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What If Design Is the Difference Between a Product's Life or Death? An Interview with Keith Wolf.

In this week’s episode, Jim and guest host Erica talk with Keith Wolf, director of digital strategy at Perficient, about how design relates to achieving specific digital strategy goals. How should a company bring fresh design into its organization? Can strategic design determine if a product succeeds or fails? Tune in to learn more about how to be intentional about aligning design with the rest of your organization’s digital strategy.

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Guest Profile

Keith Wolf

Keith is a creative-centric strategist with over 25 years of experience. Keith is responsible for customer experience (CX) thought leadership, CX strategy & design, and leading the delivery of customer-centric innovation. Keith works with clients to amplify their brand’s purpose by delivering valuable and engaging experiences to their customers.
Special thanks to our Perficient colleagues JD Norman and Rick Bauer for providing the music for today’s show.

Episode 38: What If Design Is the Difference Between a Product's Life or Death? - Transcript

Keith (00:04):

Design thinking is really about exploring ideas. It's not just the first solution, the best solution. And it's bringing diversity, you know, bringing people from multiple departments within an organization. So design in vertical design is more of a horizontal. And then you generate ideas, you prototype, you test, you repeat as necessary. Design thinking is really about failing. It's about learning. It's about iterating to make that outcome more usable or enjoyable for the user.

Jim (00:31):

Welcome to What If? So What?, the podcast where we ask what's possible with digital and figure out how to make it real in your business. I'm Jim Hertzfeld.

Kim (00:40):

I'm Kim Czopek.

Jim (00:41):

And today we'll ask What if?, So what? And most importantly, now what? Canva, the design tool software company recently published its visual economy report, which found that nearly two-thirds, or 63% of employers are offering design training to non-designers. More than half of those employers, 61% expect non-designers to have design competency. That was pretty surprising to me. It tells us a few things. First, great validation that design matters, as we've talked and written about, design can be the differentiator on whether or not your product is going to make it or not, whether people are going to use it, they're going to join it, they're going to download it, they're going to rate it highly, and you can't get any return on that investment until it's used. So, it's important. There have been a lot of spectacular design failures that we don't really want to talk about here. But more importantly, in my mind, we're kind of living in the state of perpetual design, imitation, take your average TikTok video, it's just a different version of another one. So you have to work hard for your design to stand out. So, the big question I have this episode is what if anyone could be a designer? What if anyone could design the next iPhone? What if every company was a design haus? And yes, I'm spelling that h a u s very bougie. What if design is the difference between a product life and death? So we have a couple of new voices here on this episode. First, I want to introduce our guest co-host for this episode, Erica Lee, who's a digital strategist at Perficient. Hey Erica.

Erica (02:18):

Hi, Jim. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here!

Jim (02:21):

Great to have you. I love your perspective. I love what you've been through in terms of design, engineering, and bringing this all together. Am I right? Is this really the difference? Are the designers the kings and queens of the castle? What do you think?

Erica (02:34):

You know, I have probably a very different opinion than designers or kings and queens. I think all disciplines require creativity, and that's never been.

Jim (02:42):

Oh, that's great.

Erica (02:43):

Yeah, it's, you know, it's something I think that organizations are investing in. Is that we all need to have this kind of design competence in order to find ways of turning existing products, situations into preferred ones? And whether you're a marketer, whether you are a designer, we all have to have that lens in our own way. So I think there's many ways to think about design rather than just the creation or physical components of a product. It's more of a methodology and a way of bringing something more broadly to life.

Jim (03:17):

I thought you were going to tell me that the engineers are the ones that make it work. So, I love that perspective, but as always, we need someone to sort it out for us. So, we brought in a guest, Keith Wolf, also a Digital Strategist at Perficient. Hey Keith, welcome to the show, and we'd love to hear your perspective. So, dive in.

Keith (03:35):

First of all, Jim, thanks for having me on the podcast. Erica, thanks for joining the podcast as our guest host here today. You know, letting you know I have a passion for design prior to strategist here at Perficient. I grew up in the industry as a graphic designer. So started in design, grew up through digital. And I do want to start by saying design, contrary to popular belief, being a good designer isn't something that you're born with. Design is a learned discipline, much like mathematics, psychology, even a sport like golf, where to be successful, you need to bring a high degree of knowledge, skill. And most of all, I really believe you need to bring an appreciation for it. So to be good at the discipline of design, you have to appreciate design. I think it really under that understanding or appreciation really comes through defining what is design. I often mention design with a capital D. This is more of the discipline, the discipline of design, because when people think about design, or you ask them about design, they generally think about something they can feel, touch, see, interact with. You know, maybe that's a logo of their favorite brand or it's an element of fashion, even modern architecture. Those are just the outcomes or the result of design. Design itself is a process that includes research, idea generation, concept development, and all these things lead to a solution that meets the specific needs or goals.

