This is the third in a series of blog posts sharing the results of our study on the business value of experience design. Read the last post here. In this post, we explore the value of knowing the industry: Applying the unique demands and challenges that the industry category brings to remain competitive and relevant.
In 1944, British grad student John Hellins Quick wrote a detailed technical description of the Turbo Encabulator, a device “to measure inverse reactive current in unilateral phase detractors with display of percent realization.” It went into great detail on features like “panadermic semi-boloid stator slots” and accessories such as the “interelectrode diffusion integrator.” It’s all very convincing but in reality, it’s completely fabricated nonsense and a parody of techno-babble which started an inside joke for engineers that continues to this day. It reached some recognition in the 1970s with this sendup of an industrial video and has inspired variations like this brilliant explanation of the Donnely nut spacing and cracked system rim-riding grip configuration.
The genius of the Turbo Encabulator is how it calls attention to the esoteric details that every expert, every wonk and every geek knows about how things get done – in the weeds and in the trenches where the rubber meets the road. It became a fun competition to see who can come up with the most ridiculous technical explanation, but it’s also a kind of test to see who is smart enough to know that it’s an inside joke. This “test” is an important ritual for vetting who has the requisite knowledge to get a seat the table as companies look for insiders and experts who are ready to get started on day one. For the design professional, this often means coming in with industry experience and a point of view that will give the team a head start on understanding the customer.
Industry knowledge creates a few advantages for the designer by building a level of built-in customer empathy. For example, understanding what it’s like for a construction manager to order supplies from the job site for the next day is a head start on audience and persona definition. Knowing the difference between a payor and payer – if there is one – might be a head start on building a content strategy. Understanding the needs of both a patient and the provider when finding a doctor and booking an appointment is a head start on task and user story development. And knowing what interactions make sense when making a table reservation at a restaurant may jump start the design of the same find-a-doctor experience because half of the user research can be explained in those expectations.
All things being equal, industry knowledge is like home field advantage for the design process. It’s a head start because it can shortcut some of the empathy building that comes from up-front research or reduce the initial onboarding and orientation time. It can shortcut some of the ideation cycles when the design starts with experiences and interactions that are already proven to work. At the same time, the design process can also be stunted by old ideas and an experience that lacks differentiation or truly authentic empathy. You’ll get a head start but you may be disappointed with the degree of originality. No worries, we still have strategy and design techniques for that. But better yet, we can borrow from one wellspring of industry knowledge to inform another. This crossover is valuable when one industry is trying to emulate an interaction or experience pattern to innovate on a customer problem, such as the aforementioned table reservation influencing the design of an experience to book a doctor’s appointment.
Knowing your projects’ industry and business environment up front is a fast way to build empathy and get a head start on the design process, getting you to market faster or leaving more time to spend innovating on truly differentiating ideas. More importantly, it can make the difference between splay-flexed brace columns and pin-flam-fastened pan traps.
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