View of Bernal Sphere agricultural module (multiple toroids) with cutaway to expose interior
View of Bernal Sphere agricultural module (multiple toroids) with cutaway to expose interior (source: NASA Ames Research Center).

Design aligns humans and technology, it aligns business and engineering, it aligns digital and physical, and it aligns business needs and user needs. Here at O’Reilly, we’re fascinated by the design space, and we’re launching several initiatives focused on the experience design community.

Design is both the disruptor and being disrupted. It’s disrupting markets, organizations, and relationships, and forcing us to rethink how we live. The discipline of design is also experiencing tremendous growth and change, largely influenced by economic and technology factors. No longer an afterthought, design is now an essential part of a product, and it may even be the most important part of a product’s value.

The latest devices, appliances, and services are beautiful, but their true significance is how they improve our lives. Steve Jobs said it well: “Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

There are two areas where this notion of design creating value resonates: in the emerging space of the Internet of Things (IoT) and within organizations that treat design as a key corporate asset. In the coming months, I’ll be digging deeper into both of these topics. Below, I outline my initial thinking as I begin these explorations.

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Internet of Things and design: Complexity is an opportunity

The IoT, with its massive data sets, remote, and — in some cases — autonomous control, promiscuous connectivity, and ubiquitous sensors, requires designers to completely rethink interfaces. This represents a bigger change for designers than iterations from print to web and web to mobile. Whether you’re an interaction designer, UX designer, visual designer, or an industrial designer, if you’re working in — or even near — the IoT space, your role and responsibilities are undergoing a transformation.

We’re in the midst of what Andy Huntington calls the “Geocities of Things” phase. (For those who don’t remember or weren’t “Internet conscious” at the time, Geocities was a ‘90s web hosting service that let anyone build a rudimentary online presence. As you might imagine, the results were mixed.) Huntington notes that maturity requires mass experimentation, which is exactly what we’re seeing in the IoT design space now. The tools and resources for designing “smart stuff” are being democratized. Designers are moving from proprietary, overly complex tools to easier to use and free tools, and non-designers are beginning to learn how to use these, too. Funding for new ideas is within reach for many more people with the help of platforms like Kickstarter. Just as web design and development matured through experimentation, IoT design is also evolving along the same path. While IoT still feels a bit messy, I expect it will become more relevant and user-centered as it matures.

I see plenty of experimentation in IoT design as engineers and designers come together to identify products that go beyond what customers think they need to what they want. Successful companies like Nest, Belkin, and Samsung, and lesser-known companies like Lively, have figured out key ingredients: identifying use cases, building cross-disciplinary teams, and leading with design to create products customers love.

IoT is also changing how designers are perceived and what is expected of them. Claire Rowland talks about the design stack for IoT: visual design, interaction design, interusability, industrial design, service design, conceptual models, productization, and platform design. Designers’ responsibilities are expanding at a dizzying pace.

The convergence of the physical and digital requires different groups coming together to solve real human problems. In addition to hardware and software engineers, industrial designers, interaction designers, visual designers, and user researchers all need to collaborate. To realize the promise of IoT, teams of designers, product managers, and engineers need to take on the hard problems — standards, big data, cloud computing, and privacy to name a few. Interaction designers now need to embrace topics like security and performance. Building the future requires industrial and interaction designers collaborating to make sense of the whirl of technology and human-centered needs.

In the digital world, poor design decisions cause annoyance or frustration, such as waiting for a web page to load or having to re-enter your password multiple times. In the physical world, the consequences of poor design are far more obvious and significant. What happens if your smoke detector sets itself off in error, or your lights are delayed in turning on upon arriving home? A recent example is Nest’s recall of Protect due to a gestural design feature. In this case, the recall was a simple fix: disabling the “Wave” feature over Wi-Fi. When design and IoT intersect, the stakes are higher, but the solutions are often easier.

For many years, interaction designers have focused on a single user using a single device. IoT shifts designers to think in terms of context and connected worlds. User experience grows beyond a one-to-one relationship to become a web of touchpoints and conversations. Devices pull, digest, and process data to serve us in ways we may not recognize or understand. The best smart devices and apps provide users with the types of inputs that help augment decision making by combining the heavy burden of processing, and summarizing massive stores of sensor data with machine learning that improves results based on analyzing collective behavior. The design of everyday things has never been more challenging and exciting. In his book Enchanted Objects and through his talks, David Rose describes this as “objects that anticipate.”

Design drives profit and innovation

Organizations that value design and treat it as a corporate asset increase their odds of success. Conversely, organizations that minimize design’s impact and continue to treat it as an adjacent activity will fail.

Need proof?

