Everyday Design- My Bike Project


My name is Taehak Kwon and I am an Industrial Designer at Essential. This past April, I left South Korea, my close friends, and family to pursue my design career in the U.S. with Essential. Designing and making is a passion of mine that extends beyond the workplace, and since moving to Boston I have picked up creative hobbies that challenge and push me to learn new skills. Here’s some insight into how design is present in all aspects of my life, shaping the way I spend my time outside of the office.

 A few months ago, a friend of mine bestowed me with her old Schwinn cruiser bike before moving back to Korea. The bike was in a poor condition; rust covered the frame and the bike desperately needed serious safety and appearance tuning (see image above).

Although I never owned a bike before and knew very little about fixing bikes, I had a very clear vision for the bike’s design and I was up for the challenge of bringing that vision to life. I found inspiration from bikes around the city, giving me a more clear design vision of the details, shape and fabrics used.

 I wanted to transform the loud red, white and blue bike with old locks dangling from the frame (the keys long-ago lost) into a sleek black satin frame with a brown leather saddle. So I started by stripping the bike of all unessential parts and quickly realized that rebuilding the bike with the design I had in mind would be no simple task (see image below).

 Over a two-month period I spent my evenings disassembling, removing rust, lubricating, stripping existing paint, priming, painting and reassembling the parts. The process required patience and attention to detail but I am now very satisfied with my bike and use it as my primary form of transportation. This project reflected my overall design philosophy, which is pursuing unique, simple and long lasting designs. My bike now has a clean and timeless look but is not yet unique; designing a label for my bike is a project for another day (see image below).


The Changing State of UX Design with Sonya Mead

Speaking on the Changing State of User Experience Design with Sonya Mead from Essential Design on Vimeo.

 This month, Sonya Mead, Director of the Digital Experience team, presented at Design Museum Mornings on the changing state of user experience design. After a nice sunny breakfast shared with design professionals and students in our studio, Sonya spoke about the evolution of the user experience design. She used the history of the automobile dashboard as an example of how new platforms, forms factors and services are constantly transforming and improving the interactions between users and products. After the lecture and an engaged discussion between Sonya and the participants, everyone was ready to go to work with their head full of thoughts and ideas about what could be the next great user design experience.

Take a glance at the recap video


Design-Led Labs Creating Impactful Solutions


Due to the decreased cost of infrastructure, open sourced information, and scale enabled by globalization, our economy has undergone a major structural shift towards innovation and entrepreneurship. Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 2014 DMI Design Leadership Conferenceco-chaired by Essential's Scott Stropkay, which was centered around lab cultures that drive innovation and the importance of design as a catalyst for insightful solutions. Established and emerging thought leaders from the government, start-ups, university labs, large corporations and the arts, gathered to share and discuss how labs of all kinds deliver solutions for both entrepreneurs and large corporations in the public and private sectors.

Through the democratization of prototyping tools like 3D printers, online educational resources such as, and access to physical maker shops like TechShop, the barriers to creating and prototyping are being torn down. Ideas are tested and tweaked and can then grow into businesses through startup accelerators such as MassChallenge. Entrepreneurs gain visibility and funding to take their product to market through online communities like Crowdfunding and Kickstarter. Individuals today have better access to problem solving tools and can transform ideas to businesses more quickly because of their ability to take risks, fail fast and learn from mistakes. An example of this comes from TJ Parker, Founder and CEO of PillPack, who, inspired by the broken in-store pharmaceutical service experience, designed a business that solved in-store service inefficiencies. Another example of an entrepreneur taking advantage of tools available to pursue a passion for product development and design, is David Laituri, who has founded three different companies- Vers, Onehundred, and Forg. 

Pre-established organizations today, large and small, are faced with the challenge of meeting the ever-changing needs of users. In order to accomplish this challenge, there has been a trend across industries of organizations using labs or start-up incubators to promote multi-disciplinary collaboration that combines technology and design to innovate and create excellent user experiences. Abby Wilson, Director of the LAB @ OPM, shed light into the Government's innovation lab, where a human-centered design approach is taken to tackle the federal agency’s large scale problems. Lou Lenzi, the Director of Industrial Design Operations at GE, gave a private sector perspective on GE Appliances’ partnership with Local Motors to launch First Build, a co-creation space fostering innovation in the field of home appliances. 

