The Role of Design in Digital-Physical Innovations

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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.