March 24th, 2019

Industry Perspectives with Paris Stringfellow


Paris Stringfellow: Hey guys, welcome back. Today I wanted to do something a little different. I want to introduce you to a really interesting group who gets to use user-centered design and design thinking techniques every day. The group’s called the BOLTGROUP; they’re based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, and they help companies with product development and product innovation. They focus on things like product research and product strategy, and they help with industrial design of the product, and with the usability and user experience of the product. They help companies understand the engineering process all the way through to prototyping, and they’ll even work with you to create a brand identity and ultimately launch the brand.

The folks we’re going to talk to today are two principals of the group, Monty Montague and Jamey Boiter. I think you’ll find our conversation pretty interesting. If you would, please let me know if you’d like to see more of these type of conversations in your comments.

Give a bit of an introduction and tell me about yourself.

Monty: Sure. Well, I’m Monty Montague and I’m one of the principals of BOLTGROUP, and we’re welcoming you here. We love to have people come and talk about design thinking, about what we do. BOLTGROUP’s been in business for over 30 years now here in Charlotte, and we’re the original design practitioners of what’s now called design thinking here at Charlotte. My background is industrial design. I’m an industrial designer and I manage here in the office what we call product innovation, which is the research that leads to design concepts, but then the industrial design and engineering and prototyping and validation.

Jamey: And I’m Jamey Boiter, one of the principals here. And my responsibility at BOLTGROUP is to run the brand experience side of our business. We’re an integrated brand and product firm, and I’ve been with Monty for most of the 30-something years, all but one or two of those. Our responsibility is integrating on the product side from a graphic design standpoint, developing packaging, that sort of thing. How we’re going to communicate merchandising all the way out into the environment, as well as we do corporate identity, brand identity for B2B, as well as B2C.

How Does Design Thinking Reduce Risk?

Jamey: We’re in the business of risk mitigation. That’s why we do this the way that we do it, is to minimize risk. Or that level of risk in everything that we do. From our perspective, and Monty can jump in here, everything that we do is human-centered in our approach, whether it’s on the brand side or whether it’s on the product side of the work that we do. And that initial empathy that we’re trying to gain for the user, the insight gathering, and then defining from there—having a better understanding allows those loops to be tighter in the ideation stage. When we go through and we’re ideating, we can start with a tighter circle to begin with, which lessens the risk.

And then by going through the ideation and the prototyping and evaluation of that, the testing of that, and then refinement of that, we get it down to where we’re pretty certain of what we’re communicating, how we’re communicating it, and to whom we’re going to communicate with. So from that perspective, we take a lot of the risk out by conducting the process.

Paris: So, it’s like you’re reducing the uncertainty of the product design requirements?

Monty: Yeah. Design is about planning really. That’s why they call architectural drawings, they call them plans because it’s a plan for the future. You’re making a plan. And when you plan stuff, you lower the risk of what’s going to happen in the future. So that’s what design is. To some degree, we’re thinking about all the things that could possibly go wrong, and one of those things is often human error. People push the wrong button or they see things differently because it’s designed for this person and it’s really being looked at by this person. And say you do, you’re getting that empathy to understand how the widest range of people will perceive it or use it or interact with it or whatever. And then that mitigates some of the risk of misuse or mistakes or people don’t like it.

Paris: And that can be the biggest risk for a company who’s investing in the development of a product. Correct? Is that they spend a lot of time and money on the development of a product that misses the market. Or, creates errors.

Monty: Either don’t like it. Costs too much. Doesn’t look good. Doesn’t work right. Gets a bad review. Or just fails mechanically somehow. All those things are risks. And so a lot of the upfront is done to mitigate that. The user research to understand how people are going to interact with something. The market research to understand where to price it, and what it should look like and all that stuff.

Paris: You talk about collecting information from users to minimize risk as part of your process. Can you talk a little bit about the specific process that your group adopts when attacking a problem?

Jamey: There are a couple of different ways that we do it. There’s traditional research that we often do, primary research which can be qualitative in nature or quantitative in nature. There’s also observational research, ethnographic—we’re observing. The insight gathering very often is again, whether it’s a physical product that we’re going to be designing, or whether it’s a corporate identity or a brand. It’s really trying to understand, put ourselves in the position of the user, and that’s when we talk about the empathy. R.S. Wurman talks about, he’s probably the father of / coined the phrase “information architect”. And one of my favorite sayings is, “To communicate, you must first understand what it’s like not to understand.” That’s about empathy. And that’s from the research perspective. That’s what we try to do. Whether it’s traditional or nontraditional means—to have a better perspective of where we need to be when we start that ideation phase. Again, reduces risk, gets us closer to the mindset of our user, creates that perspective for us as designers of where we need to go, which then we can blow it out, but we come back in.

