Design with a capital ‘D’

I have just got back from another great trip to California, which often inspires me to write a little. It is a real shame we can’t bottle the enthusiasm, and weather from the West Coast. We could do with both in the UK at the moment.

I’ve been in the digital industry for 18 years and qualified as an industrial designer all the way back in 1995, before setting up my own business at 23 years old. It was 11 years ago, at Internet World 2002, when I met an extremely passionate CEO from Lightmaker, who goes by the name of Rob Noble.

Today Rob is my business partner, and has been for the four and a half years since the start of the exciting journey that became Great Fridays. Over those years we’ve challenged each other’s thinking and battled to create the proposition that exists now at Great Fridays. Being comfortable around reframing our thinking and on occasion shouting at each other through the heat of a good discussion, has been a great foundation for our business. But the Great Fridays proposition certainly didn’t appear overnight. It has taken a number of years, lots of iterations and experiments, failure, success, and a clear understanding of the need to reevaluate our position in the market to arrive where we are now.

The great thing about being a smaller, nimble agency of sixty or so people, is our ability to reinvent ourselves and to react to market needs. One thing we’ve never lost during this proposition evolution is our razor sharp focus to be a global Design business. We want to be the recognised not just in Manchester, not just in London or the UK, but in the entire world. After all, when you have the kind of amazing, talented people that we have at Great Fridays, why wouldn’t you want to take on the world’s best. I have long admired the work of established global agencies including IDEO, and Frog. It was a very sad day last year when Bill Moggridge passed away. Bill’s work and ethos at IDEO, has been one of the foundations of my passion for Design. It has also been satisfying to see a truly Great Brit, have such an impact on the global design industry.

At Great Fridays we want to be regarded as highly as IDEO, so we have set about the long term journey with this in mind. It was hard for the first few years not to focus on provincial awards, and to join the local crowd, but we just couldn’t see the value in it and it certainly wasn’t a measure of how we’d been performing against our vision to be amongst the best Product & Service Design agencies in the world. We measure that evolution and focus by transforming the Design thinking of clients like Thomson Reuters, Vodafone, Pearson, Imagination Technology, PayPal, and Gucci.

Clients come to Great Fridays for our brilliant Design talent and for our ability to deliver against challenges across global business sectors in both emerging markets and those closer to home. Any challenge can be facilitated using Design. That’s not to say that Design can necessarily solve any challenge, but rather that we can use it cleverly – brilliantly even – to simplify and understand the thinking needed to find that solution. My personal crusade is to challenge businesses on the true importance of Design, and the untapped value it can deliver, by connecting like-minded innovators, entrepreneurs, thinkers, technologists, advocates, business leaders and customers. I want to see a Chief Design Officer (CDO) on the board of every major global brands, and start-up. This is what get’s me up in the morning, this is what drives me. Design is a business tool, and directly impacts revenue, profit and value. I want to share my knowledge and experience to help organisations create a Design Authority within their business. This is just the start…


The last 30 years have seen the world embrace technology in an entirely new and all consuming way. Infatuated by its efficiency, its business potential, and its global connectivity:

  • Technology leaders have become CTOs with a voice on the boards of the world’s biggest companies
  • Technology budgets have suddenly eclipsed others
  • The business enabler has become the business leader
  • Organisations have proudly added ‘we are a technology company’ to their existing propositions
  • Design has been pushed to one side – left on the shelf.

I believe we’re now in a transitional phase where it’s at last dawning on large enterprise businesses that while they’ve been preaching about technology, their customers have slowly had their heads turned by the new kids on the block actually practising it. Design needs to be a part of their philosophy, or they could fail.

It’s very easy to use Apple as a great example of a global company that puts Design at the centre of its business. Yes Apple sells us technology, but this isn’t the brilliance of Apple’s strategy and it certainly isn’t the essence of its business. Apple’s genius comes from its ability to own significant parts of our lives by creating a perfect service offering delivered across all channels, so we are seamlessly and inevitably connected to its world. Great Design is hidden in plain sight: it’s everywhere, across the entire service, rather than just a manifestation of a visual user interface. Apple is one of the main drivers of the Design revolution – and yes, it is a revolution!

Definition by Design

Design has a very important connection to the innovation of product, service and business models. For Great Fridays, Design isn’t what or how, it’s why. We live and breathe the thinking necessary to reframe traditional ideologies and turn Design into a business tool. Through great Design we create not only beautiful products and services but also smart new business practices that deliver lasting value.


In today’s world of digital products and services, Design is revenue; Design is profit. Done well, Design drives rapid innovation, faster user adoption and longterm customer loyalty. Done well, Design also creates product development efficiencies that increase profit.

