Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview with Mark Rolston (Chief Creative Officer) and Theo Forbath (VP of Innovation Strategy) of frog

On August 3, 2011, I had the great pleasure to hold a conversation with two of the premier experts on innovation and design at frog, the renowned and celebrated global innovation firm (

I owe a great deal of appreciation to Mark Rolston (Chief Creative Officer) and Theo Forbath (VP of Innovation Strategy) for taking the time to share insights with me that will provide ongoing value to my work for years to come.  The following is a summary of that conversation.   

Balancing Science and Art
Early on in our discussion, I approached the topic of the product development process in an attempt to identify the elusive patterns of behavior that lead successful or failing products. Rolston rightfully prevented us from going down this path, pointing out that the individual steps within a process are not where problems occur. Instead, what matters is how the entire process comes together as a whole. Rolston continues by instructing that in design, “form is held together by negative space”. In the practice of product development, “process is the positive space, and the connections are the negative space”. 

This might sound highly abstract or theoretical to some, but this way of thinking is in lockstep with the study of systems. The discussion of positive and negative space evokes the importance of balancing the science and art of experience design. The process of scientifically breaking down a design into individual technical requirements to “check all the right boxes” can cause one to lose site of the outcome that it creates when it comes together as a whole. At risk of digressing, I believe this also describes the misguided attempts of the business community to formalize the Design Thinking process. Once you add repeatable structure, you degrade the resourceful and imaginative nature that can make it so valuable. By over-emphasizing the science, you sacrifice the art, and it’s the art that provides the real value.

Theo Forbath, frog’s VP of Innovation Strategy, reiterates the importance of holistic thinking by explaining that the companies that fail are the ones that fail to “bring it all together”.  frog achieves their balance between art and science by conducting deep qualitative and quantitative research in the early phases of an engagement. Their qualitative research is often done in the form of ethnography, led by famed ethnographer Jan Chipchase. Forbath explains that frog follows this up with thorough quantitative analysis to provide their clients with “left and right brain insights”.

The Mick Jagger Phenomenon
In discussing what it takes to create truly great experience design, Mark Rolston, describes the concept of “The Mick Jagger Phenomenon”. The lead singer of the Rolling Stones is not the most talented in the world, nor the best song writer or best-looking, “yet the way they put the package together is highly authentic, completely aligned, and pure in its plan. It’s an authentic expression of what they want to be”.  The leading creative mind at a world-leading design firm is not going to use the same terminology of the systems domain, but his viewpoint is completely aligned. Essentially, what he’s discussing is emergence – the ideas that the manifestation of a system is greater than the sum of its components.

In Mark Rolston’s view, Apple has dominated their market, much like the Stones did, by creating an authentic and consistent expression of what they wanted to create. This authenticity drives customer loyalty to the point where customers will forgive the occasional flaw or missing feature. This customer forgiveness is an extremely powerful attribute in a hyper-competitive technology market. This concept authenticity is clearly the differentiator. Those that fail create products that “check all the right boxes, yet the complete expression is just not right”.

On Complexity
“Technologies have become vastly more complex”, explains Mark Rolston. He describes the vast array of decisions that need to be made during today’s design and development process, such as hiring engineers, and buying hardware, code, and packaging. “So much engineering has to happen before an experience comes to market. We have an illusion that we come out of research with a pure idea and engineering is merely the means to getting it out.” As he neatly and accurately sums it up, “we’re not making toasters anymore!” If this trend is to continue, it is clear that designers will need to sharpen their skills for understanding complexity and the dynamics of a technology system.

Rolston asserts that this complexity often exceeds an organization’s readiness to manage it, leading to situations where they compartmentalize duties but “lack clear perspective on the whole”.  He recommends instituting organizational restructuring and process improvements over time. However, there are also near-term measures to address this complexity problem. “The immediate fix is to better embrace the tangible artifacts inherit in the process”.  Removing abstractions, he explains, is part of removing complexity.

On Direction
I have long believed that many designs fail not due to a poor idea, but the inability to maintain the intent of that idea throughout the design and development process.  I was glad to hear that Mark Rolston recognizes this dilemma as well and seeks a better solution. “It’s true that Steve Jobs, as well as any number of auteur movie directors, create the impression that a single dictator-creator can shepherd a project through. However, finding such genius is elusive. We need a better answer.”

To offer some hope, Rolston informed me “carrying the idea does not require a person owning it”. He feels it is a significant improvement, “but many organizations cannot do it. They can’t afford it or they politically aren’t willing to.” Rolston advised that in the absence of powerful leaders, “high-fidelity artifacts (progressive working examples of the product) are the next best thing. They don’t lie (at least very well) and they help an organization rally behind the goal.”

As an example, it was noted by Rolston that concept animations are “priceless” towards carrying intent as they “create connective tissue” across the process stages. Rolston and Forbath agreed that the key to such high-fidelity artifacts is achieving a balance between inspiration and feasibility. If it’s too safe, it will get a “so what, we can do this today” reaction, but too far out towards science fiction and it becomes too hard to connect.

The Importance of Softer Clay
For an innovation firm like frog, the client forging ahead to a solution is one of their greatest challenges. Often, it was explained to me, clients will come with a solution in mind but they haven’t done the proper research. The example they give is that of a consumer technology client asking them to design a tablet computer without considering the public’s opinion of their ability to create one. This uninformed approach can lead to failure, at worst, and at best, mediocrity.

They address this challenge of clients jumping ahead to solutions by working with them to “delay as long as possible the fixing of plans in the course of a project”.  It is this mindset they refer to as “pushing determinism forward”. By taking this approach, an organization allows itself to learn along the way, discovering new opportunities as the problem and potential solution space is better understood. By increasing understanding of the problem and maintaining flexibility in the solution, you have a vastly greater chance of “authentically mapping your solution the problem that you’ve discovered” in Rolston’s opinion.

Another critical threat to creating innovative products is the urgency of market competition. Rolston believes that focusing on competition leads to organizations only looking a quarter ahead at a time and creating products “out of the chute”. frog is trying to “unhinge this chute-like process” and get people to “be comfortable engaging a project with an undefined outcome”.  In their words, “the fidelity of the problem must be concrete for the sake of the financial and organizational investment, but the form of the imagined outcome should not.” This approach allows organizations to understand a problem and determine their direction, and then allow plenty of time to “push and pull” to meet their objective. Put succinctly, organizations need “softer clay”.

While discussing innovation and foresight, Rolston describes HP with admiration and some constructive criticism. “HP is a great computer company. Computing is a fundamental driver is the last 20 years and next 100 years. It drives who people are and how they’ll behave. HP is one of the biggest and most successful companies in this field, and yet, they can’t think ahead or think aggressively.” He continues by explaining that HP “passively looks at what the market wants tomorrow”, focusing only on short-term innovation and not further out.  He advises that it’s not the market that HP should be looking at, but instead shift focus to the people.  After all, “markets are made serving the wants and needs of the people”.

So how does an organization look past next quarter? Theo Forbath’s viewpoint is that qualitative research is the remedy to this myopic, market-driven thinking. One of the primary distinctions between Apple versus HP is their willingness to look at core human behavior, according to Rolston. HP simply “look to their analysts”, but they need to look “past the next quarter” for greater success. Forbath and Rolston agreed that specific roles really are not important (e.g. Designer, Technologist, Futurist, etc.), just that there are individuals looking far ahead into the future.