Monty: The slide deck that I’ll share with you, which you can add, will have some of this, but if you see that slide, it says discovery, ideation, and validation, so you’re talking about discovery phase. And that’s where we’ve got all these different methodologies we use for research—qualitative, quantitative, and a lot of it is observational. So, we’re actually putting our feet in the shoes of the people that are going to use and then have this thing we’re designing or this brand we’re creating, and we really do get the empathy with regards to the different consumer sets / user sets that are going to use it. And we learn about all the different stakeholders. You’ve got the people that are going to use it. You’ve got the distribution channel that’s going to buy it and resell it. You get our client, which has all of their requirements. So, all of that’s part of that discovery phase—to figure all that out and paint a strategy for what leads to ideation, which is the creative bit.

Paris: The fun part.

Jamey: You asked what’s the hardest part of the process and the part that’s most important to get right. It’s that first area. Where doing the research, developing the strategy, identifying and developing the value propositions for each one of the constituents that you’re going to be interfacing with. For me as a graphic designer, developing brands, I have to know that my brand is going to have multiple audiences, there’s an internal audience. So, developing the brand for the employee is important. But then also developing that for the customer, and then the consumer, and then potentially for financial institutions, for institutions of higher learning. We may have four, five, or six different end users of that.

And so developing the value proposition for each one of those based on sort of what we call the compelling truths of a brand that we ferret out in that discovery phase, where we’re really looking to understand what that is. What those two, three, four things need to be. Then when we develop our value propositions, they’re weighted. Because they need to be weighted according to who we’re communicating to. So, your messaging platform, the communication that comes out, even the visual design, often needs to be taken into account of who you’re talking to, when, and how.

Monty: One of the interesting things about doing user research in our business is often we’re researching something that doesn’t exist yet. We’re working within a category, we know that the category is here, but we haven’t designed the thing yet to solve this need. And so, we go into people’s homes, we go into the business, we go where they play, we take video cameras and we have a specific methodology. We try to use two or three people and each person has to go with one person with camera, one person with the clipboard, and one person that’s actually doing the interviewing. And we have a certain specific set of questions we ask, and we ask them in a very specific way so it doesn’t bias it.

And then we have a protocol where we have people go through a day in the life that we just get to watch without asking questions. And it’s really eye opening. And sometimes again, it’s around just a particular lifestyle; it’s not about a product yet. This is a lifestyle that’s relevant for this category of products. We want to understand the lifestyle that’s going to lead us to maybe some trend ideas, which may lead us to product ideas. And then we develop the product and then the part of ideation comes up. Lots of ideas and then the engineering and then all the other phases.

Jamey: And I think Monty will tell you that I’m still amazed sometimes to watch to see the discovery of gaps, just by observing what happens. We’re able to see how the application of this particular thing could be different. It could be smaller. Or it could be used in a different way or something like that. And, having the opportunity to go through that again, when it comes to the problem solving, it opens doors, as opposed to closing them.

Paris: Creates opportunities for problem solutions.

Jamey: Yeah.

Monty: And as Jamey said, that’s part of that gap analysis. A lot of times, when we do the discovery research, it’s important to know how to do the research. It’s just as important to know how to translate it into a form that people can act on. We don’t want to hand over a binder of 500 pages with a lot of data and tables and stuff; we want to boil that down to actionable insights that people can work with. Designers, engineers, risk people. And so that form that it takes is important. One of the forms is a gap analysis where we say, “Okay, in this category you’ve got this and you’ve got this and you’ve got this,” but between that, there’s this white space that is an opportunity.

Jamey: So no one occupies it first and foremost. Your product opportunity could be that you’re distinguishing yourself from anyone else in the marketplace because of the way it performs, because it fills that gap. Because no one has really ever thought about that. Or, they thought about it, but it was too tough a problem for them potentially to solve. We found a different way to solve it by miniaturization or some other technology that we employ through the design process, which says, “Okay, this is a better answer.” It’s a better mousetrap and a more successful product.

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