Interview published in w&v 22/2017
Text: Rolf Schröter. Photos: Marina Weigl
Mr. Thesen, the era of voice control has dawned. As Artificial intelligence creates new products and makes them more sophisticated, what does this mean for the design of the interface between man and machine?
Thesen: Design determines the relationship between a person and their things. The further the designer remains distanced from the world of physical products, the more they need a new way of thinking. Design is indispensable for the systematic management of the customer experience. It has long since ceased to be just about product design, but rather the design of complete business ecosystems.
Design as a think tank for new business models?
Digital services always question business models. But let's look at the company's history: Deutsche Telekom used to buy terminal equipment from Siemens. Voice transmission was the USP of Telekom. But the device that customers held in their hands only had Siemens on it. A different brand. After this era of non-design, the role of design as a formative force for own products was born. As an internal team that created the foundations of customer experience and holistically developed all the core elements of digital and physical design. Under my leadership, we have established design at the process level from conception to production. Design Thinking was the Trojan horse for this. Today we have access to the customer, can analyze or interpret him and make suggestions for products ourselves. But my goal is to use design as a strategic instrument.
Strategy means: Design would be upstream of marketing?
Let's leave aside thinking in terms of organizational forms for the moment and put ourselves in the customer's shoes. Through digitalization, the customer lives in a horizontal manner. Yet the company exists vertically in silos with separate, individual areas. Wherever points of connection occur, there are often problems. These are pain points from the consumer's point of view. The customer must experience the brand seamlessly: Communication, products, product commissioning, use, service, contract extension – it's all one. It needs a guiding entity.
So you want more say within the company?
That's not the point. It can also work through networked swarm intelligence, instead of the old authoritarian style of leadership. By translating technology into sustainable customer experiences, design makes sense to the consumer and is therefore a fundamental component of tomorrow's business success. We underestimate the fact that digitalization allows the customer to experience the brand directly. We are beginning to use design as a mediator between technology and people and thus to create requirements for IT. When we talk about robotics and Artificial Intelligence, design has the responsibility to ensure that technology is humanized.
Humanization is a big word. The reality is different. Algorithms influence human behavior. Man adapts to the machine.
It’s about posturing. Like if someone takes on a new gait or posture to reduce the pain of a slipped disc, after a few weeks they will notice that the entire body is suffering. Technology has to serve the human being, which is why you first have to get to know the person. Many companies don’t take the time for this.
And how do you as a designer get to know people?
The basic question is: Who is the product for? The answer is often: For everyone. Logically. Because the bigger the business case, the more budget is made available. But there are no products that are good for everyone. That is why we have introduced personas throughout the company. We have distilled 16 basic consumer types based on telecommunications market research data. This allows us to see how high the market potential is. And it turns out that many of the existing products are only highly relevant in certain target groups.
To identify these personas is one thing. But how does this inform your work?
Through new formats. For example, we invite a hundred clients. There are many Haralds and Antonias. Each persona has been given a name by us. Top management sits in the back row. And in the front, the designers show foam models and digital prototypes. The persona representatives then vote on which product they would like to have.
New products do not always have to be tangible. Google, Facebook and others have shown that especially immaterial products can have a high utility value. The focus of development is always on what is technically possible. Do we need basic rules for human design?
Absolutely. Silicon Valley design does what it can. But that’s not always what makes sense for humans. Design is the source of meaning in a technical development.
Yet the legendary former chief designer at Braun, Dieter Rams already put forward ten theses for good design in the late 1970s.
And they still apply today. Rams called for a responsible approach to technical possibilities. With Apple came a renaissance of Dieter Rams' work. But initially only on a citation level. Apple's chief designer Jonathan Ive took up Rams in a formal aesthetic. For example, he transferred the calculator created by Rams' employee Dietrich Lubs to the iPhone. At first, this was just decorative, superficial. Only later did he develop his own interpretation of the principles in a digital context.
Maybe. But in the end, applications must also be pleasing. The industry is currently working on the design of voice control. How much does marketing influence this development?
