Red Dot: What comes to you first: business or customer?
Ben Strutt: As a designer, people are implicitly uppermost in your mind as you address new challenges. Over the years I’ve learnt to balance the user-centred view with commercial requirements and the opportunities that can be created through deploying new technologies – but always people first! You could create the best technology in the field, and many have already done that, but if it offers a poor user experience, it will never realise it’s market potential. Despite what some brand-owners like to think, customers are not mindlessly allegiant to their products and services. If something comes along that does the job better, they will switch. ‘Experience’ is the foundation of a design brief, whether explicitly stated or not, and by definition, it is implicitly human.
Have you personally benefitted from preparing for a major project?
Every project I work on is ‘major’ in the sense that I am passionate about what I do, regardless of the scale of the challenge or industry partner, be it start-up or multinational. I have the privilege of being able to influence critical business decisions, and therefore people’s livelihoods. For end-users I may have an impact on quality of life. This is not a responsibility I take lightly.
Were there accomplishments or breakthroughs when preparing for a competition?
Learning about why I didn’t win and what the competitors are doing. Anyone working in innovation knows that experimentation and prototyping is central to what we do – if you are creating informed experiments that might work, even if they fail on some metrics, you will learn something useful. The same mindset applies to a pitch, a project phase or a competition entry. Unless you pause to understand how you could have done a better job, it is a wasted opportunity to refine or pivot your approach and improve chances of future success. Constructive, high quality feedback is like gold-dust, and I believe if we are to keep developing through our lives, we should regularly make the time to reflect, give and receive it.
What is your biggest design career moment?
Careers are filled with ‘moments’ – some very specific, others creep up on you! It would be easy to point at the launch of my first high profile product, the first Dyson Ball-vac (DC15) on which I was one of the lead design engineers at really quite a tender age of 20 years, and more than 20 patents into my career I have never lost the tingle of excitement (and fear!) when I open the box containing a first-off tool moulded part, respectively see a product in-store for the first time. I still feel the excitement when our team creates a really differentiated design solution for a commoditised category, like our award-winning ‘Control’ knives for Zyliss.
How do you decide who gets to do what?
Our heartland is innovation-project delivery, so high quality project leadership is central to everything. From the earliest conversation about a new opportunity we try and make the whole journey as inclusive as possible. We ensure potential project leaders and technical experts of relevant disciplines are involved, give them ownership and allow them to build the professional relationships that are the key for a successful collaboration. The breadth of projects we work on provide opportunities to align the staff with challenges that motivate them. I count myself fortunate to be able to call on such an extraordinary breadth of experience under one roof. In an environment like this it is easier for colleagues at all levels to make the right decisions. The Directors, as you would expect are each responsible for leading and developing different parts of the core and strategic business, but every member of the management team sits in the open plan office and remains very hands-on, which I believe reinforces the culture and sense of working together.
When do you decide to abandon a product or remove a particular feature?
I purse to the reverse principle – a feature should not find its way in to the spec unless it is addressing a clear functional or emotional need. If innovators start with needs and deeply understanding the problem, the developing specification shouldn’t be too far off course. Naturally there is iteration and refinement, and this process should include co-creation and validation with relevant stakeholders – but ultimately the clock is ticking, and the meter is running; following a proven product development process ensures that the appropriate information is available to make decisions confidently at each stage of the process. A product should stop or ‘pivot’ if the business case doesn’t stack up – meaning that the needs, enabling technology, and value realisation model simply cannot be balanced. This decision can be taken as soon as there is enough evidence to highlight insurmountable flaws or insufficient evidence to close the loop. This is not to be confused with routine product development challenges, which provide the perfect stimulus to think harder, or differently, and deliver an improved outcome.
Is consensus always a good thing?
In general, I see consensus as an objective, regardless of the constructive difference of opinion that may be encountered on the journey to get to the best solution… the convergence after the divergence! If you put people who believe in evidenced-based decision-making, in an environment in which they have the empowerment, culture, and resources to push the creative envelope, the outcome is rarely far off track! I would be concerned if the things come too naturally – that we weren’t pushing the boundaries hard enough. I would revert to our mission that we can achieve more together than alone.
How do you say no to people?
It’s easy to forget that ‘no’ can often be positive: ‘No. The evidence shows that the embryonic product should be stopped now – your precious innovation resources would be better invested in the other concept’. Our culture is based on creativity and evidence; we try to share grounded evidence and avoid subjective.
Red Dot Award: Design Concept 2019
Also in 2019, design studios, companies and universities have the possibility to enter their product ideas, design concepts and prototypes in the Red Dot Award: Design Concept 2019 to have them assessed by an international expert jury. The registration is possible until 15 May 2019.