Empathy, Observation, Openness: IDEO’s Roshi Givechi on the Narrative of Product Design

For Roshi Givechi, partner and executive design director at global design consulting firm IDEO, the many parts of innovation are just as intriguing as the end result. Whether designing for cities—like revitalizing the spirit of Kansas City’s 18th & Vine jazz district—or defining new products and services across healthcare to hospitality, or shaping stories to draw tighter connections to relevant audiences, she taps into a global network of inspiration to cultivate responses to a range of design challenges.

Clios.com spoke with Givechi, the Product Design jury chair for the 2017 Clio Awards, about promoting understanding through smart design solutions.  

How is a human-centered approach accomplished through product design?

No matter what we design, be it a physical object or a system to support how people innovate within an organization, taking a human-centered approach grounds the work in empathy. It carries with it evidence of consideration. In this way, we create products that address people’s needs and motivations in more compelling ways. The same approach applies to designing how people work together, by surfacing insights from the various perspectives to help build greater empathy and understanding across different stakeholders. From a point of shared understanding of a design challenge, we begin to set the stage to design something that has impact.

How do we sense what people want? You anticipate problems by being observant, by watching how people creatively modify things to make them suit their need. We also make note of what people don’t engage with that might serve them, and ask why. It’s a healthy combination of observing and listening to people in context that gives us inspiration for design. When that attentiveness is reflected in good design, people feel better served. And that, in turn, can breed trust in a brand or an organization.    

How do the multidisciplinary backgrounds at IDEO—from engineering to anthropology—enhance the creation of design solutions and provide a more full-picture approach?

While each design challenge might require a different set of expertise, a healthy mix of backgrounds and perspectives helps us strike a better balance in designing what’s desirable, what’s feasible and what’s viable. Even the types of questions that an industrial designer or a writer or a data scientist may ask along the way enhance the things we ultimately create for people.

To me, the design process can often feel like choreography, with a bit of improv in the mix. A lot of different parts need to come together to make a greater whole. A lot of thought and rigor and openness to inspiration, along with a cast of various designers, all need to have their valid moment in service of bringing to life a compelling outcome. The fun part of each “dance piece” is playing with when to spotlight and activate different aspects that contribute to the overall development, and when to edit them out. 

To spark new ways of thinking about a challenge, we also turn to what we call “analogous inspiration.” We’ll identify and observe experiences that are not directly related to the industry we’re designing for, yet have a relatable aspect. For example, a team designing for the operating room decided to observe a pit crew at a race track. High stress, quick judgment, and timely action characterize both situations, yet the “outside” context of car racing provided fresh insights that the team would not have been exposed to had they only researched other healthcare moments. Such catalyzing methods are less about getting a full-picture approach and more about getting inspired to design something that’s game-changing.

How does great design accomplish the balance of showcasing the product and the brand behind it?

In an ideal world, a well-designed product embodies an intuitive narrative about how it will impact a person’s life at the point of purchase and over time. Both product and narrative sit within a brand, which serves as the connective tissue that links a person to a lifestyle or philosophy they want to be aligned with.

For example, if I purchase a Prius, I am on some level making a conscientious choice for the environment, or saving on gas fees, and I am signaling to the world where some of my values lie. What’s critical in designing amazing things is to start with people.  

IDEO’s Creative Difference product set out to help organizations better track performance and innovation. What have the results taught your own team about creativity?

No matter what your level of mastery, we all need some level of evaluation and reflection to inform where we place greater attention and focus next. What tools like C∆ do is help our teams hone their edges and draw attention to areas where they may have started to slip. By surfacing these opportunities early enough, we enable teams to discuss why an area hasn’t had as much love, allowing them to reset efforts well before it feels too late. How much rigor are we placing on experimentation and prototyping at a certain phase of the work? What can we do to enhance remote collaboration, which some projects demand? C∆ is another powerful tool that’s helping us honor the caliber of creativity we expect of ourselves.

What recent projects do you feel have upped that caliber of creativity?

I want everyone to know about the work we did for LA County around voting, in collaboration with Digital Foundry and Cambridge Consultants. The voting system for America’s largest jurisdiction hadn’t been designed since the 1960s! So, we prototyped a new ballot machine and a new way of voting designed to address people’s physical and emotional needs. 

What I appreciate is that the modularity of the system enables all types of people to use the same machine, and that the approachability of the new voting experience has the potential to increase numbers in voting overall. Whatever we can do to make sure people’s voices are heard, especially at critical moments, the better.

More specifically, this ballot machine supports people who speak languages other than English, people who have vision impairments and people who simply haven’t gained familiarity with technology. The experience also considers people’s everyday use of technology and includes a way for voters to more easily make their decisions on their mobile phones or computers ahead of time, with an ability to easily transfer what they’ve marked onto the required paper ballots on voting day. 

Voting is profound, and the experience of voting should feel profound as well. With an increase in voting-by-mail options, there is the hope that the state of California will be able to provide this ballot machine across the reduced number of polling stations to make voting accessible across the board.

Why is it important for the advertising industry to include product design in its conversations about creativity and innovation?

The closer ad agencies can get to understanding the why behind products they’re helping position and promote, the better. Agencies are in a tough spot much of the time. They’re creative in ways they can plant appeal and generate momentum around a product. Yet they are typically brought in when a lot of the assumptions about the purpose of a product and the value of it to certain audiences have been made. Of course, many ad agencies are working to change that, but unless they have a deeper understanding of why a product has been designed the way it has, and how that product is meeting unmet needs that go much deeper in people’s lives, they’ll run the risk of sinking their creative energy in more surface-level connections than more meaningful ones.

As a juror for the 2017 Clio Awards, how do you think one properly assesses product design?

My hope for this year’s submissions is a simple one: to see products with deeper meaning. It’s not that every product has to be tied to a deeply noble cause. Yet each submission should reflect a clear purpose and thoughtfulness about what it aims to bring out in the world, whether at a small or large scale. And of course, each submission should embody how the design itself truly resonates with its intended audience.  

As someone who has worked for a design innovation company for over 18 years, for a company that originated in traditional product and engineering, I’ve seen the ways our assessment of product design has evolved. The product is no longer the solo hero. And it’s not even always tangible. We assess the product, its lifespan and judge its place in a larger ecosystem of experiences to truly appreciate its value.

Entries for the 2017 Clio Awards Product Design medium are now open. The second deadline for submissions is May 26. For more information, please call 212.683.4300 or visit Clios.com