Jim (04:55):

Yeah, I think that's a great overview, Keith, because I think design is sort of mystical to a lot of people.  I've seen great designers at work, and you're right, it's a process. We just don't often see it. We just see the result. We just don't get the benefit of seeing designers at work and employing the tools of their craft. So, a great place to start.

Keith (05:16):

Yeah, no, thanks Jim. I think the tangible side of design, when you start thinking about it, really, I look at design as sort of this balance between form and function. I think we've all heard that before. That what that really means is not only should the solution achieve its intended purpose, but it should also be aesthetically pleasing in some way. So, for example, I like to use the Eames chair. If you're not familiar with the Eames chair, if you Google it-

Jim (05:36):

Oh, one of favorites.

Keith (05:37):

You, you'll know what I'm talking about. I mean, it's an iconic piece of mid-century modern furniture produced in the fifties. Good design is usually timeless. I would say the Eames share is very relevant today. Perhaps more popular than ever,

Jim (05:57):

mm-hmm <Affirmative>.

Keith (05:58):

So, you think about design, but how does that translate into something like digital? How does that metaphor of this Eames chair translate to something today? I think it does, if you think about that in terms of a brand like Google, and Google is a product, it's an experience that was designed, it launched 25 years ago. I think it's iconic because other than really the logo modifications that have changed over time, you know, it used to have a drop shadow, and now it's sort of flat and it's kind of gone with that sort of style, and it's evolved there. The rest of the experience has really remained unchanged other than some of those visual changes of the identity. They have that I'm feeling lucky function, which was there 25 years ago. It's still there today. I think it's an example, a shining example of a well-executed design that stood the test of time.

Jim (06:46):

So I thought you were going to say the Eames chair is related to digital, because that's where you sit with your laptop, but I don't think that's where you're going.

Erica (06:54):

And, Jim, I have some thoughts there. I think about design and digital, and really it's all about how we create things from form and arrangement to really create value, right? For the consumer or for who's going to appreciate the products. I think there's lots of relationships and similarities there.

Jim (07:15):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Right, right. I think the Eames chair is iconic Google. Everybody knows, you know, we mentioned Apple earlier. I think fashion, furniture, cars have always been, you know, sort of the forefront of design car makers rather automobiles. But what about banks and hospitals and construction companies? Do they need to care about design? It's a setup question. I know, Keith, I know it's a setup question.

Keith (07:42):

Great question, Jim. No, absolutely. Design isn't just this visual layer. It's really how it works. Steve Jobs had a great quote. Design is not just what it looks and feels like, design is how it works. When you think about product and experience design, if it looks great and it's not usable, it's a failure. Apple always set that usability, high bar, really high. Steve Jobs was relentless to say, let's make sure that we take care of the needs of the user first, and then let's turn the designer's attention towards aesthetics. They usually got them both, right? How I look at this question you asked, design is all around us, but it's not everywhere. You mentioned healthcare. If you think about healthcare, the patient experience to start, it's an incredibly complex industry. There's multiple layers to contend with. You think about the clinical side, which includes doctors, nurses, administrative, there's financial, regulatory, you know, societal complexities such as disparities and access to healthcare. And then of course there's digital, the digital side of that, which is really transforming the industry. There's the complexities which include telemedicine, mobile apps, and the member portal, which we know isn't a great experience, but unlike other industries, yeah. You know, healthcare, this complexity, it hasn't really been resolved, especially for the patient. I think you're starting to see design having an impact specific to the healthcare category. If you kind of play that out, travel and hospitality, you think about that industry. I think it's a great example of where investments in design have improved the customer experience. Not that long ago, for those of you that remember booking travel, you actually had to call a travel agent and it was slow, it was expensive. You didn't really know what all of your choices were. It wasn't very transparent. Price was sort of the price, and it really wasn't a very enjoyable, or I would say a friendly experience. With investments in design, and with technology aligning to that, some of those design methods, what you start to see now is you're able to book your trip on your mobile device. You can change your seats on a flight minutes before your board, you know, you can book an Airbnb in a castle category, which is absurd in none of this <laugh> was possible just 10 years ago.

Jim (09:54):

I didn't even know that. That's great!

