I’m a self-admitting nerd. My educational background is in engineering and I enjoy learning how things fit together. I love to watch movies, but I never know the names of actors or actresses. I fail miserably at the literature questions in Trivial Pursuit™.
Yet, I love math, logic, and reasoning. In recent years my fondness to “figure out how things work” has become a study of people, leaders, and teams. Successful innovation teams have a different culture than others.
A friend and colleague mentioned that her son was studying mechanical engineering. She encouraged him to take a Design Thinking class so he could learn about human-centered design. I agree wholeheartedly with her! Engineers have an isolated educational experience driven by high-level calculus an intense theory of physics. Of course, accountants, sociologists, and architects also have educational experiences driven by depth of knowledge, rather than breadth.
So, can nerds learn to serve the customer?
First, we have to take a step back. Any free economy functions to produce goods and services that generate profit for the seller. Buyers pay a price for goods and services that give them utility and functionality at their own perceived value. The buyer (or customer) seeks a benefit in purchasing a product that is greater than the price they pay. Moreover, the price that the buyer pays must include a margin of profit for the producer. If not, the producer will cease to offer those goods or services.
A seller learns what to sell by studying customers and markets. Customers are the key element in designing and developing new products. My friend was very astute to encourage her son to broaden his studies beyond engineering. New Product Development Professionals (NPDP) blend the unique skills of technology understanding, market perception, and product knowledge to successfully innovate profitable goods and services.
Engineers, like other innovation leaders, have an intense curiosity about how things work. Yes, we are nerds because we enjoy tinkering and troubleshooting. So, trying to solve a customer’s problem by designing a new widget is exactly a perfect fit!
Again, my friend gave her son a huge gift toward his employability by encouraging him to supplement engineering classes with Design Thinking. Design Thinking is both a process and a set of tools. From the process perspective, Design Thinking teaches us to collaborate with fellow nerds, customers, and any function that will help solve the problem. From the tools point of view, Design Thinking gives us templates and techniques to elicit even the most obscure unarticulated customer needs.
At the core of Design Thinking is empathy – an understanding of the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of another person. In the case of product development, the product development engineers build empathy for the customers by interviewing, shadowing, and observing their interactions with the product. When we understand the struggle that a customer has to open a package or assemble the parts, we improve the features and functions of that product.
For example, IKEA includes a small (cheap) hex wrench with its ready-to-assemble furniture (such as a bookshelf). The packaging is small (a benefit to customers and transportation) but only nerds have a full tool chest available to assemble a bookshelf. So, for most folks, the cheap hex wrench is a huge time-saver. Parts are clearly labeled and the visual instruction sheet from IKEA gives simple directions to assemble the parts using the tools (hex wrench) provided. Both the seller and buyer benefit – higher profit margins and enhanced perception of the product’s value.
Engineers and Design Thinking
Yes, nerds can serve the customer! Engineers are great at trouble-shooting and finding creative solutions to problems. Augmenting our technical training with customer empathy creates a superhero innovation leader.
If you don’t know the basic tools and process of design thinking, that’s okay. Register here for an interactive, online workshop, led by a full-fledged nerd.
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