Steve Jobs, Friedrich Hayek and Design: the column


(Four minutes of extracts from a 27 minute video which can be watched here.)

Herewith my column for the SMH and Age in Ross Gittins’ spot while he’s on vacation. It’s the column of the essay which is here.

As he was wheeled around on the emergency ward trolleys, Kristian filmed the whole experience with the video camera he had concealed under his clothing. Who is Kristian and what (on earth) was he doing? He’s a designer from the top global design consultancy Ideo. And the video camera? It goes pretty much everywhere Kristian goes on assignment.

Welcome to the new world of service design. If you haven’t heard, design is on the crest of a wave. Apple teeters on being the most valuable company in history because of its mastery of design – not technology, at which it is unremarkable. And the world’s largest business services firm, Deloitte, wants ”design thinking” at the centre of its operations – from consulting to audit.

So what is design and why is it important? We economists tend to think that once ”incentives” are sorted, for instance once competition forces producers to compete for customers, that everything will be hunky dory. But in a complex world what if the seller doesn’t understand what the buyer wants?

Before the Apple Macintosh was designed, no one understood how important user friendliness was to computer users – certainly not IBM and Microsoft. Some people think of design as an aesthetic overlay on products. But as Steve Jobs insisted, good design isn’t about how something looks, but rather how it works.

The driving force of design is looking at things from every angle. And usually the producer’s angle is already dominant. That’s where Kristian’s ”patient’s eye” video cam came in. Playing back the video, what did it feature? The ceiling. The patient on the trolley or in the bed spends all their time looking at the ceiling. Who knew? And who had thought of making the ceiling a more interesting, less alienating vista? Not the doctors or nurses. They look down, not up. The soulless ceiling was just one of literally hundreds of thoughtless aspects of the patient experience that Kristian and his design team documented, and then worked with hospital staff to address, so that at every turn the patient would be informed and reassured rather than disoriented and alienated if not alarmed.

Seen in this way, design is a kind of counter-narrative to the gravitational pull of producers and service providers – the way they suit themselves without even knowing that that’s what they’re doing. Also, by being consciously and counter-culturally cross-disciplinary, design seeks a larger view than is dreamt of in the narrow philosophies of professional disciplines. The practitioners of economics, accountancy marketing, communications, HR and IT pursue their objectives with such single mindedness that it can unbalance and tyrannise our lives. The French even have an expression for it. Déformation professionnelle. “design thinking” seeks a wider perspective in which the whole is ultimately built from an attempt to empathise with all involved.

As an economist, these thoughts remind me of Friedrich Hayek’s critique of the hubris of ”scientism”. “Scientific knowledge, occupies now so prominent a place in public imagination that we tend to forget that it is not the only kind that is relevant,” he said. Hayek’s immediate point was that centrally planned economies engineer out of the economy the vital local knowledge of the trader. But this insistence on the need to capture and integrate different forms of knowledge – both professional or scientific knowledge and local knowledge from the ”lifeworld” – is the aspiration of design thinking.

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) is taking design thinking further still. Seeking to reduce the incidence of families in crisis, like Kristian in the emergency ward, our Radical Redesign team embraced ”ethnographic methods” – an exotic name for an ordinary process that (astonishingly enough) nevertheless remains rare in social welfare policy. Translation: they hung out with the families they were trying to help – radical, eh?

Our team and the families they were hanging out with together designed, prototyped, trialled and refined a new social program – Family by Family. It’s a hybrid melding a behaviour change program with peer support or mentoring. ”Sharing” families, who’ve been through difficult times but come through, are coached to mentor ”seeking” families, who may be at risk of falling into crisis.

Where in traditional programs social workers might work directly with clients, Family by Family recasts the role of each of the players. The seeking family members don’t get ”counselling” from a social worker. They don’t get counselling at all. They’re mentored by those who share many of their experiences. And the ”sharing family” gets assistance from a specially trained coach who may, but need not be, a qualified social worker.

Whatever their background, the family coaches are trained to keep a balance between informality and engagement with sharing families in goal setting and monitoring progress towards those goals.

