, ‘what’s the potential upside for the client of getting this right?’. A lot of our work contains an implicit business case within it, and also ways to measure success and improvement after launch.

3) Understand the true motivations and politics at play.

Different clients need and want different things, and not always for the reasons we initially think. We’ve worked with clients who have considerable personal investment in the work, and if it works out well, they personally come out on top. But not if it doesn’t. Other clients are not empowered enough to take things forward, in which case we’ve often subtly brought in other stakeholders who need to be ‘sold to’ and who have a lot more influence to make things happen. Often, our design process itself traverses organisational boundaries and end up bringing people together who wouldn’t ordinarily work together. In so doing, new relationships are forged that help the client move on in ways that are much bigger than ‘just’ the design work we produce.

But we’ve taken some knocks on the way and haven’t always got it right. And it’s fair to say that we’ve learned a lot more from our tactical errors than we have from our successes. Some examples of things we try to avoid:

3 mistakes that you will never make again

1) Assess the client’s real needs and readiness.

We work with many startups, as well as larger corporates. The kind of design project that works for a large corporate is usually one that is thought through from beginning to end (within reason) and which dovetails with a set of their resources and processes. In other words, you can usually rely on having people on hand to review, people to sign off, and people to make tough decisions about direction. But it’s a very different game when we’re working with a client that is either at a very early stage of development or who is doing something genuinely new and groundbreaking. Here, it’s about ensuring we deliver what we like to call ‘breakthrough’ design. This is design that is rapidly executed, is delivered in a few short weeks, and which doesn’t go into excessive detail. We’ve found that some clients just aren’t at a stage where they’re ready to sign off on detailed design specifications – they either don’t have the team, don’t understand what they’re signing off, or shift in direction in response to their pattern of growth.

2) Speak the language of the client.

As designers, we use a certain vocabulary and a lexicon that can appear pretty solipsistic to our clients. When we say ‘web’, the client hears ‘mobile and web’; when we say ‘visual toolkit’, the client hears ‘developer-ready code’. This can lead to some very difficult scope discussions and tricky expectation management. We’ve learned to avoid a lot of this, and have much more realistic scope discussions, so that what we deliver is not way off message. Everyone’s seen that diagram of the swing that looked like a comfortable sofa when the sales guy described it but which ended up as a single knotted rope by the time it was delivered…

3) Start conversations.

In the course of our projects, we can often find ourselves at the outer limits of the day-to-day client’s span of control. This can get uncomfortable, unless you can help bridge gaps in non-threatening ways, and get more of the client’s colleagues on board. This can get really fun if they haven’t really worked together before and discover all sorts of potential. Sometimes just the fact of being on a project and being involved with clients can help them discover new things about themselves which can really help make a concept solid, and understood by the wider business.

Ultimately, these three final areas are the ones in which we’ve learned most about what it means to get a good design beyond concepts and into complex reality. It doesn’t always work out, but at least considering them in everything that we do makes us more likely to be a lot more helpful and ultimately help our clients allocate the most appropriate resources for the most potential return. And that, after all, is what all of our clients are in the business of doing.


More about Fjord

Fjord designs transformational digital services.

If your organisation needs to harness the power of service design to innovate across digital platforms, Fjord can help you meet the challenge. We’re one of Europe’s leading digital service design agencies, envisioning and building connected interfaces to shape the future.

For almost a decade, Fjord’s experience, dedication and people have delivered solutions that make a real difference to our clients, who include global telecoms and technology giants and major media owners, plus some of the brightest new startup ventures.

In December 2010 Fjord was ranked 29th in The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100, confirming our position as the fastest-growing service design consultancy in the UK and EMEA.


More about John Oswald
John is Fjord’s Business Design Lead in London. He helps prove the business value of great design, either through business cases, clear and concise stakeholder communications, or KPI models. His clients at Fjord have included ITV, Vodafone, RIM, Nokia, Orange and Barclays, as well as startups.

The intersection of business and design is increasingly critical to success in a service-driven economy. His role is to work with Fjord’s clients to make this tangible and real.

He comes from a consulting background, having worked at Accenture and Amdocs consulting, particularly in telecommunications but also media & entertainment. In the past he’s focused on KPI modelling, business cases and stakeholder management across various areas like fulfillment, assurance and CRM. He has considerable experience in metrics-driven change, systems implementation and business case development as well as analysis of future business models and how organisations can maximise their online and mobile opportunities.



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