I wanted to write about this after it occurred to me how the projects at work are (un)structured. I mean, I’ve mentioned to people before that our projects are a little different than the way typical design projects work, but I never got into much detail. Our stuff requires a different kind of thinking and have a different kind of outcome, and it’s not just because I work for an automotive company. So I thought, since I’m working on this whole essay series, why not write about this topic? So, here I go.
I hate funnels, but here’s a funnel.
Imagine for a second that the product development process is a funnel. You stick in as many good ideas as you can in the top and essentially what comes out at the bottom is a complete product. Everything in between is what gets you there.
Why do I hate this? Well, it’s basically a gross oversimplification of what good design is really about and I don’t to give people the wrong impression of what we do… I already wrote a bit about process, so please read through that stuff if you haven’t done that yet.
Anyway… funnels. So assuming all design methods distill into some sort of funnel (maybe a tree is a better analogy?), this leads me to my next assumption.
Most companies, at least the ones I’ve worked at, tend to emphasize design work that is towards the bottom of the funnel. I’ve often referred to these activities as “production design” because it emphasizes all the important work that goes into the production of a project. We even had an episode of the podcast about it.
Anyway, production design gets into the “How” aspects of a project, which I also wrote about last year. There are a lot of really important decisions that happen at the bottom of the funnel so it’s important to give yourself enough time to do all the things you need to do to make it out of the funnel with some semblance of a quality product on the other end.
Since I already wrote about it, I don’t want to go into another long essay on production design. But the thing I want to draw your attention to is the existence of another type of design activity.
In today’s tech world, there is a lot of emphasis on all that bottom-of-the-funnel type of stuff. People only seem to value whatever ends up being released. It’s like saying the only thing that matters about a car is how big the engine is… For better or worse we tend to emphasize, maybe to our detriment, all of the activities that only lead to a direct outcome, a release of something.
What if I told you there was another option?
If businesses like to prioritize the stuff at the bottom of the funnel, savvy creative thinkers can emphasize something else.
In my job, my team works on “advanced concepts”.
“What the heck is that?!”, you might ask. Well I’m glad you asked. Let me explain…
To produce a car, there’s a really long lead time. Sure, there’s an assembly line process that helps it go faster (go see the Mercedes-Benz factory tour if you‘re ever around Stuttgart), and that stuff is definitely important. But to go from the early discussions around what the car should have, to the point where someone can drive away in their brand new Benz, it takes years of planning and research.
It’s most definitely not like building an app, and with good reason! In software, you can easily get away with being less prepared. Broken experiences are no problem. You just have to release more frequently and more incrementally. Problem solved. You simply can’t do this with a car. Just imagine it. You wouldn’t want to be A/B tested about safety systems at the point you’re about to be involved in a serious car accident. While its possible for software systems to evolve, it’s just not something that people expect from their cars. The whole “building your parachute on the way down” is just not a good idea when you’re driving 2-tons of steel!
So back to the point, my team works on “advanced concepts”. We are part of the early work in the years before production, developing the ideas that will eventually make their way into a car. As part of our job, we look into technology and study human behavior. For me, a self-professed not-a-car-guy, it’s fascinating to start so early, and work on nascent technologies.
Because of what we do, our design funnel looks more like this:
In our projects, we tend to focus more on the top-of-the-funnel stuff. We explore ideas that people would normally abandon so that they can get right to the bottom, faster.
Doing what we do is akin to product management. We look for different opportunities to explore so that as a project makes its way down the funnel, there’s a wealth of information to base it on. Now imagine working with a product manager that never researched anything? What could they base their decisions on? How could they develop any strategies to address the customer? To put it simply, they couldn’t. It would be a mess.
Ok so here’s the money question: why? Why spend time on this? Why do it at all? As a business, you usually need to take the most linear path to a solution as possible. Don’t waste time thinking about other stuff. Just make solutions. After all, solutions are the only things that matter.
Well, when getting things wrong could actually impact someone’s life in a very serious way, it turns out this is not exactly the best approach.
