Strategic Design Framework

▲ Screenshot from booq's customer portal. The aim of booq is to provide a full service information system for clients ranging from small stores and cafés to giant catering chains and amusement parks. The complexity of booq is the result of the flexibility needed to deliver many functions while being seemlessly integrated in such a diverse range of customer businesses.

How to keep a complex "emergent product" fit for the future.

Eijsink asked me to "design something" to innovate on their cash register system booq. After further inquiry, we found out that defining a "something" that would actually help the business as a whole was very tricky. In fact, this is a question that had held back innovation at Eijsink for years. The difficulty turned out to be inherent in the complexity of the booq system itself. That's why we pivoted from designing something useful, to figuring out how to design something useful. On the way, we got a glimpse of a fresh approach to decades old and forgotten theories on systemic design. This new approach might not just be relevant to booq, but to many complex design problems in our interconnected world. It was synthesised through a combination of developing new design theory and testing it out in pilot cases. The result was a new innovation and design strategy for Eijsink. Apart from this strategic advise, the results from the product design cases themselves also proved to be much more relevant and well-integrated than earlier innovation attempts by Eijsink.

Client: Eijsink Afrekensystemen b.v.

▶ The methodology emphasises the need for understanding the context in a systemic sense, and close collaboration with people involved. One of the design cases was aimed at relieving some work pressure from waiters. For that case, I worked together with staff of the Twentse Bierbrouwerij, the restaurant of a local craft beer brewery.Together, we mapped out different processes and aspects of the business, and issues they encountered. THis served as a baseline for the design of a new booq subsystem.

▲ Interacting modules in booq The booq system has many interacting modules. For example, a waiter in a restaurant uses a POS-module to take up orders, which are then split up into tasks and distributed throughout the kitchen's workstations by the Bar-Kitchen-Manager-module. This must be integrated seemlessly into the workflows and guest experience in order to work.

What are emergent products?

Usually, when designing a new product, it simply replaces the old. Many companies however work with product-service systems that combine physical tools and devices, software components and service elements operated by people that all need to work together to deliver its function. In other words, the actual product package is not the combination of these different elements, but emerges from their interaction. Eijsink's cash register system booq is such an "emergent product". While the software package at its core binds the system together, it requires many physical systems and people to make it work. To improve such a system, the designed intervention must consider the existing structure of the product, as well as interests of the people that are involved.

How did I tackle it?

While speaking with everyone involved, doing my own research and trying things out through test-cases, I noticed that the problem was much more fundamental than first expected as the problem system's complexity is far greater than that of most "regular" products. I went back to the roots of modern design theory as developed from the 60's onwards, when it departed from systems theories such as cybernetics. By reconnecting contemporary design theory with this forgotten "grandfather of the information age", I figured out what makes these complex "emergent products" different from "conventional" products and services, and what this means for their design. From this knowledge, I created a general design framework for emergent products which then informed:

  1. Organisational advice for a new R&D division to strategically innovate booq and help Eijsink stay relevant and viable into the future.
  2. An overview of the booq system that can be used to integrate new knowledge and make informed decisions.
  3. A strategic framework to coordinate development programmes of subsystems, keep track of the entire system, and collect market intelligence.
  4. A design methodology that can help the designer involve many stakeholders and design more effectively within complex systems.
  5. Practical tools to support and augment the designer's expertise.

DESIGN CASES

Going back and forth between practice and theory, I designed two subsystems for booq that are based on- and informing the framework.

Digi-Menu

Design for a tool to reduce workload on hospitality staff, as there is a great personnel shortage in that sector. Together with people from the restaurant I created an overview of their business, systems and workflows through a round of observations, conversations and co-design sessions. Highlighted issues and potential improvement points informed solution concepts, culminating in a paper menu with capacitive touch buttons underneath. The device enables guests to order for themselves so that waiters could focus on social tasks like offering advice, while keeping a tactile, intuitive interface that does not disturb the restaurant experience like conventional "ordering tablets" do. The solution was tested on site usnig a functional prototype. Feedback on the design in use was integrated on the fly, and the response was highly positive. Guests had little trouble understanding the interface, they enjoyed the agency provided by being able to order independently of the group, and having the option to ignore it. As a result, order volume went up. The device uses only simple capacitive touch inputs, sound for feedback and low band with data transmission. It can do with a simple processor, other cheap and low-power components and a single reciever can easily handle many connected devices at once. Mass production can therefore also be very cheap compared to off-the-shelf tablets used at the moment.

