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Are you designing a Product Ecosystem that engages the heart and mind?

Ben DruceVice President, Strategic Design

Companies that think in terms of a ‘product ecosystem’ will trounce rivals that come to the market with a more myopic view of success, says Francois Nguyen, principal designer at Frog, a global product strategy and design firm that has become internationally recognized for its innovation.

To create product ecosystems, companies may have to leave behind their comfortable ways of thinking, which may be challenging.

Nguyen encapsulated the idea of product ecosystems in a recent discussion with Planet Innovation principal designer, Ben Druce, who recently visited Frog’s global headquarters in San Francisco.

From obvious to distruptive

Ben: Before we talk about product ecosystems, can I ask how do you move your clients beyond the obvious and the safe to the surprising and disruptive?

Francois: I always remember what Picasso said: ‘Art is a lie that reveals the truth.’ There is something in that. You exaggerate one thing and you get another truth about a different solution.

When companies come looking for out-of-the-box thinking it can be difficult for them to be comfortable in that space of ambiguity. We have been fortunate in that most of the people who come to Frog are already open to new thinking. But we do run into clients who have a hard time letting go of things even though they want to.

There are several workshops we have that help them. One of our tools is called a Frog Think and it is a way of getting clients to change their way of thinking. It’s a form of lateral thinking borrowed from Edward de Bono. We do different exercises with the client. There is one called ‘provocation’, for example. You’ll take things that you take for granted and completely flip it on its head. You go to this inverse way of thinking to shake up the way you think and extract possible solutions out of that.

In addition to the exercises, we bring fresh approaches. And that’s a strength of consultancies, right? Our clients have way more information on their subject than we do. They have been in it for a long time. But this may have caused them to carve a very deep groove that is hard to get out of, and it may now be limiting them. Our advantage as a consultancy is that we bring a fresh perspective.

B: An approach we often adopt is stepping back from solution mode and re-framing the question. We are all inclined to try and solve problems when in fact sometimes what the situation requires of us is to look at the problem from a different point of view. Do you find this?

F: Yes. And sometimes our clients come to us because they are not sure what they really want. They might say they need ‘something’ in their business, but we aren’t sure what – we think it is a new product. And if they are open, we work with them, and it may turn out that they don’t need a new product – but what they need is a new service or a new distribution channel or a restructuring of the business model, or something like that.

What is product success?

B: Defining product success can be done on several levels. Firstly, ‘Was it a market success?’ In addition to tracking the numbers, though, it is rewarding to see your products in the hands of people and watching their reaction as they interact with that product for the first time. I once saw a client hug a medical device I helped design, which brought a smile to my face.

F: How do we define success? It’s an important question. Are we going to measure that by return on investment, or achieving a certain sales target? Or are you hoping to elevate awareness for brand identity. Once you are clear on your objective, that informs things like your BOM (bill of materials) costs and whether it is just a cheaper version of last year’s model and then you can work around those constraints.

Of course when you buy an object you are rarely just buying that product independently. It ties into a bigger picture; it ties into an identity, a brand. And brand is just another word for identity. And when you select things in your life, you are supporting that identity and what it ties to. With some companies it’s hard to not own many of their products as part of their ecosystem.

Think ‘Product Ecosystem’ not ‘Individual Product’

B: Ecosystem is a great term. It builds on the concept ‘product family’ and immediately draws in so many elements that a designer needs to consider if they are to have impact not just on a client’s product but on their business.

F: Yes. It’s not about a product; it’s about their ecosystem. And the ecosystem of a company’s brand and suite of products. You might want to look at it from this level: You have a physical product that fits into a suite of physical products that fits into a bigger ecosystem that may entail services and digital content and support. And these tie into the company’s brand philosophy, which ties into how it positions itself in the world. And that then ties into your personal choice and your identity and whether you want that product and that company as part of your life.

Now, some people choose things because they believe in the company; others choose things for more pragmatic reasons. Some people are very frugal-minded and they automatically gravitate to whatever gets the job done in the most cost-effective way. For those people, that’s their brand as well.

For start-ups, the product is the brand

B: I love the concept of an ecosystem. It helps you consider all the layers, starting with the physical product and expanding to include the augmented product elements, services, company brand and finally the brand of the purchaser. With start-ups, of course, their first product is their brand. And when they are just trying to survive and raise funds and get their product to market it can be difficult for them to think really strategically about their brand.

F: True. And I have seen this with start-ups who have a limited budget. The thing is, it is very myopic; they are only thinking for the short term. And if you set forth something that hasn’t been thought through with your brand identity and what you stand for, you can run into problems later if it becomes successful and you have to change it. I always encourage them to think bigger picture – never the one-off solution. And that’s the big question. Are you trying to win the whole game or just the quarter?