The real excitement began when families realised they really were co-designing their own program. Though it’s early days, families have been hugely enthusiastic, with some saying the program was life changing. As fellow TACSI board member, Martin Stewart Weeks, puts it: “Instead of assuming people, in this case families, need a service in the traditional sense, Family by Family suggests that they are the service. The real subversion of the design method is that it assumes the best way to learn is to look and listen. Family by Family for all its simplicity and old-fashioned ordinariness is far removed from the rigid and contrived rhythms of ‘consultation’ that consume the professionals.”

Some politicians and senior officials I’ve spoken to imagine our achievement springs from some singular feature and toy with setting up their own versions. But every aspect of Family by Family is painstakingly designed, prototyped, tested, and optimised with the families. There are 150 specifically designed ”touchpoints” like brochures, games, activities, events and timetables. And in each location in which the program is rolled out, the team hangs out and works with families to tweak the program. That’s part of the design!

And Family by Family’s other defining characteristic is its focus on change. Where Steve Jobs had the uncanny knack of divining what people had not yet realised they wanted, Family by Family helps participants understand and articulate the change they want in their lives and then works with them to realise it.

If we’re successful, we’ll have shown how we can design better lives.

oooOOOooo

Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chair of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. Ross Gittins is on leave.

See also this column written nearly a year later – with more experience under our belt.

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Innovation. Bookmark the permalink.
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Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

I used to go to a dentist who had cartoons stuck on the ceiling. Mainly kids’ stuff as I recall.

Later, in another town, I noticed at my new dentist that in a chromed edge of the his moveable light I could see a tiny image of the street outside and two floors lower. I pointed this out and suggested that if he mounted a mirror there, angled just so, it would make a fine distraction for the patient.

I reminded him of it on subsequent visits. He never did it though.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

You better not pump out too many interesting articles. Ross Gittins won’t thank you when he comes back you know :-)

But anyhow, I disagree about Apple and the cult of “design”. There was one big breakthrough moment for Apple that turned them from the verge of bankruptcy to a great success — when they discovered they could link iPod sales to the iTunes music store and somehow manage to get the boneheaded recorded music industry onside. It wasn’t a tech breakthrough, nor was it a design breakthrough, it was a retail innovation, related to the whole online retail wave that everyone knows is happening anyhow.

Where Steve Jobs had the uncanny knack of divining what people had not yet realised …

I disagree again… many people have been telling the recorded music industry that if they sold individual songs for a reasonable price (i.e. cheap) and made a convenient system for people to purchase, then they would sell a lot more than insisting everyone bought expensive albums via an annoying physical infrastructure. People have said it again and again ever since ADSL modems were invented but the recorded music industry was a flexible as a stone monolith.

Then along came iTunes and somehow Apple got them to play ball. The Creative Labs “Zen” has always been a great music player, better design on both the technical side and the overall package IMHO, but iTunes made the difference.

Then Apple repeated their success with the iPhone and the “App Store” which has since been copied by “Steam” and also by Android (although coming late to a party like that never puts you in a good position).

desipis
9 years ago

which has since been copied by “Steam”

Tel, Steam was out a full 5 years before the IPhone.

john
john
9 years ago

nic
My dentist used to run nature Docos on a screen on the ceiling, a nice idea, until one doco turned out to contain footage of lions tearing a wildebeest to bits , a bit too toothy.

FDB
FDB
9 years ago

Sounds like something akin to Family by Family ought to be tried in remote Aboriginal communities.

Community by Community or something.

Put together teams from places where things are going pretty well, to hang out in places doing less well and work out what they really want to change.

Mel
Mel
9 years ago

FDB @7:

” … to hang out in places doing less well …”

Sounds like FDB is trying to use his white male privilege to impose Anglo success orientated values on indigenous peoples and by default he is invalidating their own unique imaginaries. This is the very type of insensitive othering behaviour that makes it essential that our universities embed Indigenous cultural competencies into all curricula as a matter of urgency.

john
john
9 years ago

Mel
“Anglo success orientated values ” are you trying to be funny?

Is death by diabetes before 50 or the story of the leader group) of a community (of 300) that went through about 50 land cruisers in about 5 years (and can not even locate the wrecks) Anybodies idea of success?

