Design maturity as language acquisition.

Chinese lantern
As the importance of customer centricity gains momentum in the business world, so too does the focus on human centred design (and all its machinations).

I’ve often wondered how to easily represent how new concepts and ways of working are introduced to an organisation and what the organisation then does with it. I’ve realised that it is not dissimilar to the experience of learning a foreign language. For business, the language of human centred design is just as foreign as Japanese was to me when I moved there in the mid 90s for 18 months. I’ve reflected on this experience and there are some interesting parallels.

Step 1: Begin to understand the language

When I was in Japan for a few months, I started following the conversation others were having. For example, I knew that lunch was being discussed but didn’t have the ability to chime in and suggest that I go along.

In business, the value of design is slowly becoming understood and the connection between it and enabling customer centricity and innovation is being made. Though many businesses are not yet able to speak confidently about this and are relying on external parties like IDEO and Huddle for help.

Step 2: Begin to speak the language

At the 5 month stage, my vocabulary got to the point where I was able to
start uttering words in some recognisable Japanese sequence that almost made sense. Enough for people to at lease laugh at my attempt and therefore engage in trying to understand what I was uttering. Understanding came first, then speaking.

As business increases its exposure to design and human centric ways of working, the language starts to infiltrate the business. Powerpoint packs talking about the performance of design-enabled businesses compared to those that aren’t or ones describing what human centred design processes are and how they help foster meaningful connections with customers emerge. The organisations builds its confidence in being able to ‘talk design’ and so it does.

Though nothing has really changed at this point. Decisions are still being made using the same criteria, priorities are still focussed mostly on organisational targets and the way we measure success hasn’t altered either.

Step 3: Begin to embody the language

I don’t think I can truly say that I got to the stage of being able to embody the language of Japanese in the 18 months I was there. Embodying a language is to have it direct your behaviours, your thoughts and your habits.

I am yet to see a complete and coherent example of a large organsation in Australia embodying the language of design and human centricity. Signals of embodiment appear in the operational DNA of an organisation. It appears in the very assumptions that set up why a business exists and the stance it takes in being on purpose.