Installation workflow

In another test case, I redesigned the installation workflow of the booq system. During the project, we found out that streamlining their installation workflow was essential for Eijsink in their transition from being a reseller to developing their own system to be sold by external resellers. I first analysed the existing installation process, again investigating different perspectives to form a shared, systemic overview. In close collaboration with one of the employees responsible for the installation process, I restructured the process to take out administrative steps and make it less cumbersome to install. This required some minor redirections of the process flow, and three new subsystems that needed to be designed: An internal "wizard"-style interface that can take care of the administrative steps, a workstation for physical installation and a customer portal needed to set up store-specific information in the system. I then redesigned the latter in the next design cycle. My redesign set into motion a major restructuring of this workflow, needed for Eijsink to reach their strategic goals of using 3rd party resellers to distribute their product and expanding internationally.

▲ Simplified model of the interactions between company, product, environment and designer.

Making Eijsink future-proof

One part of the framework is a general model of the relations that are needed between a product, the company and its environment in order for the company and product to survive. This is in great part based on Stafford Beer's Viable System Model, a generalised structure of interactions that are needed in any "living" system to survive in a dynamic environment [learn more]. This helps in understanding the pressures and needs that the product should resolve, but it also provides a blueprint for a viable organisation that is able to support the product in a dynamic market. It views the product as a critical component of the organisation that interacts with the outside world.

▼ A more detailed model based on the viable system model

Eijsink however lacked another critical component: what Beer calls the "intelligence system", a channel that looks out at the market and plans adjustments of the organisation in response to future changes in the outside environment. To bring this back down to earth; any company that makes products for a changing market needs an R&D-unit which can translate market intelligence into fitting (re)designs of the product portfolio. It must also provide a very specific set of information to decision makers so that they can keep the organisation in touch with the outside world, while guarding the identity of the organisation. Several structural issues that explained the innovation-related symptoms felt by Eijsink were diagnosed using this model.

▲ Missing R&D infrastructure at Eijsink are diagnosed using a model of emergent products in context, based on the Viable System Model.

▲ Based on the model, I proposed a plan for the necessary R&D infrastructure.

Some of the maps that were made to provide an overview of the system and its surroundings

Getting grip on the system

No-one had a complete view of the existing system, let alone one that was accepted by everyone involved. To solve this, periodical "system audits" are implemented. These consist of several co-design sessions with as many stakeholders represented as possible, using giga-mapping techniques to gain broad, contextualised perspectives. Outcomes from these sessions are combined with information gathered through further conversations wherever more information is needed. The result is a set of maps that give an overview of the product system, the organisation and their relations with the outside world that brings together many views into one shared model that everyone agrees with. Such a model is essential in making informed and contextualised decisions within a system that is too abstract and complex to grasp intuitively. It can be used to make sense of newly gathered information, spot patterns and problems, make plans for improvement and be updated to track the evolution of the system and its environment over time. The model provides a "ground truth" and language for discussions, and by tracking changes the effects of earlier design projects can be assessed to learn and improve the process for future projects.

▲ Operations within the R&D system need to be distributed across different time frames to stay relevant well into the future while also adressing pressing design problems in the present. This strategy is based on McKinsey's 3 horizons model, while the focus of projects is done through periodical system audits.

Design Methodology, processes & tools Eijsink

Each "horizon" requires a completely different approach. The mid-term horizon is the most complex: This is where large changes to core subsystems are executed, where integration with all other components is critical. The process is broken up into sub-projects in line with the vee-model, where each sub-project goes through a non-linear design process of exploring and framing the problem, and generating and proofing solutions, guided by critical reflection throughout the process.