Milkshakes and Design

What a lecture about milkshakes taught me about design

I can pinpoint the moment I realized I wanted to be a designer. It was in grad school, when I watched Clay Christensen’s lecture on milkshakes.

The lessons in that lecture changed how I looked at the world and shaped how I’ve thought about design ever since.

In this post I’ll share the insights that have stuck with me over the years, and continue to guide how I practice design.

1. Products exist to fulfill unmet needs

A product is more than an object with a set of properties.

Dig deep enough and you’ll find people don’t buy things merely to possess or consume them. Instead they “hire” products to fulfill their unmet needs.

People’s needs can be functional or emotional or both.

2. Needs have to be uncovered

People aren’t always consciously aware of their own needs. They might explain their behavior with reasoning that sounds plausible but is incomplete or inaccurate.

You can slough off the layers of plausible explanation by observing people’s behavior and asking them the right questions.

Keep digging and you’ll uncover true unmet needs, which tell you the root of the design problem to solve.

3. Needs frame the design problem

A design problem can be framed by asking how we might fulfill the unmet needs that arise for a person in a given context.

If you understand the needs to solve for, you can use that insight to design a superior product or experience.

A key part of the design process at this stage is connecting the dots between design decisions and how they might meet a specific need.

By framing the design problem in this way, each design decision can be tied back to a hypothesis about how and why it will address an unmet need.

4. Designs decisions are hypotheses that can be tested using prototypes

Designers make educated guesses about what might work best. Good design decisions are rooted in logic, knowledge, and evidence.

But however educated, a guess is not reality. The only way to know if a design will work is to put it in front of the people it’s meant to serve, in the context in which it’s meant to be encountered.

The most powerful part of the design process is quickly turning ideas into something tangible with which people can interact and react against.

Designers make prototypes. Prototypes can be tested quickly, on a small scale. Test results reveal if a design is working or not. And this feedback is used to improve the design.

5. The effect of a design will be visible and measurable

Design is not a purely theoretical exercise. A design will have an effect on the world, and its effect will be visible and measurable.

If you can’t answer the question, “How will you know it’s working?” then you can’t even begin the design process, let alone complete it.

6. Good design creates markets

Marketing is not merely a synonym for branding or advertising. It’s the act of expanding and creating markets.

Markets are expanded and created when we find new and better ways to serve unmet needs. And that’s done by designing better products, services, and experiences.

My path into design

I was inspired by the design process I saw in that lecture about milkshakes. But the thing that blew my mind was discovering that the process translated into a profession.

It was someone’s job to ask the right questions, frame the problem, connect the dots, and design products that improved people’s lives.

This realization set me on a path, at times meandering, that’s made the designer I am today.

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