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The shift to Physical-Digital design teams ... are you ready?

April 04, 2018

Theresa Emanuel was born in 1877, before electricity and cars. Back then outhouses, horse and buggy, candles, and quill pens were everyday parts of life. 

My great-great grandma passed away in 1987, living to be 110 years old when briefcase-sized cell phones, microwaves and a man on the moon were our new world. I am filled with wonder imagining her life through a century filled with change. A separate article would be necessary to give justice to the story of her personal journey. However, from almost any perspective, the themes of adaptation, evolution and perseverance prevail.

As a designer and business owner today, I imagine how businesses in the early 1900s adapted to the new world. Followers had no choice but to adapt. As we’ve all experienced, “new-to-market” products rarely equate to good, human-centered design. This requires evolution and perseverance. Industrial Design didn’t even emerge as a professional practice until the early 19th century. Interaction Design (UX/UI design) emerged even later. Service design just began to emerge in the last decade.

Life today looks very different than Theresa’s, but the world is changing just as dramatically. With new sci-fi-like technology, dizzying speed of business (startups and M&As), and sophisticated, well-established design practices – as it relates to design, our physical and digital worlds are colliding and moving toward the anticipation of seamless, blended experiences. Whether you like it or not.

Wi-Fi enabled flights and interactive software projections on shopping mall floors for kids are old news. The Internet of Things (IoT) has introduced us to a multitude of connected products and experiences linking our physical and digital worlds. While products like health trackers and security systems are maturing, many products are still categorically misguided experiments.

On the cutting edge are more immersive experiences. In entertainment, The VOID is a whole-body, fully immersive experience for groups that combines on-location interactive sets and real-time technology effects, most recently introducing a Star Wars experience with Disney. While much of what we hear about virtual reality (VR) in entertainment is changing consumer expectations, it holds life-changing promise for other applications. Healthcare is leveraging VR to ease the stress and pain of chronic health issues, comforting children requiring a long hospital stay, and speeding up recovery after stroke to name a few applications. VR and augmented reality (AR) hold promise, supported by the government, and are being widely adopted by design and innovation professionals. 

Integrated digital-physical products are here to stay and businesses need to prepare to adapt.

As Forrester said in a recent article, “AR will bridge online and offline experiences. Combined with other technologies, AR will sense and interact with our environment and provide the physical context required for more personalized consumer experiences. This online/offline interaction will serve as a fount of marketing innovation going forward.”

But for the majority of businesses today, things like VR, AR, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the service economy may seem unfamiliar and a long way out. But, as William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” At minimum, integrated digital-physical products are here to stay and businesses need to prepare to adapt. While this will require critical business model changes, to remain relevant in your company’s evolution, organizations need to aim for an integrated design team and process.

Modeling the future

We can see successful physical-digital solutions serving as a bridge to that big, exciting, scary future. Products like Google Home, Nest, Uber and the Nintendo Switch are familiar examples of successful digital-physical products and services representing arguably good human-centered design. So how are these organizations structured? How do they make sure it gets designed right?

Nintendo is an accessible example, demonstrating the organizational changes required to design digital-physical products and services with good human-centered design. Consider the human-centered design of the Switch. It was designed as a device you can take out anywhere, also a system that enables networking and communication. But there are some unique features that my colleague Ken Soliva points out in his article “The Good Enough Design of the Nintendo Switch” that highlight the thoughtfulness that’s gone into designing this innovative “good-enough” digital-physical experience.

So how did Nintendo do it? First, let’s recognize that they were building from a legacy of design and innovation. But over the last four years, they made some significant organizational changes to bring design teams together. In 2014, they merged their Integrated Research & Development Division and the Research & Engineering Department so console and handheld designers and engineers began working together for first time. In 2015, their new president Tatsumi Kimishima executed a significant revision of their organizational structure, including the combination of key divisions including two that resulted in driving design.

One was the Entertainment Planning & Development Division (EPD), focused on the development of games and software for Nintendo platforms and mobile devices. The other was the Platform Technology Development Division (PTD) consolidating both software and hardware development for Nintendo platforms into a single division so they could more broadly and efficiently design and develop new products and services. This group is responsible for development of Nintendo hardware, OS, development tools, and network. These organizational integrations unified the Entertainment and the Software divisions so they could begin creating games and entertainment systems together.

While many organizations don’t have the resources to work at Nintendo’s scale, the lesson we can take away is the importance of integrating digital-physical design teams. It’s okay, you can admit how it’s really done most of the time. A hardware product is designed with a placeholder for a screen and when the product requirements for the hardware are defined, someone slaps on a half-baked software interface. And the reverse is true for software, treating hardware interactions as an afterthought. This is not enough. Let’s acknowledge we all need to do better than that. Today, integrated design is table stakes if you expect to deliver a human-centered, digital-physical solution. If you haven’t gone there yet, you’d better get started.

Companies like Nintendo are establishing best practices for us to reference. They do not have siloed teams working on hardware and software or siloed teams working on products and services. They have experts across professional design disciplines working on the same team – industrial designers, interaction designers and service designers. This ensures that neither the hardware nor the software will be an afterthought. It ensures the team is challenging the hardware and software development teams on technology and implementation early enough to inform tradeoffs concurrently. Most importantly, it ensures that the marketing requirements and product requirements defining the hardware and software are established concurrently with the end users(s) in mind so one (hardware or software) is not boxed in while the other is not. Integrated design teams work together to explore options, define requirements and refine solutions in a holistic way.

Working on a smaller scale

So how does my company, with smaller budgets, resources and teams, make that happen?

 Start small – establish at least one champion. Insist that digital and physical requirements get established concurrently and, at minimum, with professional industrial design and interaction design input. Preferably these designers have senior-level applied experience so they can strategically influence research needs and navigate development realities.

If you don’t have the expertise in house, go outside for at least this part. If hardware and software design is forced to be implemented out of order, at least demand requirements be established concurrently up front so user needs are thoughtfully prioritized regardless.

In my article “Connect with success by knowing your blind spots”, I suggest even more specific approaches to navigating these design and innovation blind spots: 1) The right team, 2) Chasing the right target, 3) Platform accommodations and 4) Designing connected experiences.