Fostering Experience Led Design

Gus Desbarats has been designing and directing award-winning, commercially successful innovation continuously, for the last 28 years, for some of the world’s top brands. Today Gus shares his insightful views on innovation management and the importance of putting people’s experiences at the heart of business and innovation.

What is innovation management to you?

It’s enabling and nurturing a culture in which organisations achieve a ‘routine’ ability to create successful new propositions. I tend to divide the role into three broad areas:

  1. Structure: Setting up and operating a well structured phase/gate process, from very front end to launch. This might seem odd coming from a creative designer but even play needs structure. ‘Freedom to fail’ is essential early on when exploring qualitative customer behaviours. Predictive methods don’t work here, you need to explore possibilities quickly and cheaply using ‘customer experience’ mockups. Projects then need to change gear progressively to converge on a place where the ideal meets the possible and delivery can be executed in the most efficient linear way possible, with late failures definitely not an option.
  2. Leadership: Working with senior management to ensure genuine cultural leadership and commitment. The twin pillars of any benign Innovation culture are a clear underlying sense of purpose, routed in a commitment to earn people’s trust by offering great experiences and a belief that this can always be done better. This needs to be heard, convincingly from the very top, and backed up by deeds, like the right investment, and management metrics that encourage the right behaviours in the different innovation phases.
  3. Inspiration: Innovation starts with ideas. Ideas are inspired not taught. But you can work with the people delivering innovation to help them understand how to inspire themselves ‘usefully’. We teach techniques that build empathy, with customers and across teams. For example ‘experience mapping’ helps people feel responsible for customer journeys rather than just narrow issues of interest to their individual silos. We also use sports management metaphors to help people understand that innovation is a team game, built on individual performances. It’s a fun way to motivate people to lift their game to the outrageous levels of attention to detail and user effortlessness that are necessary for innovation to succeed.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

As consultants we work with many different kinds of companies, each representing its own set of challenges. The most rationally satisfying part is when the sales data confirms our interventions have delivered a solid commercial result and we sit down to discuss how we are going to do even better next time. I’ve been doing this with one client, (BT Plc) continuously for 21 years.  The most emotionally satisfying moments are watching ‘the penny drop’ when a someone has a eureka moment in an experience mapping workshop.

And the most frustrating parts?

I’m a keen student of human behaviour. It’s the fundamental driver to most commercial transactions and to what I do as a designer. This knowledge makes it frustrating to listen to managers when they over simplify their business drivers and post rationalise decisions actually based on more powerful sub-conscious behaviours (like denial and our instinct to undervalue even the most certain of future outcomes). Hopefully the incredible progress in our understanding of how the mind works will make it easier to argue the case for putting people’s experiences at the heart of business and innovation, where they belong.

What’s your next big challenge?

Working to get ‘Experience Led Innovation’ processes fully accepted as mainstream business innovation best practice. One of the keys to making this happen is for innovation professionals to understand and explain Apple’s innovation culture as a role model case study of great (and reproducible) incentives, investment decisions and other management practices rather than a personality cult. I really believe we will all soon be talking about ‘Appleism’ in the way ‘Fordism’ was used a century ago to describe the dawn of mass production.

About Gus Desbarats


Gus Desbarats MDesRCA, D.I.C , B.Eng, FCSD:

  • Chairman TheAlloy: experience led design
  • Chairman British Design Innovation
  • Champion: Experience Led Innovation – TSB KTN (Creative Industries)

Originally from Canada, Gus is an RCA trained Industrial Designer, also qualified in mechanical and systems engineering.

Gus has been designing and directing award-winning, commercially successful, innovation, continuously, for the last 28 years, for some of the world’s top brands: BT, HP, Toshiba, Grass Valley among many others. He has also helped many successful startups: his Lightworks Digital Editor design won an Oscar. Every day, tens of millions of people interact with the work created by Gus and his team at TheAlloy: experience-led design, a leading, employee-owned, design consultancy Gus founded in 1999, which does product, interaction and service design as well as innovation strategy.

Gus advises and speaks frequently on why and how organisations can use a human-centric ‘experience-led’ innovation approach to achieve better results, especially when the technology and value chains are complex.  He has a particular expertise accelerating the acceptance of new emerging technologies and in the creation of inclusive mass market solutions that work for young and old alike.

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