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7.3 Uncertainty

We have noticed during the course that designing takes place under various degrees of uncertainty. This is another way to classify design. From the early stages to a concept are full of uncertainty, whereas later stages can be more routine. However, in all design projects it is not known how a design will perform until it is completed, tested and then used. Each design project is a response to a new situation. It would not be design otherwise. So designers face uncertainty in all they do. They try and reduce uncertainty by:

  1. using models to predict how designs will behave;

  2. using experience gained from the performance of previous designs for similar problems.

As experience (of success and failure) increases and predictive models become more accurate, the inherent uncertainty in design decreases. A well-established technology which is matched to a well-established context has little uncertainty. In these circumstances designers have the task of creating variations and modifications on the basic design.

Once a design space is well-understood, the production of variant designs becomes a mature business, where ingenuity goes into making the processes as efficient as possible. Managing design becomes more important than the fundamental activities of innovation and design.

In the building industry the creation of a new McDonald‗s restaurant uses the same well-established rules all over the world. Similarly, some types of automotive and electronics factories have become almost standard items. The machines and assembly lines can be established from a greenfield site in two years. These types of design are standard and routine. Design uncertainties are low but other uncertainties of markets and competition remain.

However, large international companies retain a mix of innovative products and variant designs. They spread their risk across many products, recognising that they have to innovate to survive. Today's innovative products are the basis of tomorrow's variant designs. A little later we will see that televisions are an example of variant design, yet their manufacturers are also creating new products such as camcorders, digital cameras and portable DVD players.

SAQ 21

Looking back over the examples of design that we have considered in the course, identify sources of uncertainty in design projects.


Depending on which example you took, you may have come up with any of the following points:

  1. There are many possible developments of the initial concept.

  2. The requirements may be vague; the specification may be poor.

  3. The time and effort to bring the product to market is not known accurately.

  4. Final market demand for the product is uncertain.

Innovation has been identified as a critical component in business success. However, innovation involves uncertainty and risk. The imperatives for companies to move away from the routine to new contexts and new technologies are now very strong. However, the tendencies of many designers are to reduce uncertainty. They tend to be more like Telford than Brunel in the case of the Clifton suspension bridge. As we have discovered, designers cannot escape uncertainty but that does not stop them trying to minimise it where possible. To maintain a balance between staying within the bounds of known and well understood designs and exploring new possibilities companies try to create a Culture of innovation.

In discussing technology, innovation and uncertainty we have concentrated on the functional or engineering performance of designs. However, there are other important features of any design, such as style. This is how a design appears to a customer. Style can be a major factor in the commercial success of the design.

Culture of innovation

The following is by Tim Brown (European Director of Ideo, a product development company), and was published in the Financial Times, 17 November 1997.

Innovation requires, above all else, a willingness to embrace chaos. It means giving free rein to people who are opinionated, wilful and delight in challenging the rules. It demands a loose management structure that does not isolate people in departments or on the rungs of a ladder. It needs flexible work spaces that encourage a cross-fertilisation of ideas. And it requires risk-taking.

Yet if innovation has become an over-used buzzword, it is only because we all recognise innovation as a competitive weapon, a necessary component for future success.

In the world of product development, where clients originally turned to external consultants to provide additional capacity, speed or a particular technical expertise, we now see them looking for guidance on how to innovate. They are looking for a process.

The response has to be that innovation is not something prescriptive. You can't legislate for it. Rather, it is something organic, something that grows and is nurtured, usually from the bottom of the organisation up. Experience shows us that innovative cultures usually begin with a tangible project the success of which gives birth to another and another. Such projects or definable goals are also the elements which keep the fun and freedom from degenerating into non-productive anarchy. Moreover, if you want the combined workforce behind you, but take away their desks, their titles and their personal power bases, you must give them something in return. Job satisfaction is a great motivator.

In a culture of innovation, enlightened trial and error beats careful planning, and risk becomes an essential part of the process. Rapid prototyping means that you can evaluate a concept before you have invested too much in it. It also gives the participants the stimulation of seeing their ideas put into practice and sustains their enthusiasm when more concrete rewards are less evident.

Early prototyping and testing also allow you to fail and if you are not failing often, then you are probably not risking enough. So, having said you cannot legislate for innovation, here are some common themes which give some ideas on how to get started:

  • Treat life as an experiment – constantly explore new ideas through projects.

  • Innovation is a team sport – be smart about creating and sustaining hot groups of energetic, opinionated people.

  • Risk a little, gain a lot – fail quickly and often by user testing and prototyping ideas.

  • Identify goals – build multi-disciplinary teams then give them a common aim to create products or services grown of collaboration not compromise.

  • Observe the consumer, don't ask him what he wants – find ways to get under the skin of the end-user to identify new needs, opportunities and possibilities.

  • Allow serendipity to play its part.

  • Space is the last frontier – provide environments.