Keith (09:56):

This gets to a little bit of the differentiation side, and there's a little story I have in here, a little anecdotal story. I see design as a major differentiator for brands. Some brands, as we mentioned, like Apple, they've always invested in building a culture of design, and that goes for their employees. It aligns to the values of their customers. You think about Apple customers, they wait in long lines just to probably be the first to wear their latest and greatest products, sort of wearing those with sort of a badge of honor. Now you think about bad design, and it works exactly the same, but in the opposite direction. Bad design or lack of design is usually bad for business. And it reminds me of a little bit of a story. I've recently switched my live TV streaming service, primarily due to the contracts related to sports streaming, which is a hot mess and a probably a different podcast altogether. <Laugh>. I'm moving off of Hulu, which I like from an experience standpoint, I think it's fast, it's personalized. The recommendations seem to be pretty much spot on, but I'm moving over a new service, and I think nameless for this podcast, but the experience is not well designed. You can tell they're not investing in design. It's clunky. There's no personalization. You know, if I had a choice, I'd return to Hulu, but then I'd miss, you know, my favorite sporting events, which I don't want to do because I think the Minnesota Wild, they're going to win the Stanley Cup this year.

Jim (11:17):

Okay. Prediction. You heard it?

Keith (11:19)

Prediction or curse? Did I just curse them?

Jim (11:22):


Keith (11:23):

Or curse. Yeah. But anyway, so I'm putting up with the pain of a bad experience because I want what's on the other side of it. So I think, investing in design is actually a business strategy. You see it in the design. The companies that do invest Warby Parker, people buy glasses from Warby Parker. I couldn't pick a frame. If you're wearing a pair of Warby Parker glasses, I probably wouldn't know it. But I think consumers love the shopping experience. They love the way that you can purchase the product and ensure the design and everything, I think is great. But where they're accelerating is in the actual experience itself. They've invested in design. Yeah.

Jim (11:55):

Keith, I think you made a good case. You know, why we need to focus, and I'll just pile onto that. You know that software in particular is all around us, right? Our phone, obviously, our car dashboard, my tv, your tv, clearly <laugh>, self-checkout. I think about this all the time. I don't know how they tricked this into doing their job, but that experience has been designed. I got a car wash recently, am I going to a go-to car wash? Now it's self-service. You know, somebody had to design that. So it's everywhere. So how do regular companies get started if it's true, where they're all looking regular companies, air quotes are looking for designers, but how do they get started? How do they get off the ground?

Keith (12:35):

Well, I think we talked about it, design is all around us now from a technology standpoint. It's all designed to improve our lives, make our lives more seamless, frictionless, all of these promises. I think companies often struggle with this. They often struggle with bringing design into their organization. I think it goes back to this idea that design is looked at as a department, maybe not as a sort of a competency, but it's looked at as a department or it's the visual output. It's not seen as a process. And organizations, we know it from an operations standpoint, love process, but thinking about bringing design as a discipline, it's challenging. Industries like healthcare, for example, have really struggled with bringing design into their culture. But we do see it happening. Most of us have heard of the methodology that's called design thinking.

Keith (13:22):

It's defined as a human-centered approach to design, really starts with understanding and empathizing the needs of the user, and then drawing back the solution from those needs.

Jim (13:32):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, mm-hmm. <Affirmative>.

Keith (13:33):

It was popularized, I think, by a company out in Palo Alto, IDEO, which is a design consulting firm. But over the past decade, it's really become a methodology that fits well into business culture. So whether you're healthcare, whether you're an experienced design company, whether your internal corporate functions, design thinking really fits well because as you might expect, design thinking is a process. It really begins with empathizing with the people who use your product, from that empathy, what's the problem that we're trying to solve? Really defining that problem through the lens of the user generating ideas comes next. I think design thinking is really about exploring ideas. It's not just the first solutions, the best solution, and it's bringing diversity, bringing people from multiple departments within an organization. So, design isn't a vertical, design is more of a horizontal. You generate ideas, you prototype, you test, you repeat as necessary. Design thinking is really about failing. It's about learning. It's about iterating to make that outcome more usable or enjoyable for the user or for your customer.

Erica (14:39):

Keith, thinking about organizations who want to make this kind of design shift methodology, what type of capabilities and competencies, you know, do they need to consider to, to help them move forward?

Keith (14:51):

Yeah, that's a really, really good question. So if you look at it through, they get lens of design thinking, maybe, because again, that's sort of our process. When you’re empathizing, understanding the needs of the consumer, well, you need to have consumer research. You need to understand how to define your customer. A lot of times it's done through personas. We do a lot of journey mapping, which is taking the customer journey and actually plotting it on a piece of paper, visualize it. It could be everything from awareness to consideration, into conversion, loyalty, and advocacy. You know, what are the areas of your customer experience that you believe either your brand has an opportunity to bring its product forward, or your customers may have a gap or a need, and then you look to sort of fill that. So research is extremely important. You need to also have sort of the internal capabilities to do that. You need to bring designers on board. Those that think visually that can take a problem and you're solving a problem. If it's in digital, they can actually bring that digital solution to life through a visualization or a prototype. At Perficient, we use design thinking methodology often, and it's a baseline for developing our sort of customer experience solutions. One of the things we do is, from that standpoint, we look to overlay accelerants on top of the design thinking methodology. So, for example, we have a product that we call CX AMP, and it's an accelerated workflow that allows us to generate through that methodology of empathy, defining ideation and prototyping. We can generate prototypes and test them. We do it in four to six weeks, not four to six months. We know that today, you know, our clients want to move quickly. I think it's just having the discipline and having that process embedded within your organization, and then having the skillset to actually deliver and bring that solution to life.

