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Can we get beyond incremental innovation with design? - Enterprise UX views with Sam Yen

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 14, 2017
Design as a way to transform the enterprise? It's a heady concept, one that got plenty of play at Enterprise UX 2017. My chat with Sam Yen of SAP explains the reasoning - and raises new questions.

The content at Enterprise UX 2017 in San Francisco took me by surprise. I was expecting to hear that Enterprise UX design theory has reached a level of maturity (it has), and that voice UI and AI are disrupting design assumptions (they are).

But these designers (and UX directors) have their sights on a far bigger ambition: transforming the enterprise itself. Big ambitions are laudable, but they invoke big obstacles. I heard plenty about resistance to design culture; breaking down the organizational silos that stand in the way of "design thinking" principles was one of the main session themes.

Sam Yen's Driving Organizational Change Through Design? Do more of this and less of that presentation brought these issues into focus. As Chief Design Officer at SAP, Yen knows a thing or two about overcoming organizational resistance to design. But much has changed at SAP, to the point where design principles are at the core of how SAP envisions selling and delivering "Leonardo" projects, SAP's next-gen product platform.

Yen's been in the thick of that change, so it was a good time to get his views, which I did on two podcasts. The first of these, Enterprise UX as a change driver - live from #EUX17 with Sam Yen, is now out (and embedded below, along with Yen's slides). We intentionally avoided "SAPPy" topics in favor of hashing out the themes of the conference and Yen's talk.

Enterprise UX is maturing - fast

Yen got a similar impression from the show about Enterprise UX maturity: we've come a long way in a short time. Yen:

I'm just blown away by the rapid maturity of the UX industry, especially in the enterprise base. The topics - just over the last couple years - have gotten to the point now where we've gone way past the craft and how you bring these things into dialect and into organizations, and more into bigger issues like breaking through silos, organizational transformation, and leaving a legacy. These are mature topics that shows how much the industry's moved.

Few organizations need convincing that better user experiences matter. But that doesn't automatically lead to change. At the show, design leads told me about obstacles such as:

  • Scaling design success beyond a product or team
  • Justifying design investments from an ROI perspective
  • Competing budget priorities (after a point, everything left on the budget is important and tough decisions must be made - and influenced).

Yen kicked off his talk with another biggie: we obsess about tech/digital buzzwords (big data, in-memory, cloud, AI, IoT, APIs) - but not about people. So how does design get a seat at the buzzword table? Yen thinks it goes back to consumer UI pressures:

It's only recently where you see this convergence where the type of experiences that you see in the consumer industry are expected also in the enterprise space. So I think that's what's driving a lot of the new attention.

And also the resistance:

That being said, organizations are not set up to do that yet.

Design thinking - difference-maker or insufferable buzzword?

Meanwhile, "design thinking" has become an insufferable catch phrase, implying that wherever your sprinkle it, magical results occur. But Yen shared data that design-centric organizations do outperform the S&P index, and by a significant margin (228 percent). We could debate those figures perhaps, but Yen also points to the undeniable example of "disruptive" tech firms that put user experience first:

Especially in the tech industry where when we talk a lot about digital transformation, although technology is obviously fueling a lot of the innovations, really it's the experience, right? If you look at the disruptors in the tech industry, whether it's AirBnB or Facebook or whatever, it's not that it's the new technology, but it's the new experience that you're able to deliver for the end consumers, which is so different from the experience that they have today.

When enterprises get serious about design, they might discover a different benefit:

Enterprise design sometimes is practiced in large scale organizations, and if you really want to make an impact, the impact isn't necessarily always going to be on the user experience level. It's taking the design practices - sometimes this is called "design thinking" - and making an organization more innovative by discovering what's the potential new solutions you could offer to users - not only today but for the next five, ten, fifteen years.

Yen warned the audience about getting caught up in incremental innovation. He defined problem solving versus problem finding:

Problem solving - "We're all good at this but it leads to incremental innovations"
Problem finding - "Identifying the problem worth solving often leads to breakthrough innovations"

Without design principles, agile delivery methods can be problematic:

Especially for developers, agile as a process was really different from the waterfall methodology, because it introduced this notion of iterations. You do a short sprint and you come back, and you check whether you're building the right thing... I think when you add design thinking to that, it's important... design thinking introduces the notion of problem finding: are you solving the right problem to even start with? If you only introduce agile, one of the fears is you just have a more efficient and faster way to get trash out if you're solving the wrong problem.

This design method can begin to break down silos:

Once you know that you have the right problem that you're solving, then as you're doing your iterations within agile, you're checking the business conditions, you're checking the technical stuff of what you've built, but then you're also - every single time - you're checking with your end user to make sure that you're still aligned with what they need.

Not all user research is created equal

You need an intimate grasp of the users' needs, but this isn't your typical personas research, where you simply try to understand the users' day-to-day roles/issues. One potent example from Enterprise UX 2017 is Designing for policy change - Ariel Kennan on applying design to New York City's homeless problem.

Gathering the city's stakeholders together, the "users" wrote their feedback directly on the journey maps. But to Yen's point, they pushed the problems of today. As I wrote:

It wasn’t just a day of practical feedback on the map itself. It was a transformational day of discussions, envisioning the future, “going broad” to consider digital, data, communications – and possibilities beyond today’s policies.

Yen brought the point home with a classic Henry Ford example:

Too often, we think of research as just interviewing people and listening to what they say, but a lot of that is going into their context and just observing what's going on, because sometimes they'll say one thing but actually do something else... There's a famous line from Henry Ford, who said: "If I asked everybody what they wanted, they would've said 'I wanted a faster horse," right? The deeper insight was they needed to get somewhere much, much faster in a more efficient way.

My take - skills shortages, marketing overhype and lack of diversity are a cold shower for design thinking

Breakthrough innovations come in many flavors and, as Uber has been demonstrating time and again, those breakthroughs don't necessarily indicate a healthy culture at all. The more design thinking is thrown at companies as a cure-all, the more we'll lose a receptive audience for what it can do.

Expanding the scope of "design" makes all kinds of sense, but we'll need to tackle the terminology confusion. From the profound impact of voice UI/chatbots to the role of machines in process design, there's a lot to absorb besides "design thinking." (Yen and I hit on voice UIs and AI in the podcast). Yen pointed to another problem:

Shortages of enterprise design talent adds another complication. It's also an opportunity for tech folks - and subject matter experts - to expand their design skills and bridge those gaps. Yen says the ideal developer/design ratio is 1:10 designers:developers - most organizations are nowhere near that.

Finally there is the ongoing issue of diversity in the design profession. Yen had some strongly worded comments about that in his keynote:

As Yen said to me:

Creativity is one of the things that we feel machine learning is not going to overtake in the near future. So, creativity is really important... Design as a craft is another thing, but design thinking, this notion of understanding the user, starting with finding the right problem before solving the problem, these are concepts which are common sense. Why do you have to go to the most elite schools to be able to learn those types of things? I'm a firm believer that we need to somehow democratize those concepts.

A good ambition to end on - for now.

You can also download the podcast or pick it up on iTunes. Part two of our chat, which assesses SAP's own UX and design progress, will be live shortly.

End note - this article is part of my ongoing diginomica Enteprise UX series. Below you'll find the embed of Yen's entire slide show. You can check out a number of the speaker slide decks on the Enterprise UX 2017 web site.

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