Before Facebook and Google, there was Sony and Toyota

27 May 2017

The tech giants of today are following in the footsteps of their predecessors. Image: kezza/Shutterstock

UX consultant Gareth Dunlop reminds us that the likes of Sony and Toyota paved the way for the product design processes of today.

Those of us involved in the discipline of user experience design do well to remind ourselves that it wasn’t conceived when Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web in the early 1990s.

According to Google Trends, the term ‘user experience’ has been growing steadily in search popularity since 2004. However, its philosophy and processes didn’t fall out of the sky – they were founded on product design theory pioneered in the previous decades.

Sure, the processes that underpin it have evolved considerably since those early web days, but the commitment to solving customer problems through design long predates the internet.

The birth of product design

When Sony’s export sales started to accelerate in the late 1960s, the distinct feedback coming from global markets was that its products were keenly priced but weren’t of adequate quality to make the necessary impact. Internally, Sony’s response wasn’t to do design better, but to do it differently.

Around the same time, Toyota was also beginning to learn that the dynamics of overseas markets needed to affect how they thought about quality and what drove design decision-making. The quality of their process-thinking at that time led their pursuit and successful achievement of being the largest automotive manufacturer in the world, a title they have shared intermittently with Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen in recent years.

These and many other manufacturers, across a range of product types and sectors, evolved what became known as the product design process. At its heart, this process seeks to achieve two important things: firstly, it aims to humanise design by putting people at its centre and secondly, it founds design in research and testing, to plug it into the people and marketplaces that it is there to serve.

From these challenges and experiences came the classic product design process, striking in its simplicity: research, design, build, test. For some challenges, it is more beneficial to understand it as defining a problem, solving a problem, building a solution and testing a solution. Regardless of the specific labels used to describe it, it expresses an important design philosophy, namely the centrality of customer validation and direction in good design.

Moreover, it ensures that the design process starts and ends with the people that the design is for. It commences by committing to ensure that design is fixing a real problem, well, and finishes by pledging to ensure that the problem has been solved, well.

Because of its power, I find it astonishing that when design projects are under time or investment pressures, the first activities to be shelved are those that plug the design into the people that the design is for. This leaves the design process open to the danger of merely prettying up guesswork.

Project True North

The process has the additional benefit of helping to establish ‘Project True North’ because it sets the immovable compass on the reason that the design is being undertaken. This immediately casts a light on any subsequent decisions, which might either enhance or dilute the project objective.

Imagine, for instance, a bank decided that its true north was to be the most digitally connected and capable bank in a certain marketplace, based on a series of agreed KPIs such as quality of user experience, empirically measured user satisfaction and market penetration. Such a project vision would then provide a benchmark for what was required and the ability to readily identify compromises or dilute shortcuts, which would de facto mean they fell short of the aspiration. Its power is in the focus that it brings to a project team to design for outcomes.

I had the pleasure of attending the opening match at the Aviva stadium (formerly Lansdowne Road, Ireland’s national rugby stadium) in May 2010, an under-20s game played in front of a half-full stadium. This is another example of the product design process in action, as the IRFU wanted to ensure that the stadium was fit for purpose, and iron out any niggles before the autumn internationals and the Six Nations rolled round. Having designed the stadium to solve a problem, they wanted to validate that they had indeed solved that problem before fully launching it.

That Sony is one of the world’s most successful electronics brands is no accident, nor is Toyota’s dominance in the field of automotive manufacturing. Culturally, they both redefined how they understood design and had the humility to put their customers at the centre of the process.

Google, Amazon, Facebook et al have continued the evolution of that design thinking since the mid-1990s and we do well to stand on their shoulders, just as they stood on the shoulders of Sony, Toyota and others before them.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing.  Clients include Three, Energia, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.