From dinner to dining: the evolving role of the designer

I was privileged to speak this week at LeanUXNYC 2014 – amazing conference filled with super smart, fun people sharing awesome stories. Here I share with you my contribution to the conference: slides, social media and script a framework of the evolving role of the designer based on some of my PhD research findings. It was a 20 minute talk – so apologies for length! 🙂


A love affair with cooking

I love to cook. Its making and therapy all in one! There is something amazing in the making magic of putting seemingly random things together and creating something new that is delicious and even better that you can share with others. I think I’m a pretty good cook if I do say so myself! But a good cook doesn’t make me a chef. Similarly just because I can design, it doesn’t make me a designer.


Design is evolving in popularity and complexity

Over the past decade design has evolved both in popularity and complexity. As was mentioned yesterday most people still consider design in the traditional aesthetic and product sense, even as it has grown to include the design of intangible services, systems and experiences. With this designers often have trouble articulating what design is and what they do.

From this evolution, two issues have emerged:

  1. Firstly, with the growth in popularity there are a lot of home cooks who are marketing themselves as chefs. There are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon and naming themselves designers or design thinkers with little understanding of what this is or means. This is impacting on how design thinking is being understood and perceptions of the quality outcomes design can offer – for example the difference between a take out meal, home cooked dinner or full fine dining experience.
  1. There has also been an emergence and convergence of design and designerly disciplines. Its difficult enough for designers to articulately and convincingly differentate disciplines such as user experience, design thinking, service design and strategic design. If we can’t do it, how do we expect our customers or clients to? To designers, there are subtle more than substantial differences. To people who do not understand design they all sound the same.. I have seen designers often revert to the home cook style of showing people their recipes or fancy tools as a way of making what they do accessible and understandable which instead simply belittles it.

Designers need a better way to articulate what they do and the value they provide. In addition, the ‘chefs’ need to differentiate themselves from the home cooks.


The curse of expertise

One problem though is that research from Stanford University shows that once someone is an ‘expert’ in something they can only articulate a small proportion of their expertise of what they ‘think’ they do. The rest of a person’s expertise is so embedded it becomes tacit knowledge or ‘unconscious competence’.

My PhD research explores an aspect of this asking the question: how is design thinking enacted in practice? How does the designer lead design projects?

To understand this I used ethnographic methods and interviewed approximately 50 academics and professionals about how they understood and applied design thinking in practice. I was also a participant observer in the field working on a half dozen complex design projects. My research found there are five core roles a designer or design team embodies and enacts when leading design thinking projects of: design lead, facilitator, educator, composer and cool kid. Understanding these five roles provides some insight into the ‘unconscious competence’ of the designer.

First of all, lets consider what it means to dine out. Fine dining is all about quality and experience. I went to an amazing new restaurant in Melbourne recently…First we were seated at the bar for our pre dinner drink – The barman was theatrical in his cocktail making, and engaged us in a humorous conversation. Then when our table was ready we were escorted by the maitre d who introduced us to our waiter. The waiter then took over – told us the specials, gave us menus and throughout the dinner in the background the waiter ensured we always had water and the wait between courses was just right. The food when it came tasted just as amazing as it looked. And the wine matched perfectly. It was like being centre stage in a play – it was an easy, seamless and memorable experience.

So why am I telling you this story? It shares many similarities with how designers lead codesign projects with clients and organisations and highlights the five roles of that emerged from my research. Let’s take a quick look at each one.


1. Chef = design lead

People come for the food first

First and foremost people will decide on a restaurant for the food. If the food isn’t delcious, everything else about the experience just doesn’t quite make up for it. So the chef is critical. Interestingly however, the chef is not customer facing, but their product very much is. This correlates to the role of design lead. People choose designers firstly based on the quality of the design outcomes and deliverables.

In my research, I observed that designers acted as subject matter experts in design, often leading a client team with little or no experience. Designers involved client teams in the process through workshops and activities but also separately synthesised and sense made what they had learned from these activities using this as a basis to design from. While the team participated and contributed to the experience, the designer took charge of designing. So the food, the meal itself, is most important. Similarly to the dining experience however, the role of design lead itself is often not customer facing, it happens in the background, but the end product, the deliverables are at the forefront.


2. Waiter = facilitator

Navigating people through seamless service

The second role is that of wait staff who are also critical. They navigate the path through the experience – they provide the menus, give the specials of the day, fill up your water glass when you aren’t watching, bring your food. The waiter is the tactical glue of the whole scene, connecting customers with their general and specific needs through facilitation.

Similarly the role of facilitator in design thinking guides people through the design process and drives engagement and participation in it. This is about deliberately creating a structured environment for people so they can walk into an unknown situation and be confident they can move through it. This expert facilitation appears as a seamless conversation between the designers and the client team. This requires honed skills in order to critically assess a situation, be responsive to it and lead people through the process of change to achieve outcomes in the most appropriate and effective way. Think of the waiter, who needs to be aware of quick flick of the eyes, or slight nod of the head or how full glasses are. They need to understand the rhythm and energy and pace of each table and respond to needs quickly. So the designer also needs to understand the rhythm and energy of the situation and being able to respond to it and move people through it to progress.


