Driven by fear of someone stealing their idea, many designers have long had a tendency of working in isolation. Even with strict NDAs, designers are weary of having their ideas turned into successful products or successful business ventures by someone else. To protect intellectual property and avoid premature criticism of work in progress they've chosen a veil of secrecy -- but in the era of companies like Quirky and Kickstarter this old way of doing things is now obsolete and impossible to maintain.
In a rare show of bi-partisan support, even the U.S. Congress recognized the need for change by passing the America Invents Act to transform how patents are obtained, challenged and valued in acquisition, licensing and litigation.
This revolution we're seeing is based on one simple fact: tomorrow's top designers live and breathe a digital social life. They use Facebook, Twitter, the mobile Web, social gaming, social shopping and devices like iPhones and iPads -- and will soon have things like Google Glasses - to enable this new way of living. As a result, crowd-sourced, consumer-led design is here to stay because the empowered consumer wants to be involved in what they buy.
Gen X and Gen Y already make up 50% of the adult population and as masters of technology and social networking, they're bringing the functional benefits into the design world. With social innovation as an integral part of how they lead their daily lives, Millennials are now entering and taking an increasingly larger role in the workforce. The presence of these young professionals is growing, and with it, collaboration is emerging as a catalyst for shorter development time, better designs and increased functionality - things that the market will always demand.
Because of their intrinsic use of social networking, it is second nature for young designers to reveal ideas to colleagues, customers and communities of other designers without fear of criticism or theft. They see this as a chance to prove that they conceived an idea, and an opportunity to improve their work. They embrace collaboration and use it to gain feedback from people or teams with different skillsets in order to benefit the product, and may even go as far as sharing their digital designs with the world on sites like Thingiverse. Ultimately, they will use these close and direct interactions with target customers to get to the "uber product" that everyone will want to have.
With this revolution already taking hold, there are new dynamics to open and collaborative design that companies should be considering, such as the role consumers can now play in the process and the real threat of being paralyzed due to over-communication without a proper social media strategy in place.
The New Role of Consumers
The rapid adoption of social networking is a driving factor in the shift to collaborative design and at a higher level it's responsible for a major transformation in how people communicate. As a result, it is impacting both one-on-one communication and how individuals connect with groups of all kinds including companies, political organizations and their favorite (and sometimes not so favorite) brands. For example, we have all seen many of the missteps by very well known brands opening and then closing their virtual retail doors on Facebook.
Overall, the growth and impact of social networking is astounding. It's estimated that Facebook alone has 901 million active users [source: wolframalpha.com], and is on track to reach 1 billion users this year. In developed countries such as the US and UK, Facebook counts nearly 50% of the population among its registered users as other networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ also gain steam. In less than a year, the number of active users for Google+ climbed to more than 100 Million. Where there used to be 6 degrees of separation for each human on this planet, with social networking we are down to about 3.7 degrees of separation.
These new forms of communication enable information to travel instantly, visually and virally, turning today's consumer into an important actor in the product development process. As a group, and even sometimes individually, consumers have a new and powerful voice that companies are compelled to listen to. As never before, the channels of communication between brands and consumers travel in both directions, giving consumers an increasingly important influence on the design and functionality of the products they buy. However, as social networking seeps into the business world as a means for colleagues to connect with each other and for a company to connect with its customers, the risk of over communicating is a serious concern for the product development process.
Design's Swinging Pendulum of Isolation and Paralysis
Developing products the old way -- in silos, departments and disconnected disciplines -- sometimes bodes well with "older" designers that may be highly opinionated and sensitive about their work. Teams that operate this way may collaborate, but they do so isolated from their clients or other departments until a design is complete. This creates a condition where it's far too easy to mistakenly incorporate design elements that may not be desirable to consumers or may not even satisfy requirements. By lifting the veil of secrecy and actively collaborating in an environment that allows designers to solicit feedback from colleagues, customers and communities of their peers, they can hone their visions that might be unrealistic or perceived as extreme by the target market. Receiving this important feedback early in the process, and throughout a design's iterations, can ensure that a final product meets the wants and needs of end-users instead of being way "off the mark."
On the other extreme, smarter products that are now being developed, including smart cars, buildings, appliances, phones and even clothes, require a high degree of multi-discipline collaboration within companies. As these products become more and more complex, the use of social and collaborative tools becomes an imperative in order to enable a systems approach that incorporates all aspects of product development. Many today are focusing on systems-lead design, but if not implemented properly with clear and strict processes in place, the results could be disasterous. Too many "cooks in the kitchen," oversharing with customers, and/or trying all aspects of product development at once could paralyze a project with too many requests or requirements that can not all conceivably be met.
Finding the Sweet Spot
Companies can overcome the challenges of design paralysis while also enhancing the way they communicate with consumers by leveraging collaborative technology that offers 3D experiences. By using 3D and virtual universes internally, designers can learn through holistic system design to optimize the product so the entire product lifecycle is simulated and all possible options are considered before being presented to the end user.
Externally, 3D experiences will change the way industry leaders and marketers create value for their customers. 3D experiences will transform the way innovators innovate with consumers by connecting designers, engineers, and marketing managers in a new social enterprise. Consumers are now expecting 3D to be ubiquitous throughout their lives as it moves from the occasional movie screen and into their living room, the palm of their hand and beyond. Taking this a step further and expanding virtual universes into new communities will be an important transformation in the future of design.
Effective collaboratoin will bring designers ever closer to the Ideal Final Result or IFR, which is based on "The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving," that was developed by Soviet engineer, inventor and researcher Genrich Altshuller, and better know by its acronym, TRIZ.
Design is about breaking rules and finding new ways to do things. By breaking the unspoken rule -- design in isolation -- and using 3D experiences to communicate with colleagues and customers, design is entering a new era of possibility.
Stephan Clambaneva is director and Global PLM Consumer Goods & Retail Industry Consultant for Dassault Systmes, a provider of 3D design software, 3D Digital Mock Up and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) solutions.