Great Fridays recently opened an office in San Francisco, and for very good reason: my team and I spend a lot of time in the US and around 60 per cent of our business revenue comes from across the pond. Reason enough for strengthening our presence there you may think, but it isn’t the primary motivation. For years Design has been a catalyst for America’s changing business culture, and its epicentre is firmly rooted in the West Coast – something that became abundantly clear to me following a recent visit.

In my last blog I offered a snapshot of the great speakers I had the privilege of hearing at the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Design event at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The event proved that Design was very much an integral component of both new and existing business. Whether it was the brilliance of Tony Fadell’s NEST thermostat, Greg Heard’s fascinating presentation on the evolution of Product & Service Design at AT&T, or Brian Chesky’s comment that venture capitalists wouldn’t invest in startup business today unless Design was represented at board level.  Design was definitely embedded in a new era of business thinking throughout American enterprise.


Great Fridays work with some brilliant clients globally, some of whom are headquartered in the UK.  Real industry pioneers (especially in the technology, banking, and mobile communication sectors) who talk our language and understand that investing in exceptional connected Product & Service Design is the only way to put the customer first, and lead their respective markets.

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One of the biggest problems in the UK is that a significant amount of past Design experience is deeply rooted in marketing and campaign-based legacy. Talking about putting the customer first to a marketing head normally means driving acquisition through campaign-based reactive thinking: ‘How do we sell more products?’ or ‘How do we build a campaign that creates differentiation?’ The other problem is based around budget structure. Traditional marketing-led businesses are structured around silos of activity and budget led by product managers and product marketers. I’m not saying that this approach isn’t valuable, but it is fundamentally different to thinking about how to provide a better service to existing customers.

The key challenge with this marketing led legacy approach is the way in which budgets are structured and understanding how to develop the culture required to shift British enterprise from existing methodologies to newer, Design-led thinking. Apple for instance is not afraid of failure. Failure is perfectly fine and accepted, as long as we learn from why we failed. Product development is iterative: think, make, show and repeat – a process that requires budgets more like those invested by venture capital companies not afraid of failure nine times out of ten (calculated risk). This iterative approach is based on learning while we go, and not trying to over-deliver to the end customer at the first attempt. The marketing approach is very different: ‘We need to do this now, with this amount of money’. Failure is not an option!

This approach for the development of product and service is fundamentally flawed. It means that if the first iteration fails then the entire project fails, as there are never sufficient funds available to learn and iterate.

We’ve witnessed firsthand the way in which some large European brands (think high street banks, utility companies, retailers) are approaching Product & Service Design in the same way they’ve historically approached marketing-led projects. Even worse than their approach is the way in which some marketeers pretend to understand the complexities of Product & Service Design and Design Strategy.


So how can Design impact on and provide real business value?

Two years ago I had very little anecdotal evidence to offer when asked, “What is the value of Design?” User Experience professionals have always focused on providing a tailored user experience, so a happy customer should technically spend more money, right? For me, it’s always been more fundamental than this. UX is only a small twinkling star in the overarching galaxy of Design Strategy.

I’m constantly fascinated by the impact Design has on business and get to see its importance first hand in developing relationships with our clients. And let me tell you, the jury is no longer out! At an executive level we can confidently stand up in front of key business leaders and predict the impact Design-led strategy will have on their business – not just at a product UX level, but also at an enterprise-wide level. A top down and a bottom up approach.  Here are a few examples of this anecdotal evidence:

Efficiency in Design

We can measure Design’s most important impact on larger enterprise through better efficiency and continuous improvement.

When we first meet most of our clients they’ve only just begun their Design Journey. They may have more than 300 digital products and channels (mobile-web, native, web), but they’re developed by individual product teams around the world who’ve taken it upon themselves to reinvent the brand experience for their own particular need. So that’s more than 300, potentially different, single brand digital experiences. This head down approach to Design pays no attention to its wider impact on the brand’s global business – why should they care if the product looks slightly different to the one being developed by the team in, say, California? It’s tough to blame them for thinking this way as they’re measured on the success of their specific product rather than the wider impact on the value of the brand.


During our Great Fridays tenure so far we’ve calculated that this ‘reinvent’ Design process can in some cases take as much as 50 per cent of each product budget. The maths speaks for itself:

50% of the budget x 300 products under the same brand = mass inefficiency

One of our clients (I can’t say which) is now almost 70 per cent more efficient thanks to Great Fridays implementing a centralised Design strategy and significantly reducing the agency roster (twenty three to four), with a bottom line impact in the millions of pounds. We took a Design challenge and facilitated a solution by working as an extension to the client’s internal team. I use the word facilitate rather than solve not because we wave a ‘magic Design wand’ to fix things, but rather we use Design as a way to start the problem solving process and better position teams to create solutions on their own to reframe legacy thinking. Design brings real value to enterprise.

