The PwC New Zealand Digital IQ Survey

A conversation with Dr Beth Altringer

Professor of design and behavioural science at Harvard University

Dr Beth Altringer
Dr Beth Altringer

Dr Altringer is a researcher based at Harvard University whose work focuses on product and service design and the psychology of desirability. Dr Altringer recently visited New Zealand for an event with Global Women, also attending events hosted by PwC. During her visit, she sat down with PwC Partner and Digital Services Leader Kris Nygren to discuss the state of digital in New Zealand and how companies can bring a human centred design approach to their product design, business model and decision-making process. Here’s their conversation:

Kris: What we’re seeing is a lot of companies approaching transformation as a technical project, maybe as having a bit of change management. But the human centred design and putting people at the centre of that is lacking. Is that something that you see elsewhere?

Dr Altringer: Yes, I see it all the time but what I see is that, with new technology, it’s often very challenging to get it right. We have to appreciate that demand – we can’t just focus on the human side and not deliver on the technology.

The question is: how do we approach these two sides – the technical side and the human side – and integrate them in a functional decision-making way? It’s very difficult to do that well. So many organisations are probably underinvesting in that essential capability and it’s on us to work with the technology-development cycle and make that fluid.

Kris: Flowing on from that, one of the things I’ve heard you talk about is how cross-functional teams become a necessity once you’re dealing with people and technology, and with business decisions and risks. That cultural piece then becomes about how these cross-functional teams work in a way that means stuff gets done and you don’t over-index on any one area. Do you see any practices that can help achieve this, or any companies that are doing it well?

Dr Altringer: One of the most novel things that struck me about human centred design as a methodology was that it was designed to be explicitly multi-disciplinary from the beginning. Having everybody in the room from the beginning means you don’t get these informal hierarchies where one discipline might be seen as more valuable. If you develop a culture of having the right people – who represent all key parts of the human side and the tech side – in the room, you can spot the things that are never going to work and you can save on the opportunity cost of developing new technology that people don’t want when you could be developing something more valuable for your customers instead.

You can also avoid some of the inevitable organisational politics that emerge if certain people aren’t in the room. This all sounds relatively obvious, but it still doesn’t happen all the time. It means making sure the core functionalities of the organisation are in the room and that their voices actually matter as you’re making decisions throughout the product development process.

Kris: What about the next step up from that? We’ve talked about businesses moving the conversation [about digital] away from interactions and products and asking ‘how are we changing the company, or the organisation’s strategy?’ How do you see designers fitting into that organisational strategy approach?

Dr Altringer: I think about design as being about not so much human centred design but about emotional design. We spoke earlier today about banking and how nobody really wants a mortgage. So you can endlessly perfect your mortgage offering, but still miss the mark.

What people want is to feel secure in their finances – actually you could even zoom that out and say they just want to feel secure and be free to do the things they want to do in their life. A mortgage is just one tool to help people get to that feeling of security. The real strategy should be about providing that experience to people’s lives.

I sometimes hear people say about the first iPhone that Steve Jobs didn’t engage in human centred design, which I don’t think is right. True, people weren’t able to say they wanted what turned out to be the iPhone. But if you took this emotional approach and asked ‘do people want to be more productive? Do they want to more easily share memories with friends and family? Do they want easy access to entertainment and information?’ Absolutely. And the iPhone, among other things, made those things much easier for people. If you design within your product category to those things that are universal, you’ll have a receptive audience – especially if you can nail the technology.

Kris Nygren
Kris Nygren

Kris: Absolutely – it’s often said in human centred design that the worst thing you can do is be reactive to people’s feedback because all you’re doing is responding to a sample of one. Human centred design often involves listening to people. But design thinking is actually more about inferences. It’s about understanding the core human needs you’re trying to design to.

That leads us in to the robotics piece, which is very much in its infancy here in New Zealand. So what are you learning about marrying up robotics with human centred design?

Dr Altringer: I think about robotics in the same way I think about a lot of products. For me, it shouldn’t be about creating a robot just because the technology is cool. To me, it makes sense to really engage with whether, how, and where robots could be helpful to people. That’s the world I want to live in and that’s the time when I might buy a robot. The rest of the time I might think “gosh that’s fun” and then I’ll tune it out. So, like a lot of product categories, I think about what is genuinely painful in people’s lives, what’s stopping them from doing the things they want to do, and how we might introduce technologies that are respectful and trustworthy and not scary and really give the human control and add genuine value to their lives.

Kris: On a very separate note, one thing where I think we need to focus is the decision-making process, especially because a lot of the time companies are looking at how they can move faster. Have you seen companies explicitly design their decision-making so they can go faster?

Dr Altringer: I would question the value of faster just for the sake of faster. We have to ensure the way decisions are made in an organisation is explicit, because not doing so increases our risk, especially the risk of failing to calculate the opportunity cost of what else we could have been building. Often, the decision making that we’re doing throughout an organisation is only about how to do things faster and faster, and assumes that faster and faster is the lowest risk approach. But that can mean we take on too many projects and fail to prioritise and kill projects with low potential before they consume months or years of resources. When a faster and faster approach lacks a methodology for prioritising and deciding what not to do, then the faster and faster approach is actually going to be higher risk than slowing down at key points to make more thoughtful and deliberate strategic decisions.

Kris: I thought it was really interesting the advice you had about recognising the decision-making culture that you have and make it work for you. Is there a case for organisations changing some part of their decision-making culture?

Dr Altringer: Totally, but it’s also unrealistic to think that you can instantly adopt the culture of Apple or Amazon – cultures don’t change that quickly. Now, in many ways, that’s a good thing because cultural change can be incredibly destabilising. But I think the first step in moving towards a better decision-making culture is to face up to the one you have and then you can see there are things that are getting in the way that you didn’t even realise was part of your process, much less an integral part of your process. Then we can decide to improve that piece of it. Even developing a culture of doing that conveys a lot about the culture you are looking to create within the business. Doing that shows the people involved in your organisation that you are truly listening, identifying what could be better, and taking steps to improve it. The reason I suggest identifying and improving your decision-making culture rather than embarking on a full about-face of organisational culture change is that I just don’t think the latter is very realistic.

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