3. Sommelier = educator

Share what you know, teach through experience

The sommelier’s role is often subtle. They work in the background and foreground. They can assist the chef in designing the menu with appropriate wine matching and can also be on service to provide first hand advice and knowledge to assist customers in making the best choices in regard to flavours.

The sommelier, aligns with the role of educator in design thinking. Teaching design is both implicit and explicit through the design process. Simply through the experience of design thinking, participants naturally learn some aspects. Deliverables are also often educational documents – discussing project outcomes and recommendations but also detailing the process and tools for the organisation to use. At other times training and skill development is explicitly integrated within projects. I watched designers lead workshops to teach design skills and tools such as how to conduct interviews and create prototypes. This was found also at Proctor and Gamble in their evolution to a design led organisation where they found design and its value couldn’t be explained only experienced.

The key purpose for this role of educator is to build enough capability for people to productively contribute and participate in the design process not develop expertise. The sommelier juxtaposes with the waiter and the chef to navigate people through the process, and deliver the best possible food experience.


4. Maitre d’ = composer

Direct the experience, be ready to improvise

The fourth role is the maitre d’ who coordinates and oversees the whole experience. In some ways their role is similar to the waiter, but on a more strategic level, ensuring that the tactical experiences executed by waitstaff are coordinated and seamless.

Within design thinking the ‘composer’ is the maître d’. The composer is focused on designing an orchestrated and positive experience of design. It is responsible for designing and planning the whole process, as well as each individual activity and sequencing of events. It’s about being well prepared but flexible enough to respond to anything in the moment. It is crucial to ensure participant engagement and to aid project progress toward design outcomes. The criticality of the designed experience is evident in the research of Karen Sobel, from Macquarie University, where she found a business’s first experience of design thinking needed to be positive for further adoption. She found those who had poor experiences become disenchanted and dropped support for design thinking and explicitly identified the need for ‘well-trained and experienced design thinkers’.

Relating back to the matire d’…the food attracts people and it can win people over but if the service and experience of the restaurant is poor people are still unlikely to come back.


5. Barman = ‘cool kid’

It’s more than just mixing drinks

Finally the barman. We rely on the barman to lighten the mood through the drink service – we have an expectation of fun and intrigue when we peruse a drinks menu. They add to the experience with their theatre.. Also, stereotypically in movies, people sit at the bar and the barman listens to all your problems. They are part of the dining experience but there is a sense that the barman is also your friend.

The barman is closely related to the role of cool kid. In the end, designing is not just about designing. It’s also about building a relationship and constructing a shared story. The role of cool kid is about being the person who inspires you, excites and encourages you, provokes you to step beyond yourself. So the cool kid is focused on building relationships and making connections with people. It’s the social interactions around the project – the conversations about peoples lives, career paths, organizational journeys, giving them books to read, encouraging them. The underlying sentiment is about bringing change to people, inspiring them, bringing new possibilities and ways of working and being.


Designer as enabler

So in the past, the designer was only expected to be the chef and play design lead. However, now these five roles are interrelated and interdependent in providing the full dining experience that is now often expected of design. As I mentioned earlier they can be executed by one person or a team of people.

If we go back to the notion of the curse of expertise – in my research designers could usually articulate the roles of design lead and facilitator to some degree, though many enacted more in practice. With just these two roles you can certainly still have a dinner experience however it is not like the fine dining experience. Its in the breath and depth of the roles and the broader explicit inclusion of educator, composer and cool kid that design reaches its full potential and the ‘unconscious competence’ of the expert designer starts to be revealed.

Overall the designer acts in an enabling capacity. The designer moves in, out and between roles according to what is needed in the situation. In taking on several roles, the designer enables a clear pathway through the experience of designing and solving complex problems.


So what? A framework for understanding and growing

So what does this mean? Understanding these roles assists designers in three ways:

  1. It provides an articulation of what designers do and how it has changed: It provides insight into how designers lead design projects including the roles they take on and the broad knowledge, skills and tools they use. It makes explicit some aspects of their unconscious competence. It can help in avoiding using a cookie cutter recipe explanation and assist others to understand the depth of capability of the designer. It’s much more than just cooking dinner.
  2. It provides insight into design thinking maturity: These 5 roles require a diverse set of knowledge and skills, and a whole new understanding of the designer. It provides a framework to a designer’s maturity and consider capability development – for example you do you need to develop your skills to be a better chef, waiter, sommelier, maître d or barman?
  3. It can assist in differentiating the dinners from the dining experiences and evaluate quality in design. For example, Are you providing a great meal but poor service experience? What quality of dining experience are you marketing compared to what you are providing?

After all – a good space, a first class kitchen, good wine list, doesn’t guarantee a great dining experience. These simply assist the restaurant staff to do their best work. Let’s ensure we start to improve the articulation of what designers do and make explicit decisions regarding the experiences we provide. Designers will differentiate themselves based on the how they enable great dining experiences, not just a good home cooked dinner.

Published by zaana

Strategic designer and researcher. PhD in design. I care about people and creating better systems, services and experiences for them. I use human centred design as a method to do this. I write and present about design mindset, human centred design, design maturity, design thinking, user experience, service design, human centricity and empathy.

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