Throughout the conference, it was evident that the way entrepreneurs and organizations view innovation has fundamentally changed. Akhil Nigam, Founder and President of the largest startup accelerator in the world, MassChallenge, described this change as “letting lots of ideas take place, rapid iterations, filtering the best ideas and then matching them with resources--both internal and external.” For this reason, the importance of nurturing the idea generating process and fostering creativity has become increasingly important whether the approach is top-down, bottom-up, or neutral.

People everywhere are using the design thinking process in labs to create tangible solutions, but to what end? This question was answered repeatedly throughout the conference. The idea generating lab culture present today means that there will be more people in the world like David Sengeh designing comfortable prosthetic sockets and wearable interfaces for amputees, or Dr. Tenley Albright using systems thinking to address large-scale health issues, or Dr. Robin Murphy designing rescue robots for disaster relief. Everywhere you look, from healthcare, to education, to hospitality, inefficiencies and inequities are waiting to be addressed. Using labs and design thinking processes, we can now come up with sound and sustainable solutions that not only drive business but also solve global humanitarian issues.

Now the question that remains is : How can you or your organization join and leverage this co-creation/lab culture movement to create impactful solutions?



The Role of Design in Digital-Physical Innovations

Darrell K. Rigby’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “Digital-Physical Mashups,” encourages businesses and organizations to meet the needs of customers who “weave their digital and physical worlds so tightly together that they can’t fathom why companies haven’t done the same.” When building digital capabilities, large corporations have tended to keep their digital departments independent from the core of their business to help quicken the development process and to ease management pains. That disconnect often creates a communication gap, which hinders digital-physical innovations and creates inefficiencies in the customer’s user experience. Rigby recognizes these problems and offers advice in finding solutions. I chose to focus on the first three practices he shares in helping companies integrate their digital-physical worlds in a way that is sustainable and robust, and have highlighted the role designers play in implementing each practice and creating a competitive advantage.  

Rule #1: Build your strategy around digital-physical fusion. It can be your new competitive edge.

Making the digital-physical fusion a strategic and financial priority enables a company to assess their current position, revealing areas that need greater attention. From there, design researchers play an important role in exposing the white space for new opportunities that could leverage and enhance the company’s existing products and services. Once the adjacencies are identified, industrial designers bring ideas to life and the focus shifts to the customer.

Rule #2: Add links and strengthen linkages in the customer experience.

A company that adds these links, “thinks systematically about each piece of the customer experience” by developing “innovative components and weaving them into a holistic system.” User and digital experience designers make sure the ‘links’ or platforms are interconnected, testing usability and coherence, and ensuring the highest levels of customer satisfaction. Companies are leveraging technology to engage customers, which in return, strengthens and increases brand awareness. An example of this is how the Marriott has now partnered with Liquidspace, an online platform that allows people to book and share workspaces, to make better use of their underutilized meeting spaces. Additionally, Harvard, MIT and Berkeley have redefined higher education and their traditional brands by extending beyond a physical campus that students pay to attend by offering free online courses through edX. As the technology behind these business adjacencies becomes more of a commodity, the crafted user experience design and the physical/digital design are crucial factors in differentiating companies from their competitors.

Rule #3: Transform the way you approach innovation.

Rigby encourages leaders to consult with or build teams of complementary experts to engage in every step of the process to “generate more wide-ranging, innovative, and integrated solutions.” This comes to no surprise for design consultancies where industrial designers work closely with engineers from the early stages of a project, but in large corporations where departments are more separate and communication happens less frequently, which can negatively impact the product/services created.

The practices Rigby presents establish a path to guide companies through digital transformations, while also revealing the need and value of design professionals in helping to build a competitive edge across all innovation projects. Evident in the examples provided, many industries from hospitality to higher education, are well on their way in the digital transformation movement. Other industries such as medical technology, healthcare and pharma are making significant strides, although at a slower pace, due to regulatory and liability setbacks. Designers are presently making an impact in the digital-physical fusion of devices on the consumer side of healthcare through mHealth and Telehealth, and these products and services will continue to extend into the clinical space. As regulations and liabilities evolve and new technologies are introduced, designers will continue to drive change across medical industries to meet the expectations of 21st century patients.



