Failed attempts to disrupt can be traced back to a failure to properly involve Design.

There are some misinformed innovators out there. Disruption is being announced so often these days that we almost expect it. This is bad. Because we are complacent. We expect problems to be fixed by ‘the future’. But pass the inconvenient ‘doing’ of this future to someone else.

Turtleneck mythology

When pushed, most people trust that disruption will inevitably ‘just happen’ as chosen ones re-enact start-up parables from history. Apple, OpenAI, SpaceX… we lump everything ‘disruptive’ or ‘futuristic’ together and expect them to succeed the same way. Personifying them behind celebrity CEOs.

Lazily buying new technology doesn’t lead to success. Neither does copying past successes. But I don’t want to say we shouldn’t trust the past or apply re-usable templates. There is a repeatable path to follow and it is tried and tested. It just isn’t a fable. It’s a framework and it is called design-thinking.

Questioning everything, focusing on the person using the thing, attentively making changes in baby steps, but connecting to the bigger picture and considering the future. This is always the same, but how you do it is always different.

Right now I am working as a designer in cloud data, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. And I am writing this both as a form of therapy and to try and formulate messy ideas into something useful. A discussion of three ways design-thinking unlocks innovation.

  1. Unlock immediate value
  2. Unlock feasible scalability
  3. Unlock future innovation

This isn’t a crash course in design, it’s a pitch of what design will help you achieve. So let’s start.

1) Unlock immediate value

Design makes products. Products connect users to value. Some value is long-term, some is immediate. An innovation has better legs if it can build momentum on instant value. How can design help with this?

Doing the right thing

You can frame the work stream properly so you are solving the right problem, using design tools like the Value Proposition Canvas.

No surprises

Bring stakeholders on the journey to prevent u-turns, by collaborating on your problem statement, user stories and solution design.

Fail fast, fail small

There is no ‘big reveal’. Iterate often to minimise impact of mistakes. Usability tests, Wizard of Oz tests, card sorts… these are all ways to catch weaknesses before they break a user’s experience.

Think use case, not feature

You don’t need to recreate the steps a user currently follows, just because it’s how things are done. Fast track to their desired outcome, by studying their jobs or journeys.

No-one has all the answers

Teams innovate. Not execs, not individuals. You should harness a range of skills throughout a project. Workshop your way through ambiguity.

Don’t only focus on technology experts. You also want voice of customers, industry experts, regulatory specialists, etc.

Immediate revolution @ ChatGPT

Using ChatGPT beats tapping away on Google. No more skimming pages to find code written similarly to yours. Ask a chatbot for tailor made advice. It’s not always perfect, but it’s often better than second hand content.

ChatGPT was implemented in the lowest effort way possible. A clunky chatbot. OpenAI regularly make new releases, with a change log and extensive documentation. They encourage us to use their API and they make almost everything free.

I would warrant that the team behind ChatGPT are still heavily focused on Discovery. But ChatGPT already has so much momentum that OpenAI can afford to take their time doing this. Which means they’ll innovate better.

Stunted growth @ Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is one of the slowest movers along the innovation curve I can think of. It has been stuck somewhere around Innovator or Early Adopter for many years.

VR gaming is slowly becoming popular, but still seen by most as a gimmick. Even the companies making headsets seem to lack insights into their users. Price, isolation and incompatibility with current media are among the major barriers to mass adoption. Meanwhile corporate applications have been lethargic at best (augmented reality fares better).

Source: Julie Krohner, who placed VR in Early Adoption… 7 years ago!

One issue is that VR is being dominated by engineers and sales people, with a significant lack of actual design input. There is a growing craft of interaction design expertise, such as Ultraleap’s impressive hand-tracking documentation. But there is a lack of service design and UX design across the spectrum of VR. Hopefully, Apple will lead to broader standardisation on spatial design practices. But until then, VR will remain a field led by engineering features and sales hype.

2) Unlock feasible scalability

You can design a great user experience in a controlled environment, but cause chaos in the real world. As a product scales, there are multiple things that can test it in unpredictable ways. Think of this like the product version of the Great Filter. Design is about pre-empting risks and reacting to failure.

Do more, talk less

No more ‘winning the meeting’. Top-down innovation doesn’t work. Stop the slide decks and the speeches. Why do you need permission to innovate?

Focus on small, sustainable ways to be the change you want to see. Embrace the embarrassment of it going wrong and encourage colleagues to try it out. A test first approach will add resilience to your innovation and help it scale.


The diversity of users can be a major obstacle to something working consistently. Design focuses heavily on this. Think user research, personas, testing, etc.


Scout for strategic risks across multiple use cases by harnessing service design and systems thinking. You can’t sprinkle technology on a problem without looking at the full picture. Things break, prepare for it.


Design is all about making improvements and keeping them. One great way to achieve this is to document standards, guidelines and principles. I said leadership can’t innovate, but they can implement existing innovation into a company’s vision and processes.