Intangibles matter

B: I think that if a designer wants to be considered more than just a tactical resource but as a trusted advisor they need to be able to work with their client and satisfy both the short-term imperatives and lay a strategic roadmap for the future success of their business. That involves generating discussion around the bigger picture and essence of the brand.

F: A lot of companies who end up focused on the physicality of the product don’t see the value of the intangibles and the perception of the brand. They are not taking the time to create, particularly in their first offering, something that establishes the blueprint to the DNA from which other products will emerge and grow, that share the same characteristics.

It’s important to think about what the ‘design language’ is for that first offering. What are the signature elements that give this product character that distinguishes itself visually from the competitors? You only get one chance to make a first impression and the worst thing you can have is someone say, ‘Oh, that looks like this or that.’

B: This can be a more common problem in highly technical products, where the whole process can be skewed to capturing product specifications or technical requirements but maybe not the intangible elements to anywhere near the same degree.

F: Yes. The question becomes, ‘How do you provide evidence that there is value in those intangibles?’

You can point to examples of successful products. You can look at examples that don’t have physical products and look at things like service, commitment and things that distinguish some brands from the others. I would say with physical products those intangibles are not only the product’s philosophy but also the story behind the product. It might be that the product is made locally or is green. Also, things like the packaging and positioning within the retail space count. How does the product open and reveal itself can play a role. And what are the careful little considerations to avoid that are excessive? Is there a piece of plastic you can throw out which might be easily replaced with paper, for example?

There are many touch points before one even approaches the physical product. Who are the distributors you position the product through? The nature of the marketing campaign? All these little touch points, right down to picking up the actual object itself, convey to the consumer what this product and company is about.

Seeking brand alignment with clients

B: Planet Innovation tends to focus on companies and products where we can have a positive impact on the world. Does Frog look to work with certain types of companies?

F: Yes. We ask ourselves, ‘Are these the sort of products we want to work with?’ Are they on-brand with our brand – given what we believe in and what Frog represents? Then there are certain considerations regards financial threshold and – importantly – are these people going to be good to work with?

So that prequalification process is three things: knowing the type of relationship it will be; having alignment of brand (ensuring what the client stands for and what you stand for are in alignment); and then, once again, practical and tactical aspects of resources available and costs, etc.

The ingredients to a successful partnership

B: Like entering all relationships, though, there is a leap of faith required, and I believe that having trust and building trust is probably the most important ingredient to a successful engagement.

F: Absolutely. The first piece of advice I would give a new client is to be open and trust us. The client must be serious if they have brought us on board to advise them – but if they just want a pair of hands to execute something, then they don’t need a full-service company like Frog.

My second piece of advice to a new client is almost the inverse here, but ‘don’t be afraid to voice your concerns, share your opinions’ and be part of this’.

It’s important that clients be comfortable with ambiguity. That ambiguous space is where some really interesting and creative things can happen and you come up with solutions that you never may have dreamed or anticipated.

I also believe that everyone needs to be committed to the best solution, no matter where it comes from – us, the client … it doesn’t matter.

The right team delivers the right thinking

B: It is interesting where the best ideas can come from, isn’t it? I think that is linked to having the right team on the project. We will often bring people with different backgrounds into a project at a certain point because we think they can contribute new, disruptive, valuable ideas. Do you use a particular technique to choose the right team?

F: There are certain individuals that are best suited for certain products. Some projects demand more practical implementation, and some demand more beautiful design – and there are certain people who are exceptional at that. Some require more engineering and manufacturing aspects and then there are others that are more front-loaded with strategy and interactive solutions. So it’s the nature of each project that determines the team you want to assemble. And sometimes it’s good to mix it up and bring in someone who helps others expand their skill set.

I think it’s very important to move away from just one space and look at other things outside that space to inspire and inform.

There is a saying which I love that is, ‘If you don’t leave the table, you bring nothing new to the table.”

Really fresh thinking comes from passions that indulge outside, whether that is cooking or hiking… and you can pull from a variety of areas. The world is a big space.

For a truly ground breaking solution I think that it should be informed by something bigger and outside of that – rather than being so derivative.

Look at a lot of things.

B: It has been a pleasure to chat with you on this, Francois. The concept of designing a product ecosystem is both inspiring and a powerful reminder to always be thinking about the big picture. I look forward to chatting again soon.

Ben Druce Vice President, Strategic Design
Ben Druce

As VP of Strategic Design, Ben operates at the intersection of design, technology and business, working with clients to understand their business requirements in the broader context of their market and product strategy. He has over 20 years’ experience designing consumer and medical products with a primary focus on delivering an exceptional user experience.

Ben Druce

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