Erica (16:33):

That's great, Keith. Thank you. Are there any other technologies that you would say organizations would need to kind of enable design, design thinking or a broader, more design competency within their business?

Keith (16:47):

Well, I'm pausing because I think this might be the part of the segment where we turn the podcast sort of on its head and start talking about artificial intelligence and generative AI. I'm half joking there, but something that's happening within the industry, and it's certainly, I don't know if it's polarizing, but people are really wondering how will generative AI be used universally in design? The concept of the robot sort of taking over and

Jim (17:12)

 mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. 

Keith (17:13)

Yeah. When you think of generative AI, it's really a tool. You know, I read a quote and I liked it. It's, “AI won't replace designers, but designers who use AI will replace those that do not.”  I think that's true because, we've all seen the amazing benefits of generative AI over the past six months. I'm a believer it's a tool much like 3D software, or Figma, a tool for design. Remember when calculators were once going to take the place of mathematicians. That didn't happen. So I think generative AI is a tool that's coming to the forefront. I also think collaboration's huge. Everything from mural boards to mentioned Figma tools that allow real-time collaboration. If you're an organization that's using outdated, non-real time collaborative tools, you think about design thinking, diversity of thought, bringing your teams together collaboratively, real-time collaborative tools are essential and a must for any organization that's bringing a design competency into into their company.

Jim (18:12):

Keith, that is a great outline, and I'm pretty convinced, but I was convinced to begin with, but excited to hear about some of the new tools coming. But what can our listeners do as soon as they finish listening to this episode? What can they do right now?

Keith (18:26):

I think you can just start practicing design. You know, you don't need to have a plaque on your wall before you can start being a practitioner. So just start practicing design, you know, what are the things that you need to get done today? You know, maybe it's drafting an email or creating a PowerPoint, maybe it's even making dinner, but we're often so busy that-

Jim (18:46)


Keith (18:47)

What's that?

Jim (18:48):

Or lunch. It's lunch time.

Keith (18:49):

<Laugh>, I'm hungry. No, but we're so busy. We we're in the mindset that we're just trying to get stuff done, and we kind of have our heads down. We're not really thinking about the bigger picture or really the outcome and trying to draw that line back through to a solution.  I think, again, we're moving so fast, but if you think about the design process, you know, what is the problem you're trying to solve? What is the approach that you can bring to get there? How does this result in a form and function? So, if I'm looking at, I mentioned PowerPoint, really who's your audience? What's the message we want them to hear? Not what do we want to tell them, but what do we want them to hear? For instance, does it need to be persuasive? You know, you start to lean into the form of this PowerPoint, if it's something that's presented in person, you want to limit the amount of copy. If it's something that's being delivered, maybe you can have a little bit more density. I mentioned if it's persuasive, it contains content, like an emotional quote or a provocative insight, something that brings, emotion in there. Something that can change minds or shift perceptions. Those are all design qualities. I mentioned dinner. If you have to make dinner tonight, try to understand who's coming over. You know, are we trying to impress them? Are there dietary restrictions? What's playing in the background? Is it Frank Sinatra or is it Metallica? All of these things, you're establishing design criteria. What's the problem we're trying to solve? How do we solution that? I guarantee you, if you do those things and you think about that through that lens, your audience will appreciate it, and you'll be practicing design.

Jim (20:14):

That is awesome. I love that. I'll take a Metallica cover of a Frank Sinatra song, and you made a good design choice, but I love that. I love everything you've kind of laid out, Keith. Yeah. You start practicing, right? You start building the discipline.

Erica (20:27):

I love it too. And Jim, like, as someone who considers yourself a complete non-creative, I do feel like design should be used more frequently, more broadly, more strategically. And even if it's just reflecting on where you are and where you want to go. I think non-creatives like myself, think about design as this really broad topic when it's just incremental improvements or incremental positive changes in moving, to value creation and for the customer. So, I think what a great concept, Keith. So thank you for helping us think differently.

Jim (21:03):

Yeah, thank you very much, Keith. And, Erica, thank you for guest co-hosting. Great to talk as always. And until next time, keep asking What If?, So What?, and most importantly Now what?


You've been listening to What If? So What? The Digital Strategy podcast from Perficient with Jim Hertzfeld and Kim Czopek. We want to thank our Perficient colleagues, JD Norman and Rick Bauer for our music today. Subscribe to the podcast and don't miss a single episode. You can find this season along with show notes at Thanks for listening.