Talk @ GA: A Day in the Life of a UX Designer at Essential


Last month General Assembly invited Margaret Jacobi and me to introduce a new group of potential UX professionals to our field. Our session, entitled "A Day in the Life of a UX Designer at Essential," provided an overview of the key activities, collaborations, processes, and concepts that make up what we do as UX designers. UX designers know the reality is that no two days are alike in our profession, and this is especially true for a consultancy like Essential--this variety is what makes UX such a dynamic field. But the tools we use, goals we drive towards, and general processes we follow are important resources to learn and weave into the fabric of our professional sensibility.

The talk was well attended by both prospective career switchers and hiring managers looking to build, or collaborate with, a UX team. Margaret and I highlighted the things that really make us excited as UX designers, many of which are possible because of Essential’s diverse client and project base and frequent involvement in early product development research, strategy, and planning.

At Essential, UX designers work on digital products that might be delivered through web browsers, mobile apps, or embedded interfaces for clients in a range of industries. We therefore follow a flexible process that allows us to choose the right activities and tools to move towards key objectives on the path to a clear design intent. Our work gives us the opportunity to engage different development methodologies, business models, user audiences, and channel strategies; but the goals we track and drive towards along the way are pretty consistent.

One question we were asked to address was “what makes a good user experience?” This in itself could be the topic for an entire talk, but we summarized our perspective in these three points:

  • At first impression, communicates with the user on an emotional level
  • When being used is intuitive and seamless to the user—a perfect fit
  • Overall is thoughtful and deliberate on all touch points

For us, the blend of emotional and functional user connection--appropriate for the audience and use context--with a genuinely thoughtful design process is what unites many great experiences. Not all experiences need to look the same, follow the same patterns, or have a high level of visual polish in order to be successful. It’s about being authentic and deliberate when designing and going out of the team’s way to do the right thing for users during development.

Another big topic we covered was our high-level design process, which we split into seven steps. Again, we don’t always follow these steps in exactly this order, and we frequently need to repeat some of these steps to get finer definition of key moments in the experience. But these milestones are easy to keep in mind when helping a team drive toward a finished, user-centered product:

  1. Gathering it all: collecting all the knowledge a team has, and does not have, around an area
  2. Choosing a path: defining success criteria, desired experience attributes, target audience(s), and benefits that an experience will deliver
  3. Asking questions: filling knowledge gaps and evaluating the definition through exploratory field research, stakeholder interviews, and workshops
  4. Sketching solutions: establishing clear definitions of the key paths users will follow through the software; focused, low-fidelity iteration of possible solutions that evolve toward one or two cohesive experiences along the primary scenarios
  5. Figuring out what works: identifying strengths and weaknesses of each approach through evaluative user testing, through either observational sessions or role-playing activities
  6. Locking it down: tracking resolved and open issues while iterating on the design to arrive at a final intended design that the entire team approves
  7. Making it real: working collaboratively with development, marketing, business development, and others who will make the vision into reality to ensure the evolving design is consistent with the spirit of the approved design intent

Again, this process is not set in stone for all of our projects, and in reality there is lots of iteration, sketching, and collaborative work across all these stages; however, for us these seven steps establish milestones to ensure a project moves forward from fuzzy and lofty goals to the right experience, thoughtfully designed and focused on the right user contexts and strategic objectives.

There were many excellent questions that highlighted for us some of the worries and preconceptions that accompany the public image of the UX profession. Many people were concerned about following "the process" exactly every time and learning each and every tool in the process before even getting started. Others felt they needed to learn how to write production-level front and back-end code before getting in the door. And yet others felt they might have difficulty collaborating with other teams in the name of creating the best experiences for the people who use a company's products and services.

