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Connecting the dots between people, technology and business

Connecting the dots between people, technology and business

When Flex first opened its doors in 1988, we wanted to prove that design could offer more than just aesthetic value. ‘Solutions that sell’ was our motto as we created more than 400 products that delivered financial success for our clients. Looking back at all the years we’ve been in business, we realized how much has changed. The Internet of Things transformed the way we create and interact with objects. Today’s customers demand products and services where the physical and digital are seamlessly integrated – and for today’s design solutions this means exploring the links between trends and concepts, man and machine, potential and possibility.

These developments have been reflected in our recent projects, many of which didn’t produce physical objects. Some didn’t even result in what we would have seen in 1988 as the outcome of the design process. For Lely we created “The Red Rules”, a set of guidelines that other designers use to create all Lely’s products from milking machines to balers. The key to creating such a wide-ranging document was to understand Lely’s business at every level. While we already had a close relationship with the company, we invited everyone who was connected with Lely, from the boardroom to the farmyard, for testing and research sessions. The insights we accumulated proved invaluable when we were asked to create the digital equivalent of The Red Rules for all Lely’s man-machine interfaces. This was especially challenging as Lely has a huge variety of end-users all around the world performing hugely different tasks. However, our research into how farmers interact with Lely’s technology allowed us to create a definitive final document with principles, rules and libraries for designing consistent user interfaces.

In the connected era, it turns out that we think is just as valuable as what we make.

In the connected era, it turns out that we think is just as valuable as what we make. The Dutch municipality of Almere wanted to become waste-free, and engaged consultancy bureau Kirkman Company to lead them through the process. Financial solutions might not be our strongest suit, but understanding people and how they relate to technology is, and we were asked to handle the emotional side of the research phase.

We conducted co-creation sessions with groups of everyone involved (If we’re repeating ourselves, it’s because this approach works. We find that a lot of successful design is rooted in getting everyone on the same page.) and turned the insights that emerged into practical ideas and tools that the residents, councils and local businesses could actually judge. It’s easy to talk about these kinds of things, but it’s a lot easier to get people on your side when you can show them an object they can relate to. These included an app, a new brand for upcycled products, lessons in schools about rubbish and the physical layout of the upcycling station itself. These weren’t intended as prototypes, but simply a way of showing stakeholders the potential of upcycling and its economic as well as environmental benefits – and as a result, there’s now a groundswell of support for upcycling in Almere.

We find that a lot of successful design is rooted in getting everyone on the same page

That doesn’t mean everything we do nowadays is virtual. A large part of our work is helping clients adapt to the challenges of the new world. Like PostNL, for example. Their market has undergone a seismic revolution: less letters, more parcels and more competition. To retain stay ahead of the game, they had initiated a new delivery system. However, it wasn’t very user-friendly. Workers struggled to get to grips with it, negating the advantages that the system promised. Therefore we were asked to invent an ergonomic solution that would allow workers to handle more mail more easily. To do this, we went back to basics and got busy in our workshop. ‘Fail fast and fail cheap’ was the order of the day, as we knocked up a series of wooden prototypes that were immediately sent to the work floor so we could learn quickly what worked and what didn’t.

The final Smart Kart is full of lots of clever details that we’re very proud of but haven’t space got to list here (a quick one-two is that it can be picked up by a forklift truck and trundle over cables without losing any mail) yet it looks like a humble kart. Perhaps that’s the beauty of good design. We’re happy to report that its success means that the Smart Kart has won numerous awards and will be rolled out across Europe.

It’s this mix of experience, expertise and excitement about the possibilities of technology that we offer our clients to take advantage of this moment in time.

It’s this mix of experience, expertise and excitement about the possibilities of technology that we offer our clients to take advantage of this moment in time. By combining insights from in-depth consumer research, technical innovations made in the workshop and our clients’ commercial expertise, we create tools and experiences that connect the dots between people, technology and business.

This can be for the challenges we face today or the ones that lie ahead. At AB Inbev, we work together with the Research and Development and Marketing departments on producing new value propositions for the draft beer market. As you can imagine, the R&D team gets very excited about what technology can do, while the marketers are up to date on what beer drinkers want. It’s our job to listen to both sides and translate the insights that emerge into business opportunities and practical technological solutions that make everyone happy.

That’s what a lot of our work boils down to: listening to people and bringing them together with technology.

That’s what a lot of our work boils down to: listening to people and bringing them together with technology. The connected era offers us the opportunity to create more value for more people by envisioning how good things should be, not accepting how they are. Together with Unesco-IHE we’re developing a solution to the global sanitation crisis. Currently 1 billion people live without sanitation, a situation that causes death and disease across the world. Our emergency Sanitation Operating System (eSOS) provides basic hygiene to people in emergency response situations – and at the same time collects essential data and translates them into relevant management tools so that charities and relief response agencies can perform more efficiently in the long-term. We’ve only started exploring the possibilities of the insights that this data can offer in terms of health and nutrition, but we hope that this could help predict the spread of disease and direct supplies of food, drinking water and medicine much more efficiently.

All in all, it’s a long way from solutions that sell. We believe that motto is still a good starting point, but it’s now time to add more value to design once again. The way forward is to work together with our clients in turning their goals into tools that create economic, social, and environmental value – not just for brands or consumers, but all of us!