An interview by Diana Fehr / July 2022
Deborah Nas is a technology enthusiast, keynote speaker, entrepreneur, and professor of Strategic Design for Technology-Based Innovation at the University of Delft. She is a thought leader in technology-based innovation and has been an active participant in the tech innovation space for the last 25 years. From working with startups to serving as a consultant for companies looking to future-proof their innovation strategies, her experience has given her valuable insights into the factors behind the failure or success of new tech products.
MuseoSpace: The title of your book is „Design Things That Make Sense“. Why do you use the term “things”, and not “products”?
Deborah Nas: Innovations based on technologies are often a combination of products, services, business models, infrastructures, data, or even entire ecosystems. They become “things” that are increasingly more challenging to define.
MuseoSpace: The title implies that many things designed today don’t make sense. What is your view on this?
Deborah Nas: Indeed, many “things” launched on the market don’t really make sense to the people they are intended for. There’s too much of a “technology push” going on, in other words; the development of technology for the sake of technology, just because it can be done. Very often, technology is not applied in a meaningful way; it doesn’t create a clear value and the product or service simply doesn’t make sense.
When consumers look at these products, they start questioning: What is this for? What is its value? Why is it better than what I have? If we don’t apply technology in a meaningful way, it will never be successful and we will continue wasting materials, money, and human resources.
MuseoSpace: What inspired you to write this book in the first place and how can it help designers put Human-Centred Design at the core of their innovation?
Deborah Nas: I’ve been working with innovation teams for over 25 years, helping them apply technology in a meaningful way and develop strong value propositions. Over time, translating consumer needs into meaningful products has become a skill that, as I found out when I started teaching, is difficult to explain to others, mainly due to the lack of an overview of possible product benefits that an innovator could base their value proposition on.
I embarked upon a journey to create this overview, by delving into numerous theories on technology, adoption, resistance, retention and psychology. Each of these offered a specific perspective on human needs, but on its own was incomplete and somehow incompatible. I then took all of these theories, broke them down into the smallest possible building blocks, and analysed them in the context of case studies, with the goal of figuring out what makes a product successful and what doesn’t. From my research I developed 24 design strategies to strengthen product benefits and 13 to mitigate consumer resistance.
MuseoSpace: What do you mean by strengthening product benefits and mitigating consumer resistance?
Deborah Nas: Simply put: all end users need to see the value of a product or service, because only then they will love it and ultimately use it for a very long time. Furthermore, we need to design our products in such a way that we mitigate any possible resistance to them. For example, we need to make sure that people don’t have to worry about privacy, compatibility, technology being quickly outdated, etc. Tech innovation teams often consist of innovators and early adopters that don’t naturally think about these issues upfront, as personally they quickly embrace new technological innovations despite possible drawbacks.
Most people, however, are not first in line to get their hands on new technological innovations, and in general, tend to stick to what they know. This is where the concept of “loss aversion” comes into play, which in the context of innovation means that we overvalue what we have today, and we undervalue the new thing that we are not familiar with.
MuseoSpace: I see, so essentially it is clear that user needs must be at the center of innovation. Understanding what creates value, and what the drivers behind resistance are, helps innovators step into the end user’s shoes, which is where the Tech Design Strategies come into play. So how can innovators use these Tech Design Strategies effectively?
Deborah Nas: The book comes with a toolkit that can be downloaded for free from the website. These tools can help innovators in a variety of ways: to understand competitor’s successes and failures, to generate ideas, and to fine-tune value propositions. They can be used by individuals or teams in a workshop setting, for which workshop manuals can also be downloaded from the website.
MuseoSpace: Can you share some of the knowledge you have acquired from success stories?
Deborah Nas: When analysing various case studies I looked for successful products and deconstructed them in order to discover what I like to call “recipes for success”. One of these “recipes for success” is using technology to fix the drawbacks of current solutions, as was done for example by the mobility service provider “Uber”. Their success came from understanding the key reasons for why people did not use a taxi as a mode of transport, which ultimately come down to the following: not having the right contact details, not knowing your exact location, not being able to verify travel times, not knowing how long it will take for your taxi to get to you, and only knowing the cost of your journey once you have reached your destination.
Uber used modern technology to solve all these challenges, in a very easy-to-use mobile app. People loved the solution and the company became hugely successful, but now it is starting to cause various societal challenges which highlight that there is much more to consider than just designing a great product, especially when it comes to scale and the potential future impact of innovation on society.
MuseoSpace: Your example once again makes it evident that technology-based innovation is a complex interplay of many different elements that ultimately make a product successful. So there are clearly parallels between technology-based and social innovation. Would you also say that they have similar drivers and barriers?
Deborah Nas: Yes and no. Of course they both focus on fulfilling end user needs, however, in social innovation there are numerous direct and indirect stakeholders whose needs and interests need to be addressed, making it much more complex, but nevertheless not any less important than technology-based innovation, which is about using new technologies to create value, meaning that they both play a crucial role in the intended system change in social innovation.
MuseoSpace: How are younger generations of innovators, specifically your students, working with the Tech Design Strategies?
Deborah Nas: This is one of the very few design tools that was specifically developed to design tech products, as in most modern-day innovation challenges, technology plays a key role.
I find it very inspiring to work with younger generations. They grew up in a different time than I did, have a different frame of reference, look at the world differently, and are evermore purpose-driven to create products and services for the greater good. We need different perspectives in our innovation teams, and younger generations bring in a new and valuable input. However, it is important to keep in mind that diversity goes way beyond age; it’s also about gender, cultural backgrounds, religion, and mindset.
Deborah Nas: Let me explain this by sharing some examples of the things that can go wrong if you don’t have diverse teams. The safety belt in a car is much safer for men than for women, meaning that women have a much higher chance of serious injuries when being involved in an accident. Furthermore, women are often cold in offices because the heating and cooling system is modelled on men, whose bodies generate more heat. There have been hand blowers that only worked on light skin, simply because nobody thought about testing the sensor on dark skin. Most often, these non-inclusive designs are not intentional, but rather come from a lack of diversity in innovation teams, proving once again that diversity is key to successful innovation.
MuseoSpace: How do you see your own role moving forward? How will you help innovators design “things that make sense”?
Deborah Nas: My added value comes from sharing knowledge, educating, developing tools and methodologies, and sharing case studies. At the same time, I help startups and corporations to develop their tech innovations into better value propositions. By simultaneously participating in hands-on innovation and developing new theories, I create value for innovators worldwide.
MuseoSpace: Thank you for this interview and I wish you the best of luck with your work!
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Images: Portrait (William Rutten), Deborah Nas