In the automotive industry, things operate on a massive scale. If you thought computer hardware was challenging, making cars is way more complex. Supply chains, component manufacturing, raw materials, assembly lines, I mean it’s amazing any of it functions at all. Getting all of these things to come together is like a chaotic symphony that crescendos when people drive the car for the very first time. Certainly computing technologies have similar challenges in terms of hardware manufacturing, but last time I checked, your iPhone doesn’t have to drive down the freeway at 80 mph…
Now imagine that someone in a car company followed the “solutioneering” method and just rushed “solutions” out the door. Later, a significant tactical error was discovered part way through the process. What would you do? Bringing everything to a grinding halt to make changes could cost the company many millions of dollars. Certainly more than enough to scuttle a bunch of early stage startups. So when you’re working on things that have to be reliable it’s actually good to spend time on the top of the funnel. In essence, we start early so that costly mistakes further down can hopefully be avoided.
What does it mean though?
This is all fine and good but it’s a rather superficial description of what’s really going on. To say that we explore ideas is a very simplistic way of describing all the work that goes on. For example, imagine you had to forecast something that your company depended on. What would you do? How would you approach it? I mean it goes a little deeper than just projecting revenues for the next quarter. What if you had to forecast your business into the next 10 years?
Most product teams couldn’t fathom that. Many don’t work that far ahead. For some, it might even be a waste of time. After all, who knows what the future will bring?? But given how much alignment is required to bring all these production processes together, it’s critical that automotive companies start early. This is exactly why doing research is so important. We spend a lot of time trying to understand things. Learning is a critical part of our process. It absolutely has to be if you find that your tasks are at the top of the product funnel.
As part of our research, there’s a lot of technology monitoring and prototyping. There’s a lot of discussions and interactions with other teams. It’s complicated and it’s challenging. But I think, in the end, we end up with a better product.
So… Where do we go from here? I felt it was important to write about this because in some of my interactions with other designers, there were a lot of questions regarding problems further up the funnel but using lower level tactics to address them. To put it simply, that doesn’t work.
A lot gets made of short-term tactics. Whole books, like The Lean Startup, have been written decrying the topic of this very essay. Product teams simply don’t see the value of long-term thinking when they can just release things more often and hope that they get it right… eventually. As a result, people have either abandoned or ignored completely, the kinds of work that can help products gain a footing. And this makes me nervous for the next generation of designers.
Obviously, spending 15 years in research isn’t the right way forward either. Never releasing anything in deference to perfecting an idea is not the way to make products. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Many companies have felt the pressure to deliver results, and in pursuit of short-term gains, they have over-compensated towards solutioneering as a remedy. But other methods exist!
What I hope is for a more sensible approach to product design and development. In the same way that doing only research yields very little results, doing only solutioneering design generates very few actionable insights. Practically, companies need both in order to survive (despite what your CEO or investors might say). As a result, it’s important to include the design of ideas, to do design at the top of the product funnel, in order to make the kinds of leaps in progress that we need.
… Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
— Thomas Edison
It’s easy to think that working at the top of the funnel is unimportant, because often the problems at that level are unclear and ambiguous. As a result, direct solutions are harder to come by. Many product teams see that stuff as a distraction because it takes time away from “shipping”. Doing research-oriented work is also sometimes viewed as slow-paced. The thing is, it’s not an absolute. Is iteratively inching your way to a breakthrough actually a faster way? Releasing small incremental updates is helpful but does it actually make your products more valuable? What if you just worked on the higher level goals directly? How might your company change if you spent more time working on the bigger picture?
Let’s also not sugarcoat it. Sometimes you do waste time because a project doesn’t yield the desired results. Sometimes we have to abandon something because it doesn’t gain traction with our stakeholders. But on the flipside, doing this kind of work means playing a long game. It’s a small shift in focus that can change a lot about how you work. Sometimes it means setting something aside temporarily due to factors in the company. So something that didn’t work out at one point might feed into another project at a later date. It means being diligent about what you do and being patient about building success. Because if you persist, the outcome you were looking for could be just around the corner!