Right now is an exciting time for design. Huge names like Twitter and Facebook have wholeheartedly embraced it into their culture, and business leaders are starting to see the true impact design can have.
One of the companies at the root of this change is GV – recently rebranded from Google Ventures – a company dedicated to providing venture capital to startups. When Braden Kowitz became the team's first designer in 2010, rumours of this change were already afoot. "It was a time when CEOs had been hearing that design was important, but they didn't quite know what that meant," he recalls. "Many of them didn't have any designers on staff."
Kowitz had been working as a user experience designer at Google, developing products like Gmail and Google Apps, but the opportunity to work with businesses at the start of their journey caught his imagination. "At that stage, design can have a big impact on what the company does and what the company is," he says.
He explains that although design is now very prominent in tech giants like Google and Facebook, that shift has taken place very gradually, over the past 10 years. "I'm interested in getting into companies when they are three people, or when they're 10 people. And hopefully those companies will grow up to be at the same scale. We're creating many big tech companies that have design in their DNA."
Developing new habits from sprints
In the early days at GV, Kowitz would cycle around to the different startups in San Francisco, dedicating a month or so to each, helping them solve problems and guiding them towards a design-led approach.
In time, though, it became clear that effecting a real change was no easy task. Kowitz recalls how company founders would ask him how they could embrace design in their business, and he would go in and explain the basic design process and the team they would need. They would nod and agree with everything he said, but very rarely would there be any change in the organisation afterwards. He points out that while altering your habits as an individual is hard, altering the habits of an organisation is much harder.
The solution, although it would take a while to fully mature, was to develop a process that any company could follow: the five-day design sprint. The methodology lays out a way for companies to solve any design problem within the course of one working week, and has been making waves in the web industry.
It goes something like this: discuss the problem at hand on Monday, sketch your solutions on Tuesday, pick your favourite on Wednesday, prototype it on Thursday, test it with users on Friday, and be out of the office in time for end-of-the-week drinks.
It's explored in detail in Sprint, the book Kowitz co-authored with fellow GV design partners Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.
"We decided to show people a very good design process and get them hooked on it. That's part of what a sprint is," Kowitz explains. "When we work with teams, we force them through the process in a very condensed period, so they can see all the way from ideation through to prototyping and testing. Often companies will come back and say things like, 'Wow, you saved us three months of effort.'" This leaves companies more open to embracing other changes, because they have seen firsthand the impact design can have.
The sprint process is also a practical solution to the GV design team's burgeoning day-to-day responsibilities. GV now has over 320 companies on its books, and with only five designers on the team, it's clear those days of breezily cycling between startups for a month at a time are gone. With the sprint, GV has an efficient way to teach companies the entire design process.
"Sometimes I think of it as being like a recipe," muses Kowitz. "There are thousands of ways to make a cake and there are thousands of ways to practise design. But if you're just getting started in the kitchen, or if you're just getting started with design, sometimes you just need a recipe.
"It may not be the only way you do it or the best way to do it in this instance, but it'll get you started. And by doing it you'll understand more about what design thinking is and what the design process is, and the value behind prototyping and talking to customers."
How design sprints help clients
One project that benefited from the approach was Blue Bottle Coffee, a startup coffee roaster that has since gone international. When Kowitz visited the company, it was looking at moving into delivering coffee via the post and via its website. After one week together, GV and Blue Bottle Coffee had created prototypes and tested them with customers.
The feedback from the user tests had led them to a novel solution. "Most people sell coffee by region. You'll go into the store and they'll go, 'Here's some Kenyan coffee; here's some Colombian coffee.' And it turns out very few people know what those would taste like," smiles Kowitz.
Instead, Blue Bottle Coffee focuses on how the potential customer brews their coffee at home. Different roasting styles and types of coffee are more suited to particular brewing methods: in a coffee maker or in an espresso machine, for example.
"By asking a simple question that people know how to answer, we can very quickly pare down the coffees available to ones that are more likely to be great-tasting for them, and make them feel more confident in their choice," Kowitz points out.
In order to really get to the nub of the problem, and in line with sprint guidelines, GV assembled everyone from the CEO to the director of operations for the process. That might seem like overkill, but Kowitz resolutely believes that having a range of viewpoints feeding into the sprint is vital to reaching an effective solution quickly.
The founder can provide insight into the key business aims, while the person responsible for delivering the beans to customers might understand the operations pipeline in a way that no one else could.
Design sprints as a team effort
Getting everyone together has also had the effect of showing that creative ideas can come from unexpected places. "Designers often think of themselves as a tribe. We call ourselves 'creatives' and we think we're the ones that are going to come up with all the good solutions," laughs Kowitz. "But time and time again I've found that so many people in organisations are creative. If you give them the time and the ability and the encouragement to sketch out ideas, great ideas come from all sorts of places."
This ties in with another of Kowitz's beliefs: that design knowledge should not be solely the preserve of designers. Although people may be adamant that they're most effective when they're focusing purely on whatever they see as their job, a little crossover into other disciplines can have a huge positive impact.
He draws parallels with the early days of software engineering, when there would be a team writing code, and a totally separate team responsible for testing that code. Having one team motivated by speed and another motivated by quality didn't make for a smooth workflow, nor did it lead to great products.
In many organisations today, the picture looks similar. The engineering and product teams are mostly focused on speed, and the design team is tasked with making sure it's a product customers will love.
Just as the software quality movement upended the software engineering process, Kowitz thinks attitudes to design are headed for a change. "We're finding that design quality does have to be everyone's job. And that means some other people in the organisation are going to have to probably spend a bit of time on design activities."
To clarify, Kowitz is not suggesting everyone should be a whizz in Photoshop or that CEOs should be booking themselves on to colour theory courses. He points to user research as a particular example; for non-designers, it can be extremely valuable to watch the research process. "It turns out that if we don't understand what our customers need or what they want, all the little decisions we make along the way are not going to be as good."
Critique as part of design sprints
Ask Kowitz what the future of design looks like, and he'll mention a word that most designers dread: critique. "In fields where you can't measure the effectiveness of your work, often the only way you have to tell what's good is self-critique and community critique," he explains. This inward-looking process has led to a view that the design industry is just a bunch of people making beautiful things for each other.
However, as design takes a more prominent role, the demands placed on designers are rising. "As design starts to move into the core of businesses, we can develop much better measures of whether design is working," says Kowitz.
"We have to move away from just designing things our peers appreciate and into effectiveness. Do our designs actually work? Do they make the company better? Do they make the experience better for customers? That's very much stuff that we can measure and get better at. And I think that is where design is going."
Photography: Brian Tan
This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 281.