At Deutsche Telekom, there is a central innovation area that proposes products. Design is a part of it. Whether and how it is marketed is decided by each country’s sales organizations. This is based on the expectation that the country-specific marketing departments know their regional customers best. We develop products and marketing says whether it wants these products. But the fact remains: in the future, the design of voice control in telecommunications will have a much greater impact on and shape the relationship with the consumer than the poster at Hamburg Airport.
What do you mean by that?
The question from the customer's point of view is: If Google represents all the knowledge in the world, what does Deutsche Telekom actually stand for? In my opinion, this question must be answered in the customer experience. Some people say that Deutsche Telekom doesn't have any products, so you have to electrify the brand in the consumer's mind. That is only partly true. We have products like telephones and an IP-TV box. We also have a variety of digital services such as smart home, e-mail or an extensive customer center, which allow customers to see and manage their contracts themselves. Above all, however, it is all about the way in which the customer uses Deutsche Telekom. Just the question of how a voice interface will speak to the consumer in the future: Is it friendly or business-like, male or female? These are all design questions.
We are currently talking about the importance of designing the interface between man and machine, i.e. interface design. Is this a question of purchasing decisions or branding?
The decision to purchase something is strongly influenced by the attractiveness of the hardware. People want to grab, touch, feel something. Customer experience is far more important for the relationship between brand and consumer: How is my contract structured, how do I see how much data volume I have used this month, am I well networked everywhere? People want simplicity.
You spoke earlier about pain points, or stumbling blocks on the customer journey. How do you uncover these pain points anyway?
One of the methods we have introduced across the Group is customer journey mapping. We use emojis to denote good and bad user experiences. Since we design the experience along all the touch points the customer has, the key is to prioritize. Wherever a sad or frowning smiley face exists is where we look at first. There is so much need for action throughout the telecoms industry that you can stand out positively just by doing your homework. If just the purchase experience itself works smoothly, that alone is simplicity and therefore makes a difference.
The customer journey is also a decisive subject when speaking to marketers. Do you do similar things as your colleagues from marketing?
Basically, it's like this: the designer looks at the customer experience and the marketer at the customer journey. Marketing is largely communication; design shapes the experience with the product. In the ideal case, it goes hand in hand. Then the advertising campaigns and marketing activities are matched to the personas for which the products have been developed. And these personas are also used to train the service and shop staff. We have democratized design as a method – through our training courses in the Design Academy as well. Everyone in the company can work with the personas.
Is it at its core essentially just developing a common language for specialists as different as IT staff, marketers and designers?
Yes. Design has a moderating role here. It is not only the client's lawyer, but also the interpreter in the company. That's why the discipline is so important for the digital transformation of large organizations. Design is a matter of culture.
You have written a book on design thinking for Telekom employees. Let's be honest: Who actually reads this?
Thesen: The book was a huge success. Tim Höttges (CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG) had traveled to Stanford with 60 top managers to learn Design Thinking. After that, the need for information within the company was great – hence the book.
Hasn't Design Thinking actually always existed?
Yes and no. Since the late 1990s, the number of products and devices have risen explosively. Hardware manufacturing has become so cheap that we have been flooded with devices. But this has worn off, which is a fundamental shift for the designer. He no longer leaves behind icons that remain forever. Like the furniture of Charles Eames, which is immortalized in private rooms, museums and catalogues. Today, a designer designs the beta version of the next beta version. Design has become an agile navigation in a liquid environment. The heroic age is ultimately over.
Sounds like a crisis of meaning.
New things always come out of destruction; from throwing away the old. This is not easy for everyone to understand. Design today is no longer just a craft, but primarily the result of a thought process. The boundary between user interface design and programming no longer exists. Front-end developer and user interface designer – that is the same job description today. We need people who can move between the disciplines, who have strong technical skills, but at the same time have strategic know-how. Let's look at the top priority in Design Thinking: Identify the problem. Otherwise you will develop a solution for something – without having identified the actual problem.
Interview published in w&v 22/2017
Text: Rolf Schröter. Photos: Marina Weigl
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