Art vs Science in Digital Product Design


You know that a barrel is being scraped somewhere when you start to read a blog post on digital product design and it opens with an introduction into Tim Minchin. However, I hope that what follows proves to be an engaging introduction into the logic behind Outcome Driven Innovation methods and the relationship between data and creativity within this. A meaty topic to cover with barrel scraps but here goes!


Introducing Tim Minchin


As many of you should already be aware, Tim Minchin is a comedic genius. Anyone that can play the piano with their toes, pen a comedy album with songs about badly dancing bears et al. and then have time to write the score for the musical Matilda should be admired. If you take a look at the graduation speech he gave as an honoured guest at UWA which went viral and has had over 3.2million YouTube views he appeals to the class of 2013 to constantly examine and question one’s own opinions and assumptions, expressing his concern at the apparent polarisation of science and art in some circles. His point is that the two are not mutually exclusive and at odds with one another. There is value in their union.

If you have the time, Storm is also worth a listen. The overriding message from Tim seems to be the need to face up to complexity and that scientific principles provide the means to navigate the mysterious.


I think I’ve probably driven this tangent far enough and let’s be honest you’ve only just returned from Youtube after watching a bunch of TED talks or perhaps something lower brow such as a cat riding a tortoise. No judgement. So now please brace yourself for the handbrake turn back towards Digital Product Design…


End of Tangent and YouTube Procrastination


It was Tim’s passionate plea of the importance of both art and science that came to mind when, in a recent conversation I was challenged around Mubaloo’s approach to Outcome Driven Innovation.  The criticism centred on the well-known Jobs To Be Done  (JTBD) Theory being too prescriptive and constricting the space needed to create something that was truly innovative. It surprised me that this view still persisted.


Reflecting on this, and in part for my own sanity, I have written down the reasons why data-driven approaches to identifying opportunities can help form a more fruitful base from which to “be creative”. More importantly how data-driven approaches provide a vital means to understand the implications of our product decisions – ultimately, what are we trying to do here? A distinction needs to be made between creativity for the sake of creativity and business changing innovation through the satisfaction of currently unmet user needs and subsequent upturns in end-user experience.


For me, it is clear that using a more data-driven and ordered process to identify and quantify unmet needs, allows us to pour all that unfettered and unleashed creativity into real challenges. Data also allows us to validate our product design. We shouldn’t be building anything until we have validated that it solves the unmet need we identified with JTBD. This direction is key when aligning teams on a mission – after-all, we all need to explain to someone what we are trying to achieve. We have to be realistic that we are doing this within the context of real business and there is real money involved.


At Mubaloo, we have adopted the Google Ventures Design Sprint model when looking to kick-off the prototyping process. Many clients are familiar with the approach but on talking to clients there always seems to be a mix of opinions as to the success of the incubation sprint.  Our view is that there is little point on embarking to find a solution if there is not a clear acceptance as to what the challenge is. For us, it is the JTBD insight that forms that understanding and in turn, becomes a springboard from which to create an aligned sense of direction within the Design Sprint. Without the insight, the validation of prototypes becomes less meaningful as there is no clear understanding as to what success looks like.


If we don’t understand what success looks like then how can we pour creativity and investment into the right product extensions? We might as well brainstorm until we have a thousand ivory tower ideas – from the mundane to the whacky – number each one, pen these numbers on a thousand rubber ducks, release into the sea, build everything that washes up in Madagascar and discard the rest. That would be pretty creative I guess. Perhaps when the FD asks why our health and safety app has an ‘alert NATO’ button, we can just explain that the idea was handpicked by an inquisitive lemur? Joking aside, the notion that great innovation and creativity is only possible when we are unshackled from process and allowed to roam on a never-ending savannah (complete with beanbags, caffeine drinks and thought spaces) is not too far removed from how product decisions have been made in the past.  Consequently, it’s not hard to see why there is such a high failure rate in new digital product initiatives.  Worryingly, this failure risks curtailing future opportunity to change/transform by demoralising decision makers in businesses where change is needed for survival.


Back to Tim


I think Tim Minchin would be proud of me if I concluded with the points that, in the case of digital product design, creativity can work together with a more scientific and ordered process. In fact, their union is key in channelling creativity into the right places – maximising its effectiveness. I think Tim would also be pleased to hear that this is not a static space. Here at Mubaloo, we are constantly reviewing the way that we help clients in this space to ensure that we are remaining truly problem-centric. I guess he’d be slightly disappointed that this was not delivered in song form but I did my best.

Written by Hugh Shone, New Business Manager at Mubaloo.

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