We were quite pleased to shed some light on the current state of UX that reflects its more developed position at the table in many organizations, especially in Boston:

  • There is no one process that must always be followed, but in practice a team can learn to consider a progressively focused set of objectives and activities that a team should follow to guarantee progress and measurable success. Many of these goals and questions become second nature with experience, as they all support the creation of great experiences for us as people.
  • While code is a critical medium for designers to understand, particularly on the logical and structural levels, successful UX designers certainly need not write immaculate, shippable code. But a thoughtful UX designer will develop over the course of a career a set of tools for bringing ideas to life, and code can be a great tool for this task. At Essential, we use a combination of index cards, pencils, Adobe CS, and--yes--just enough front-end code to do this. The key thing to remember is to remain flexible enough to respond to any new constraints, dependencies, and opportunities; and to always keep the big picture in sight.
  • And finally, we were pleased to report that we have met many clients (and prospective clients) from many industries who have understood the value of UX in their business and have invested in building internal teams and/or involving designers early in the product development process. We see this trend continuing to develop across even more industries and into parts of the business that may not typically think of design as a core driver, such as service delivery (but that’s a topic for another day).

It’s always fulfilling for us to meet people who are excited about UX and the ways in which the process and methods can make our lives easier, empowered, and connected. We hope to meet many of those who came to our talk in the future as practicing UX professionals!



Government Program Evaluation and Design

As evaluation practices increase, what role can design play?

The design world’s role in social innovation has grown tremendously over the past ten years. A human-centered approach to design yields products and services that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of the populations they serve. Designers use ethnographic and social science methods to get their creations right the first time and avoid user error after launch. Recently, trends in government program administration offer an opportunity for designers to participate after launch as well, in program evaluation.

Government programs are increasingly required to include evaluations as part of their budget, guaranteeing high quality and evaluating on a continuing basis so impact is clear. The federal government is driving nudges in budget allocation that set aside grant funding for evaluation. This incentivizes building on programs that are demonstrably successful and will ideally improve government initiatives over all. Evaluation takes the form of randomized, controlled trials where researchers select people to enroll in a program, organize a control group of individuals not enrolled and then measure the differences between the two.

Massachusetts is engaging in this evaluation-based approach, launching the largest social impact bond in the United States. The state is partnering with Roca for what is known as the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Project that aims to keep at-risk young men out of prison and employed. Roca is working with three other organizations for advisory services and upfront financial support, but according to the terms of a social impact bond, the program must have and meet specific, tangible goals in order to receive state funding. If randomized controlled trials show that the goals are met, the Commonwealth will contribute $11.7 million in funding procured from the US Department of Labor.


Opportunities for designers

David Bornstein’s analysis of these evaluation programs critiques that federal agencies fall short on maintaining standards of rigor and packaging evidence in accessible and timely ways. David Leonhardt’s article on the topic similarly cautions that “none of this work is sexy” and that those who oppose the process insist that measurement is too hard.

These shortcomings create an intriguing opportunity for human centered designers. Visual designers can convey evidence so that it is digestible and compelling. They can also help to create toolkits and guides to help organizations navigate the complex measurement process. Design researchers can use ethnographic methods to give quick but rich insight into how programs are impacting participants. Design thinkers can streamline the various components of these initiatives, taking a systems approach to the products and services involved. Finally, designers can help translate findings into opportunity areas for program improvement going forward.

It’s an exciting time for social innovation as sectors work together and experiment with ways to create more intentional and iterative programs. Let’s figure out, as a design industry, how we can join in this realm of possibility.




The Innovation Hype: What's useful in all the buzz?

The word “innovation” is brandished everywhere. It’s a compelling concept and every day we enjoy working with our clients to deliver them its promise. According to Google Ngram Viewer (which calculates the frequency of word use in publications between 1800 and 2008), “innovation” was used 73% more frequently in 2008 than it was in 1908. The increase was particularly steep between 1962 and 1974 and then again between 1993 and 2006. Why is it so popular? What are the different types of innovation so that we can be more specific when we use it? How are innovation concepts and theories commonly misused and how can they be helpfully applied instead? To answer these questions, I’m going to walk through highlights from a recent New Yorker article and examine Clayton Christensen and Don Norman’s innovation theories.


Why so popular?

