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Informed Design

Harnessing the Power of Design to Grow Your Business

December 07, 2023 6 minute read

The impact of innovation on the growth of small and medium-sized businesses.

Ian Chalmers recently took part in a panel discussion on the power of design and the impact of innovation on the growth of small and medium-sized businesses as part of the City of Toronto’s Small Business Forum held in Toronto on October 30th. The presentation was hosted by the Design Industry Advisory Committee (DIAC).

Design is more than just aesthetics. It plays a critical role in the process of future-proofing small and medium-sized businesses through the promotion of innovation and sustainability. Strategic design is about how we create products and services to develop experiences that allow us to build relationships with them and also the companies that are behind them. In effect, design is a strategic tool that businesses need to leverage to drive meaningful change and achieve long-lasting success.

How does design contribute to innovation for small and medium-sized enterprises?

Typically, at Pivot, we work with companies doing what our other speakers do. We follow a strategic process that some of you may know of called Discovery. In User Experience, Discovery begins with understanding people. In other words, who are our users? Where do they come from? What are their needs? What are their constraints and motivations? Understanding their behaviour is a vital part of the process. We do things like field research, observation (watching what people do), and asking them questions when interacting with a product, service or environment. This is critical for learning about behaviours and motivations in understanding that our assumptions are right or wrong. We are in a constant state of learning, pivoting and adapting. It is a big part of how we move forward. It’s about understanding people, understanding the business, understanding the marketplace and then understanding context. Context is everything: people, where they live, their geography, the technological constraints and use (or lack thereof). Inclusive design is a methodology about understanding not only who is included but who is being excluded. And how we design for as many people as possible, especially those on the margins. Diversity, equity & inclusiveness (DEI) should be a priority for all businesses today.

Discovery opens you up to understanding, so you can build up a brief, and then validate it through observation and interviews, ultimately leading to an assumption or hypothesis. Then, you design and put your creation out into the world. Then you test, then you learn, and then you pivot and start all over again. Keep going in and out, in and out, until you get it right. This is the essence of the process that a business needs to do more of rather than just do it once.

From the design perspective, can you elaborate on how design fits with experience and how that translates into innovation? Does experience matter?

Innovation comes from observing, learning from watching people who use your products. Imagine if you designed a product and put it in front of your customers and said, for example, “Try to open this drawer or use this button,” and they couldn’t. Then you have learned something. We make so many assumptions and have so many biases that we need to put aside if we are going to ask questions to get our users to open up. If you ask someone to use a product, you’ll learn a great deal about what they think about it and what they care (or don’t care) about it. That’s your insight towards your innovation so you can change your product slightly to make it better. And then you should do it again in six months.

Let’s talk about sustainability and innovation. What role does design play in building the sustainability and resilience of small and medium-sized businesses?

Regenerative design should be top of mind: circularity, circular design, circular economy. We’re very much in our learning mode in these areas. Regenerative design is really fascinating because it just makes sense. We’re currently in that linear model of “take, make, waste,” and that’s the way of it. The good news is that some groups and companies are beginning to think in another way. They’re starting to think “circular” and regenerate and reuse products whenever they can. Obviously, it is a lot easier to do this in the digital space because it is dematerialized, but there is also an impact that digital has that we don’t see. Regenerative design is something businesses need to think about a lot more in order to move forward into the future.

How can small and medium-sized enterprises build design within their businesses?

We’re talking about the design processes and how to use it in your small business, learn from your competition and adapt this into your business planning. Learn from your mistakes. If you are a small business, there are several things you can do. Hire a designer with expertise in these processes or take a course to teach you how to do some yourself. You could partner with someone who’s design-minded enough to help you or hire a design advisor or a design mentor. Find some way to introduce creative thinking into your business to help you shape your future products. Design is continuous and ongoing, so businesses need ways to embrace design in their development process to continuously improve their products over time.

How does design contribute to the culture and organization of a small business?

When I think of incorporating the design process in a business, prototyping comes top of mind. If you have a service business, you can prototype your future thinking into a model on a whiteboard, with the idea, “This is where we are now, and this is where we want to be.” In other words, you’re constantly thinking in a prototyping, iterative mode. It is the best mindset that you can have. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes; you can learn, make changes (apologize), and explain openly how you will do things differently, this becomes part of your brand storytelling to customers, show them you want to serve them better. Design is a process that never ends.

Any final thoughts on the power of design?

You need to have an endlessly curious mindset for your business. You’re constantly learning; as you progress through your business, you will make mistakes, and you will get better. Everything you need is already out there. You just need to be curious enough and be open to learning, adapting and evolving.