MITX Massachusetts Innovation and Technology DesignTech Summit Takeaways - Boston


Lauren Janney
Principal Strategist, LENS Strategy
Twitter: @LaurenMDJanney


On April 10, I attended the MITX (Massachusetts Innovation and Technology) DesignTech Summit to discuss the business value of design with industry leaders. While design has been recognized as a new competitive advantage for businesses, there is still little representation of designers in the C-suite, and there are still challenges in communicating design's value to the bottom line. Below is my 5-point summary, highlighting my takeaways from each session at the conference. 

Redesigning the Designer 

Janaki Kumar, Executive Director of Design
Commercial Real Estate Digital at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Involving designers early requires a mind shift, not only for the stakeholders but also for the designers. Here are 5 tips for redesigning the designer to take on strategic projects:

Designers are getting a seat at the table; it’s time to step up.

  1. Get comfortable with ambiguity. Early in a project, the business team may have a transformation mandate, but they do not yet know what the solution should be. At this early state of the process, we need design strategists who can help business teams build empathy to understand the problem and design thinking facilitation to navigate the ambiguity.

  2. Extend your "T" on the job to include business topics such as finance and tech topics such as machine learning and AI.
    You don't need to be an expert, but you need to know enough to be engaged.

“T” shaped designers have breadth, in addition to depth, helping them bridge the gap between design and business.

“T” shaped designers have breadth, in addition to depth, helping them bridge the gap between design and business.

Teams with too low Creative Abrasion fail slow while teams with too high Creative Abrasion can’t make progress

Teams with too low Creative Abrasion fail slow while teams with too high Creative Abrasion can’t make progress

3. Be a systems thinker. When designers are invited to be a part of the business team, our solutions are measured not by their elegance but by their impact through implementation. Borrow frameworks from business consulting such as impact versus effort, stakeholder canvas, and market maturity versus competitiveness to increase impact.

4. Embrace diversity. Embracing diversity means recognizing different cognitive styles, domain experiences, and life experiences. Teams low in creative abrasion fail slowly, and teams high in creative abrasion fail fast. Ideal teams have enough in common experiences to respect and listen to each other but enough diversity to embrace discourse.

5. Communicate to connect. Designers need to bridge the language gap, or we will be misquoted and misunderstood. Try this exercise with a partner: think of a song and clap your hands to the beat of that song. Can your partner guess the song? Likely not. Were you hearing the song you were thinking of in your head as you clapped? Likely yes. Keep in mind that when communicating across industries, what you are communicating may be as clear as your clapping was to your partner. Drop the jargon for descriptive explanations.

Empathy: The Foundation of Great Design

Josh Teague, Head of Design, Fullstory

 You cannot save lives by using the law of averages

Any response that begins with "at least" is not empathetic. For example, "At least the user could log in..."

  1. Why businesses empathize:

    1. Increase sales, loyalty, and referrals

    2. Accelerated productivity and innovation

    3. Greater competitive advantage and market value

    4. Expanded engagement and collaboration

  2. Empathy building is similar to the theory of human factors: when you design for the average, you design for no one. The airline industry learned this lesson in the 1940s after designing airplanes for the average human dimensions. When planes started to crash, research uncovered that the cause was driven by poor ergonomics.

  3. The bow-tie theory of product development offers a great framework for a constructive debate that leads to the best imaginable realistic solution.

  4. “Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it's many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.” — Scott Berkun, “The Myths of Innovation”

Inclusivity in Design 

Jutta Treviranus, Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University

 Who are your most valuable customers? Hint: they aren't your target customer...

  1. Three dimensions of inclusive design:

    1. One size fits one: everyone is different and we need to provide that "one size fits one" within an integrated system.

    2. Inclusive process: co-design, ask who is missing?

    3. Systems thinking: working within complex and adaptive systems because no design decision is made within isolation.

  2. Including diversity doesn't mean you need to include more people; instead, include people on the fringes rather than people at the center. By meeting fringe needs, you will, by default, meet the needs of your average customer base while differentiating your product or service.


3. Need an example of the return on investment of inclusive design? OXO, a popular kitchen appliance brand, built their products for extreme users (people with arthritis). This led to ergonomic improvements for all users, which became known as their differentiator.

4. Are you concerned about value to shareholders? Companies that cater to accessibility have a greater return on investment. Need an evidence-based example? Look at Rich Donovan's Return on Accessibility Index.

5. What do we lose without inclusivity? The cobra effect occurs when an attempted solution to a problem makes the problem worse, as a type of unintended consequence. These consequences are often overlooked by a team that lacks diversity. 

Utilizing User Research to Set Innovation

Jen Briselli, Madpow; Jen Cardello, Fidelity; Lisa Debettencourt, Pearl Partners; Kate Lawrence, Akamai Technologies; Susan Rice, Toast, Inc.; Harlan Weber, MBTA

 Research is not an output but rather an input. It's a step in the process to get to a better outcome.

  1.  Business metrics matter. The more informed we are on these and the more we can help define these, the more value we can bring as designers.

  2. Journey maps, process flows, empathy maps... what once were process tools became deliverable. As designers, we need to speak to the research behind these shiny deliverables as value-generating work. If they don't have research baked into it, it’s garbage.

  3. Learn to say "no" through "yes" when a client asks for the wrong solution by bringing clients on a journey that gets them to the right solution.

  4. Research is not an isolated set of activities that happen at a given point in time, it’s a thread braided throughout the process, ensuring decisions are valuable.

  5. Be cognizant of using different types of research throughout the design process:

    1. Generative research: How can we develop ideas rapidly and inclusively? 

    2. Evaluative research: Were we successful in delivering meaningful outcomes?

    3. Discovery research: Do you understand the problem you are solving?