Jill Lepore recently wrote a provocative article on the way society uses the term innovation - and particularly Clayton Christensen’s “disruptive innovation.” An American History professor at Harvard, she lays out an interesting historical review of the use of “innovation,” contextualizing its popularity within increasing global tensions and economic downturn. Change and improvement were synonymous in the 18th and 19th centuries when words like “progress” and “evolution” were more prominent. However, in the 21st century, she suggests society uses “innovation” and “disruption” to instead “skirt the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.” This is an unsettling conclusion, pointing out the desperation and insecurity of modern day. It’s our challenge - and responsibility - as designers and innovation leaders to deliver novelty that also has a positive impact on society. A deeper understanding of the types and methods of innovation can help us reach this goal.  


Clayton Christensen helps us balance two types of success

Every innovation strategy firm has their own definition of innovation, so for today’s post I’m going to take us out of the design/innovation industry and bring us into academia. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School is the author of Innovator’s Dilemma, which examines how established companies can do everything “right” yet still miss out on market opportunity and even fail. Competitors (often startups) “disrupt” by offering a lower-quality, cheaper product and therefore tap a new market.

How can Christensen’s theory strengthen our work? While many brandish the word “disruption” in a sensational and convoluted way (see Lepore’s full article for more on that topic), it is actually a defined phenomena that can be avoided. We can help our clients create strategies to avoid being vulnerable to disruption or even to disrupt a competitor themselves. We can also calm client’s fears that if they don’t disrupt the market, they will be disrupted themselves and therefore fail. There are other options; being disrupted doesn’t mean complete failure. Christensen has a concept called “sustaining technologies.” For example, U.S. Steel was disrupted by minimills, but the company did not fail as a result. Yes, it missed out on additional opportunity, but it still succeeded by focusing resources on a premium product (sustaining its technology) that minimills couldn’t threaten. Finally, the above relates to established clients, but emergent clients can also benefit from more deeply understanding the disruptive landscape. It’s important to caution that while Innovator’s Dilemma paints a romantic and appealing picture of entrepreneurship, it is a theory that explains why established firms fail, not a theory as to how startups succeed. Disrupting for disruption’s sake doesn’t necessarily make a successful startup. We can guide our startup clients to form productive strategies that are both disruptive and sustaining, with short term and long term benefits.

Don Norman helps us choose the right methodology for the job

Don Norman formerly of Northwestern University (among other faculty positions) breaks down innovation into “incremental” and “radical” and examines who produces each and how. Incremental innovation, similar to Christensen’s “sustaining technologies,” involves the steady improvement of product quality and is the most common type of innovation. Human-centered designers and design researchers contribute to this development process, identifying opportunities to make the product more usable, useful and desirable. Radical innovation, the more exciting but much more rare of the two, involves a technological breakthrough driven by an inventor’s exploration. His position that HCD does not create radical innovation has been met with much critique and spurs interesting discussion. In the end, like Christensen, Norman's theories similarly acknowledge how thrilling strokes of genius as well as consistent and reliable progress are valuable to companies.

As for the application of incremental and radical to a client context, this distinction helps us choose and justify our methodologies. His classification clarifies what clients can expect from each approach: radical innovation will jump to new design parameters but will not immediately produce a superior-quality product while user research will improve the quality of a product but will not create technological breakthrough. Both contribute to intellectual advancement, but in different ways and with their own limitations. Norman helps us align client expectations with outcomes.

A Christensen and Norman recap…

The more we hear and are asked to deliver “innovation,” the more important it is to be clear about what we mean and what we can create. These two theories can give us helpful frameworks as we guide diverse client types through the messiness of change.

These are the rules of innovation we learn from Christensen and Norman: 

  1. Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean an improvement; it can just be newness. Make it an improvement.
  2. Disruptive technologies have market advantage because they are cheaper, simpler and therefore are accessible to a wider audience
  3. If you don’t disrupt, you can sustain. Sustainable technologies are also profitable and valuable to a business.
  4. Established businesses can have disruptive or sustainable technologies. Emerging businesses can have disruptive or sustainable technologies. Generally, it’s easier for startups to launch a disruptive technology.
  5. We know disruption happens and is something to be aware of. We don’t necessarily know how to avoid it or how to lead it.
  6. Most innovations are incremental.
  7. Radical innovations are very rare and hard to come by.
  8. Human-centered design and design research create incremental innovations.
  9. Technological invention creates radical innovation.