Designers, engineers, marketers, and brand product owners, will tell you that “users cannot tell you what they want, so how can we bring new products and services that are desirable?” Yet, I think many of us struggle to find “the design approach” and where to insert it in the production cycle timing when delivering solutions comprised of both the physical device and digital experience. As a senior leader within a major solution integration firm, I have witnessed my share of many successful projects that were delivered without invoking the designers to participate. However I know that if designers were used as part of the solution, the projects would have likely turned out as even bigger successes…qualitatively more desirable for users to experience, and quantitatively measured through less rework to the product and higher user adoption rates.

I believe this struggle has its roots in three dimensions; 1.) When software engineering was first developed, SDLCs did not incorporate design as part of the cycle; 2.) Any solution design component must be executed at the speed of business, or it is merely and academic exercise, often adding unwanted time and expense; and 3.) Existing known design practices are not developed yet to fully serve the confluence of the physical device and the digital experience at the reliability standards and speed to market that is required in today’s environment. Designers around the world are exploring many approaches to address these issues such as Design Thinking, User Experience and Digital User Experience (UX & DCX), Look and Feel (UI), Front-end Coding, and most recently Responsive Web Design (RWD). Undoubtedly, all of these elements and more not named here are likely part of the solution, but even after 3 decades, the recipe for a consistent approach eludes us. Designing for the connected physical product and software experiences requires the integration of very different development skill sets and processes. Hardware production calls for product design and engineering in linear, often lengthy development cycles. On the other hand, digital and software design ideally happens in short, modular development loops. The reality is that designers are sporadically invited to participate somewhere along the development cycle, and it is often the case that few of the product creators had a master plan in place on how the design and development should be implemented in a consistent, repeatable fashion when they were first conceived. It is very likely that someone had an idea and then quickly prototyped what it could be and then got it in front of users…most likely before users expressed what it was they were looking. Once the product showed promise in the marketplace, a more rigid, predictable design and development cycle was then attempted and hopefully implemented.

If you were to enroll in a Masters level design and business program at a leading educational institution today, it is likely that your major would be labeled Design Thinking.  The use of Design Thinking, as defined by Tim Brown of IDEO “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity,” can enable organizations to overcome these complex design challenges and rethink business models that are comprised of both the physical and the digital. Nice words, but what role does Design Thinking actually play in the birth of technology solutions that are wanted and used by people?

Is the Design Thinking process recipe too confining for designers who have a natural instinct to rebel against, planned out, repeatable patterns on how they deliver work?  Or is it as I suspect, the beginnings of guidelines that designers can start putting together a repeatable, effective approach to designing for today’s physical and digital needs. I do suggest that Design Thinking will need to be modified as it has its roots in  Bauhaus and the design and production of the physical object, chiefly expressed in the architecture of buildings in the 1930’s and as yet has not made the necessary evolutionary leap to properly service today’s design needs.

Of course, it is also entirely possible that today’s pioneers exploring the potential uses of the 3D printing of intelligent objects built on demand with unique identifiers will send us down a path to a whole new design methodology as yet undefined. Or it could be it the engineers… the  “Nicola Tesla” of today’s world executing with a singular focus that makes unpredictable breakthroughs that become highly desirable to users even before they know that they want it by? Remember that Tesla quickly left Thomas Edison’s rigid R&D lab structure as he found it too slow and confining.  In either reality it is likely that whoever is successful might become the next crop of future Digital CEOs in the brave new world.