FDB
FDB
9 years ago

Mel … are you trying to be funny?

Yes, I’d wager he is. And with some success IMHO.

john
john
9 years ago

Sorry Mel…. In defense I have heard much the same said in all seriousness.

john
john
9 years ago

Nicolas
Have a small involvement with a non gov community oriented organisation,it could be of interest.
Family by family.
Sounds like a good idea (if also common sense). How have they gone with official welfare services?

PS Mel There was ( sort of still is) a proposal to embed a thing called “Visuacy” “. into all of Australia’s secondary schools curriculum. The proposal was generously government funded (through ARC and the OZCO) and was awfully serious , definitely no laughing matter.

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

One of the things that set Steve Jobs apart was his obsession with details. These small details seem to a lot of people to be trivial, but features like magnetic power cord plugs that don’t drag $2000 laptops crashing onto the floor when someone trips over them can really be appreciated by customers. The solid feel and the build quality on the apple laptops and phones put all the other manufacturers to shame, but the quality they achieved was within reach of all of them if they cared about it. Appreciation of design it seems isn’t common among decision makers.
I’m also impressed by the design of the ALDI supermarkets. They have managed to offer choice that was sadly lacking in Australia’s dismal retail sector by doing a few things differently. Is it barriers to entry or the public’s aversion to new things that keeps Australia’s retial sector 10-15 years behind other countries?

FDB
FDB
9 years ago

Well that’s really good to hear Nicholas. Seems like a great fit (and as you say, once you look at it it’s depressing we haven’t been using it for ever).

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Steam was out a full 5 years before the IPhone.

Good point! So Jobs was just plodding along following the leader as usual. It’s amazing how easily publicity hype can distort your brain, even for leaden cynics such as myself.

Although, to be fair Steam didn’t get big names onboard until 2007 and the app-store was out in 2008 so in terms of first-mover advantage, Steam didn’t get great traction. Also, it seems that Apple are more effective at leveraging their position and they grew it faster.

That was also where the iTunes magic came from — Apple got the big brands to play ball, lots of others had tried but no one else could make it happen.

He saw immediately that people would want the GUI.

Ahh, I lived through all the early stuff: Atari ST and GEM, Amiga, Sun Microsystems (suntools), IBM’s OS/2 and the Apollo workstations. I even owned a genuine Xerox mouse with a steel rolling ball, every man and dog has had a go at the GUI paradigm. It’s a tough market out there. For example, the Atari-ST got huge purchase amongst electronic music fans in Germany, for no better reason than it happened to come with a built in MIDI port (a feature that was an optional extra on most other machines). The Apple Mac was popular in the small publishing industry because it came with a high resolution black-and-white screen. The association with boutique publishing led to Apple being a known brand amongst the artsy crowd, and suddenly it was hip to love Apple. Strange things happen.

.. and then understood the power of touchscreen technology for phones and tablets …

Jobs invented the “Newton” back in the late 1980’s and waved it round like it was the future of computing… in amongst all sorts of other products: Casio digital organizers, Psion, then the Compaq PDA’s and the Palm Pilots. The Apple Newton died without trace, nearly sank Apple with it and Jobs was left looking like a goof.

A decade or so later and Jobs is waving the iPad (Newton reanimated) like it is the future of computing, and suddenly everyone thinks Jobs is a hero and now we have the “tablet revolution”… fads in computing are just like fads in other industries. When the time is right people go for it, but very difficult to say why.

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

Tel said,

Jobs invented the “Newton” back in the late 1980?s and waved it round like it was the future of computing… in amongst all sorts of other products: Casio digital organizers, Psion, then the Compaq PDA’s and the Palm Pilots. The Apple Newton died without trace, nearly sank Apple with it and Jobs was left looking like a goof.

This bit is wrong, development of the Newton started in 1987 and ended in 1998. The Newton was John Sculley’s baby not Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs had already left Apple in 1985.

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[…] Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI), it struck me that not nearly enough was made of the Family by Family program we designed. It’s notable feature in this context is that it retains professional knowledge. But […]