Disrupting Markets By Design

Last week I had a chance to attend Disrupting Markets By Design. What I expected was musings on design as a competitive advantage accompanied by Apple anecdotes. Or maybe a case for lean thinking for designers and the need to fail fast by using quantitative research methods. What I got instead was a compelling and nuanced review of the importance of empathy.

Co-founder/CEO of Orchestra, Gentry Underwood, spoke about his founding design insight: Email is being used as a terrible To Do list. With this in mind, he created Mailbox, later to be acquired by Dropbox. Rather than constantly pivoting from one customer to the next, the team held on to the empathy they had built around Mailbox. In contrast to the lean startup approach, design is based on a deeply rooted insight, which makes opportunistic pivoting a non-option.Linden Tibbets gave us the backstory on the ever exciting If This Then That.I have used and loved this service more than a year now for its big buttons, its plain language approach to automated operation, its use of familiar icons as words. But the tidbit that co-founder and CEO Tibbets gave us was that the 72pt font was a functional contribution to the end goal. IFTTT secretly tricks the common man into programming — so an activity that’s scary to most people becomes familiar.

“By using a really big font size, we were able to reset people’s expectations.” — Linden Tibbets

Underwood expanded upon Tibbets’ notion of changing minds. “Whenever you’re creating something new, your goal is to show how it will affect people’s life in a meaningful way; how it will make them feel.”Anne Raimondi from TaskRabbitexplained that you not only have to show your customer how your product feels, but also your employees. Here, every product person is a design person, and every employee has to be a rabbit. By bringing those employees into the product experience, they have better ideas. What they lose in their CEO’s schedule, they gain in empathy and shared context.
Evan Baehr from Outbox was another example of disruptive thinking inside a box. He spoke about their need to make the new familiar through use of skeuomorphism. The service collects your mail, scans it in, then presents it via a paper-like interface. Invoking Clayton Christensen, Evan explained that the job done by mail for housewives in Texas is to bond with their husbands. Their focus on empathy-building led them to develop a product that doesn’t just scan paper, but rather creates a letter opening experience. Might be a bit too much empathy on this one, but my fiancée wants to sign up.

“…design is as applicable to finding product market fit as it is to the world of design services or large product development projects.” — Gentry Underwood

Underwood summarized a belief that many on the panel seemed to share: design is as applicable to finding a product market fit as it is to the world of design services or large product development projects. What’s important in disruption might not be so disruptive after all: adapting technological opportunities to the fears, hopes, and goals of people.

Patrick Keenan

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