Not only did our client become infinitely more efficient, but they also now give more attention to their commercial product and service offering, focusing energy on features needed by the customer and the resulting commercial impact that has.

This is very much a top down methodology requiring a business that’s committed to enterprise level change. Boiling the ocean is not always the right approach.

Solving an existing Product & Service problem with Design

Clients also come to Great Fridays with a very different problem: ‘how do we solve an existing Product & Service related issue?’

“You’re the guys that make things look pretty.” It’s a perception some clients have of the Design industry that creates an immediate challenge for our relationship. “We think our product needs an updated UI to make it more user friendly”, the client claims at our first meeting. “We think that a slicker UI will be the platform to increase customer conversion rates” or, “We think that UI will make the product more appealing to our customers.”

Roughly translated, this means, “We aren’t going to change the functionality, or even consider what our customers want. We just want you guys to add a little lipstick to the pig to make her more attractive.” This approach will fail nine times out of ten.

In 2012, we worked with a client that initially talked to us this way. “Our workflow software needs a UI overhaul,” they proudly announced before walking my team through two hours of legacy administration tools that had evolved over the last 10 years. “We think it needs reorganising and a little colour adding to buttons.”

Did we agree to this brief? No. We challenged their perception and presented anecdotal evidence that the problems they had were less about gloss and more about a lack of understanding of their customer needs. It took several months, but after convincing them to let us interview 20 of their key users in the US and Europe the results of our deeper dive became apparent. We uncovered several frustrations and significant user breaking points – with one in particular a return on investment. No brainer.

We discovered that various customers around the world used one element of our client’s software 72,000 times a month. But this one element was misleading, even for a ‘power user’, and often led to this field being competed incorrectly, which resulted in incomplete data entry. We calculated that a staggering 40% of the 72,000 attempts at filling in this particular element needed inputting again (by employees) at an average time cost of 15 minutes per job. That’s an average of 240 days per month wasted by inefficient use of employee time (using the system). At an average employee earning rate of $200 per day that’s a whopping $48,000 per month, or $576,000 a year leaking from one small component of the system. This user block, in addition to others we found amounted to $1.2m per year lost by a poorly planned application. Suddenly (and unsurprisingly) the executives and product managers understood the power of insight and Design application. We urged a series of simple user-focused Service Design fixes to the system, and now the haemorrhaging components have been stemmed.

When a product manager says, “I have a budget to add some UI cosmetics to an existing product”, we challenge and ask them, “Why? What do you hope to achieve? What are your customer frustrations? How can we make sure that we’re accountable, and how do we measure success?” We reframe their requirements to make sure that what we deliver adds real value for that product manager and his business case.

Design-led innovation

I talked earlier about Design efficiency, which has a significant impact on product innovation. Simply by affording product teams more time to think about every project rather than just redesign it means, by its very nature, that they will release better products to market, and faster.

Design also plays another important role in product innovation – the ability to visualise and prototype lean products quickly and get them in front of actual customers as part of the process. You will have heard, and possibly read a lot about the ‘lean startup’ ideology, a concept written by Eric Ries and well publicised over the last 12 months.  His ideology underpins our approach to Design-led innovation.


Getting rapid product acceptance and feedback early in the development cycle is something we’ve been actively involved in over the last 18 months with various global clients. Workshops involving customers, stakeholders (executives), engineers, and UX teams are a great way to conceptualise, create, test and iterate ideas. We can quickly turn thinking into real, on device and even physical products in a short period of time, with no limitations. We can throw away the ideas that don’t work and focus on the features that do.

These intense workshops quickly provide enough insight to steer product or service direction. As everybody involved has something to say, entire teams are engaged from the beginning so it’s much easier to create an internal business case for budget allocation. Without Design as a conduit to manifest ideas, each team or individual could construe concepts differently even if the perception is that everyone is on the same page. Creating real, tangible Design-led outcomes that users can touch and interact with clarifies the focus on what works and what doesn’t. The investment is upfront, saving significant budget later in the product cycle, and the features released to market are already tried and tested on the target user.

Product to market is thus more considered, relevant and efficient.

Why is Great Fridays well positioned?

We’re often asked about our approach. This is a technical question that engenders expected answers: “we’re agile”, or “we use a waterfall approach”.

The truth is that Design even plays a role in how we shape the structure of the delivery. Every client has a different dynamic, different needs and understanding, multiple locations and even budgets, so we never try to force fit a process/methodology. We listen to and understand the challenges of each individual client and project need, and then start by designing an approach that’s relevant. We have enough experience to know that sometimes the worst process is a forced process.

Great Fridays is about great people solving real Design problems. We understand that Design can facilitate all manner of business challenges, and more importantly deliver real measurable value to a business’s bottom line profit.



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