  • The Danish Design Center (DDC) ran a study using the Design Ladder, a tool for measuring the economic impact of investing in design. The main finding from the study was that companies more heavily invested in design had gross revenues 22% higher than those investing less in design.
  • The Design Management Institute (DMI) conducted research (PDF) to identify companies that are design leaders. The big takeaway: design-driven organizations outperformed the S&P 500 by 228% in the last 10 years. Among the top performing firms: Apple, Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Newell-Rubbermaid, Procter & Gamble, and Starbucks. What constitutes a design-driven company? The study used six criteria: “publicly traded in the U.S. for 10+ years; deployment of design as an integrated function across the entire enterprise; evidence that design investments and influence are increasing; clear reporting structure and operating model for design; experienced design executives at the helm directing design activities; and tangible senior leadership-level commitment for design.” Jeneanne Rae, who worked with DMI, provides additional analysis of the study in this Harvard Business Review post.

If companies know that design drives innovation and increases profit, why aren’t all organizations embracing design as a core business asset? The simple answer is: it’s hard. Those who believe in design’s power to transform business results know that it’s difficult to make cultural changes to an organization, which is precisely the kind of shift required for design to become part of a company’s fabric. Just ask IBM, which is investing $100 million in UX this year and hiring 1,000 employees to support new design initiatives.

While many startups have embraced design, integrating design in an established enterprise can be far more complicated. In some companies, there are product managers who facilitate the collaboration. In other cases, consultants are brought in to lead this facilitation. Many companies are in the early stages of figuring out how to align business and design to create better products and services for their customers.

A growing number of companies make design a core cultural attribute and use design to develop products and services that customers need and love. Airbnb uses design to solve a distinctly human problem: how to make it comfortable for all parties to have a stranger stay at your home. Airbnb’s user experience makes the renter feel comfortable about their decision, and it compels the property owner to show the real condition of the property. The service’s design serves as an essential part of the product offering, arguably as important as the marketplace for casual rentals Airbnb now mostly owns.

Uber offers another example. Aaron Levie of wrote on Twitter: “Uber is a $3.5 billion lesson in building for how the world should work instead of optimizing for how the world does work.” The brilliance of Uber is that it uses the new capabilities provided by GPS-enabled smartphones — stored payments, seamless anonymous communication, and reputation systems — in the hands of both driver and passenger to completely rethink how taxi service ought to be delivered. Rather than simply recreating old processes on a new platform, Uber puts the user first, and applies design thinking to change key expectations. Its frictionless user experience is delighting customers and disrupting the transportation market.

Companies such as Airbnb and Uber treat design not as a feature but as intrinsic to the product or service they are trying to sell. They use design to create a natural, almost intangible coherence that makes users more comfortable and more willing to spend their time and money.

Design and business degree programs are also being challenged to change. Stanford’s Institute of Design has been leading the charge with a focus on design thinking. Several MBA programs are now incorporating design and creative problem solving into their curricula as well. As noted in this Wall Street Journal article, universities beyond Stanford’s Institute of Design are embracing a hybrid approach, meshing business acumen with design thinking. This hybrid model means tomorrow’s leading designers will have a blend of design, communication, and business skills.

Data-driven thinking is already an essential part of successful businesses, and now it’s expanding its influence to guide design groups as well. Years back, Google was viewed as pushing data driven a little too far with the notorious story of 41 shades of blue, but today’s organizations are taking a more balanced approach to data and design. In this article, Rochelle King, global head of design for Spotify, explains how her team used data-informed decision making to redesign Spotify’s site. The best designs are human-centered and use the data gathered by the discovery process to identify problems and possible solutions in the form of products and services. This human-centered approach enables organizations to ask the right questions and gain insights about behavior, emotion, engagement, and motivation. One of my favorite examples of using data to focus on user needs is the redesign of By putting the user’s needs first — rather than the government’s — Mike Bracken and his team folded thousands of disparate websites into one, improving people’s lives while saving taxpayers money. Their user-centered design was crafted with data.

Finally, the successful organizations of tomorrow will embed design in their DNA if venture capitalists have anything to say about it. In recent years, VCs have hired designers as partners. Most recently, John Maeda, former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, joined Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byer, and Irene Au, former head of user experience at Google, joined Khosla Ventures. Google Ventures has several design partners on staff. Each of these VCs has brought on well-known designers for different responsibilities, but the message is clear: investors recognize design’s impact on the bottom line.

Our exploration of experience design: What comes next

In the coming months, I’ll be exploring the future of design, the changing role of designers, and how design is shaping our lives in new and different ways. We have a lot planned, so we hope you’ll come along as we dig into these fascinating spaces.

I’m also interested in knowing what you see and think. If you’re a designer, how are you building your skill set? How is design viewed within your company? What’s your take on the Internet of Things? If you’re in a large corporation or a startup, how are you leveraging design? If you’re involved with education and training, how is your curriculum changing to address the growing demand for designers? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @marytreseler or email me at


Article image: View of Bernal Sphere agricultural module (multiple toroids) with cutaway to expose interior (source: NASA Ames Research Center).