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Ideas and insights and concepts, oh my

6 September, 2010

I recently re-discovered this basic diagram I did a few years back entitled, ‘Solving the problem by moving from ideas through concepts to solution’. The audience was new/entry-level design staff and the context was a world where terms such as ‘iteration’ and ‘concept’ made people physically squirm, a world where people said “why can’t we just say “brings together” instead of synthesis?!” I’m not saying these are definitive and the most meaningful ever, but I’ve only every had positive feedback from non-design-y people.

Acknowledgments for the diagram definitions go to Dick Buchanan (I think he was the idea definer), Charles Owen and probably wikipedia and dictionary.com.

It felt like a timely re-discovery as I’ve been 1/8th engaged in a Linked-In conversation about definitions. The angle of the conversation is primarily about definitions of service design that business will get. The conversation has a) got me thinking and b) confirmed what I think. That is – with regards to ‘owning’ practice definitions and terminology – service design, service designers and design thinking aren’t going to win against business definitions and terminology. Nor should we really care to. (I reserve the right to change my mind on this).

The above diagram was developed before I spent about a year getting to a common understanding on the term ‘solution’ at my organisation – it means something different in IT and in Enterprise Architecture.  So where organisational change is concerned IT and EA won on the definition of ‘solution’ – it means the technology solution, not the response to a problem. In a large IT-led organisation, while it’s not so much he with the most toys wins, the ones with the most expensive toys that take the longest to build, alter or enhance get more understanding from management, and therefore their definitions are more accepted as opposed to those the ones who talk about meaning and intangible notions of services.

Now I can’t be someone who opens a post with a bunch of design definitions and not be an advocate for common understanding and even a terminology militant – and I can certainly be that – the words “I make no apologies for using synthesis instead of ‘bringing together'” have indeed passed my lips in a public setting of designers. The key is our terminology should matter to us when we talk amongst ourselves.  And it can be a delight when you talk with like-minded designers and beauty of language and meaning that is instinctively shared – I recently experienced this with the folk at Empathy – Matt, Emma and Meena (Random Specific).

I am not saying give up or don’t bother trying to embed new practice terms in business I’m just saying, from my experience in a large corporate (albeit public sector) that perhaps it’s better to champion service design through practice, not theory; to get collaborative agreement on definitions to progress work, not fight for ownership of words; and to understand that we are speaking the same language whether we say ‘intent’ or ‘need’ in order to achieve measurable ‘outcomes’ or ‘benefits’ or ‘meaning’.

In mixed company I believe we should translate and speak the language of business and I think it’s the designer’s function as translator to be multi-lingual as well as multi-disciplinary. We translate customer needs to business, we should translate service deign practice to business.

PS: Even those in business who can support the notion of design in business still want definitions that they like. A number of years back I was talking to senior management about a case study. I said ‘design problem’ and was politely reproached because “’problem’ is such a negative term” I now tend to say ‘opportunity’. (My real preference would be to say ‘problortunity’)

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