Digital Transformation @ Government Design Service (GDS)

Generally, digital transformation has always been over-promised and under-delivered. Ecommerce, CRMs, you name it. One issue we see is when businesses adopt a digital system without properly overhauling their actual human process.

The United Kingdom government’s GDS is an example of great success when implementing digital transformation at scale. And this was achieved by adopting a design-led culture, putting the user first and getting consensus on principles for the future.

An illustration from GDS.

This is their mission:

GDS is here to make digital government simpler, clearer and faster for everyone. Good digital services are better for users, and cheaper for the taxpayer.

Looking back, here is a quote from Martha Lane Fox’s report calling for an overhaul to the governments services in 2010.

Digital services are now more agile, open and cheaper. To take advantage of these changes, government needs to move to a ‘service culture’, putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments.

This success story saw the UK government lauded as ‘the best startup in Europe’. By 2015, it had saved £3.56 billion in public money.

Digital automation and slicker processes that focus on “solving the hardest problems” revolutionised work across government departments. For example, the Department of Work and Pensions lauded GDS as giving staff “thousands of hours back”.

GDS guidance is held in high esteem across the private sector as an example of design excellence.

Digital Transformation @ the NHS

Sadly, the British NHS has not yet lived up to the legacy of GDS. We saw great things during Lockdown, such as the NHS App. But generally, the NHS still has issues scaling digital technology service-wide.

Screenshot of NHS app.

Here are some quotes from a House of Commons report in June 2023. It reflects on past efforts to digitise the NHS and makes suggestions for the future.

Unsuitable technology

…old, out-of-date “legacy” IT systems and hardware that cannot handle the demands of a modern digital health service.

Insufficient collaboration

Coproducing digital initiatives with staff — including, but not limited to clinicians — is essential.

Poor training

We recommend… training in which digital skills are embedded.

A need for ethical principles for the future

People who are “digitally excluded” from health services are also likely to experience digital exclusion more widely.

It is the financial and operational strain which the NHS is under that makes innovation a significant challenge. Among other impacts, it prevents design from being properly applied.

3) Unlock future innovation

Ideas truly disrupt when they can reproduce. New innovations spring up in different directions and technology is further advanced by the previous big idea. Design can help with this.

Keep it small, keep it modular

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Innovation requires putting one foot in front of the other. You can’t run, you can’t predict every obstacle.

Where is the evidence?

From metrics to a user’s facial expression. Design turns everything into data, then turns data into actions.

Good speculative design (prototyping the future) relies on anticipating broad trends using sound reason and evidence. UX and service research methodologies are crucial to this.

Be flexible

If your product can enable other products, it should be as flexible as possible. Can your online service work work with web hooks? Can indie developers afford to build for your platform?

Scope is limited — can we extend it?

You can only do so much. And you need to ground your roadmap in reality. But you can ask why you can’t do something, then make slow steps towards change.

I was lucky enough to be on the winning team at Kaluza’s AI for Energy Hackathon. One thing that helped clinch it for us was that our model would train additional models, enabling future innovation.

A future unlocked @ cloud computing

Cloud computing has trail blazed innovation for decades but isn’t a household name among the layperson. It enables online collaboration, content streaming, paperless finances, remote device management and so much more. And now we see the beginnings of cloud streamed gaming.

The embedded practice of design in companies has allowed for an excellent synergy between the cloud providers and start-ups who harness that technology.

Cloud giant AWS have design principles. They boast multiple success stories enabling clients like Slack, Canva and more. And they literally have a conference called Innovate!

In the world of virtual reality, a real barrier for mass appeal is the limit of how much GPU and storage can be hung on a person’s face. This puts a ceiling on the quality of experiences. So a future innovation for cloud will likely be streaming VR, so the headset becomes a wearable monitor.

No longer shouted about @ Voice Input

Voice recognition technology is being used more thanks to AI’s large language models.

But voice input still hasn’t reached its potential. It is an option for e-commerce, thermostats, hands free systems, search engines and more. But causes as much frustration as value. It struggles with the diversity of real-world applications.

A few years ago my sat nav sent me an hour off route to Peas Pottage, when it stealthily captured kids singing as a request to change destination (without me noticing!). Something was missed in the usability test, more singing perhaps?

To conclude

Technology is moving so fast at the moment. We talk about this a lot in the digital sphere, but I really do think we’re living through a transformation. That is, we might do if we properly apply design-thinking to solve the right problems.

Of course, we don’t need another luxury gizmo or a new way to buy things. We need to transform healthcare, energy, education. But wherever we choose to innovate, without design input, all we’re on course for is the same confusion on a new platform.

Thanks for reading!

I wrote this quicker than most articles. Something about my experiences over the past year made it easy to put down. What excites me at the minute is it feels as though designers are becoming a community of innovators. And we can’t do it without collaborating.

Suggested reading

The Myth of Artificial Intelligence by Erik J. Larson

A ‘Radically Realistic’ Vision for Adult Social Care by The King’s Fund

3 ways design unlocks innovation | nothing moves forward without this was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.