Friday, September 23, 2016

Bottoms Up Plus Top Down Equals Design Thinking?

A Modern Topsy Turvy Doll
One of the hottest topics in one of the online Design Thinking discussion groups has to do with the nature of DT; Is it an authentically valid problem identification and resolution approach or a fraudulent repackaging of old ideas in an effort to drive more money into the pockets of consultants?

One aspect of this question which I haven't seen discussed much relates to the differences in the Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up approaches to design, problem solving and learning. These were discussed very nicely in two articles; one by Dipwal Dessai,  Director of Product at Samsung VR and the other by Allison Toepperwein and Vince Penman on the Product Design Show;

Dipwal tells a story about discussing a new feature that involved building functionality which had never been done before. In order to design it, they relied on a few assumptions that were difficult to validate without actually building the product. He wrote;

"This reminded me of the fundamental differences between bottom-up vs top-down product development, and two companies that follow them: Google and Apple, and how this approach defines how products are built.

Google believes in being extensively data driven. All the products that are built at Google go through extensive number-crunching and analysis before (well, for the most part). It is very difficult for someone to justify a brand new product as there might not exist enough existing data to validate it.

Apple, on the other hand, is driven by vision. There is, of course, a lot of user research which drives the vision, but Apple has repeatedly built new products which create a new market which never existed before. They have changed the company focus multiple times in major ways that affects more than 50% of their revenue or users. It usually involves the high level teams defining a clear product vision for the company, and everyone working towards executing on that path.

Creating something that is truly groundbreaking is extremely difficult to validate using existing data, so it relies on having clear vision of what is going to be useful. It is also very difficult to create something using iterative, data driven techniques to change people’s behavior significantly. It is, however, a great way to do incremental improvements to an existing product and get big results and can work quite well until someone ‘changes the game’. A top-down, vision driven strategy can refute the existing mindset to create something truly revolutionary, but it relies on a ‘leader’ being able to analyze the data they have and define the new 'vision’ clearly.

Having a clear overall vision for the company also helps the project teams know what’s good and bad, because they have a clear path which they can follow to be successful. The vision has to be broad enough to consider global trends, but also sharp enough that it can be followed, This is absolutely the most critical thing for the long term success of a company.

One can also argue that the difference is similar to a democracy vs dictatorship. On paper, under the ideal conditions, dictatorship based governance can be more efficient. However, its more prone to ‘rogue dictators’ which leads us to the belief that democracy is better in the long term.

In the end, getting the right vision is extremely difficult, but is arguably the biggest factor in determining long-term success of a company. As someone building new products, I always strive to have a very clear direction for where the product should go in the long term, and if that vision is right, the pieces will fit in as its executed."

Vince and Allison discuss the same subject in this video from the web page. 

To summarize;

Which design method will work best for your project? Consider the following:

1. Will your Product Concept Phase be heavily experimental? Are you trying to make something completely new? If so, a Bottom-Up iterative approach might be best for your project.

2. Is your project constrained by a tight budget? If so, a Top-Down approach can help you maximize savings by thoroughly planning budgets at the beginning of your product concept design cycle.

3. Are you building a large, complex system? Complex systems and machines benefit from a Top-Down approach because it breaks down a project’s goals into smaller problems that are more easily solved.

4. For your project to be successful will you need everyone’s voice to be heard? If the problem you’re trying to solve is going to require a lot of creativity a Bottom-Up approach can help leverage all of the creativity in your group by letting them experiment and voice their opinions.

Of course, that raises the question; What do you do when you are trying to design a completely new, large, complex system, on a tight budget and need everyone's voice to be heard? In the video they don't give that process a name, but they do on the website;

"While some insist that one approach is better than the other, those who are invested in the Design Thinking methodology know that a blend of the two approaches often produces the best results."

What would you call that? Apparently Bottom Up + Top Down = Design Thinking.

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