How do you frame change?

This article will help you gain a better understanding of how framing can help you make decisions in the process of innovation.

If you ask a user what they want, they will usually say they want a better version of what they already have. Sometimes it makes sense to develop products which give them that — then you do not need to think in terms of change, but rather in terms of optimisation. But if you want to set a change in motion, bringing with it radically different ideas, then you need to reflect on which other values you can offer to your customers.

The better you are at defining these values, the easier it will be to make decisions based on them — as well as finding out whether they’re relevant values for potential users. So, before your company throws vast resources at innovation, changing your way of thinking, or a new app which customers do not even know they need, start with sorting out your framing. Here is a guide.

Finding a new segment

Let’s imagine a strategy meeting at Nintendo before the Wii games console was developed. The Head of Design and the Financial Manager discuss what they should focus on in their future products. At this point Halo and GTA are the top-selling games.

The Financial Manager says that those two games should work well on Nintendo’s next console.
The Head of Design replies, saying the next console will not even be able to play those games.
The Financial Manager mentions some market research which showed that the typical user — primarily teenage boys at that time — wanted more complex games and higher graphic performance.
The Head of Design replies that they do not want to focus on developing that.

This conversation is exaggerated, but the scenario shows the development Wii represented for Nintendo and for the market. Wii became one of the best-selling consoles despite the fact that it did not support Halo, GTA or any of the other more complex and graphics-heavy games. Nintendo did not react to users’ wishes or to the market. How, then, did they manage to create a successful games console despite this? How did Nintendo manage to reach a much wider segment than games consoles had reached before?

The value of Xbox and PlayStation: experiencing an imaginary universe

The value of Xbox or PlayStation at that point was that the user had the opportunity to spend hours absorbed in a made-up world. That is why users wanted a console where games could be as complex as possible, with graphics as overwhelmingly realistic as possible. This supported the value: ‘experiencing an imaginary universe’.

The value of Nintendo Wii: social and physically active fun

Instead of competing to deliver greater complexity and graphic performance, Nintendo developed their new console based on a different value: ‘playing in a social and physically active way’. That is to say, a desire to give users a different experience than the competing and predominant value of ‘experiencing an imaginary universe’.

Suddenly, grandparents were using games consoles to play with their five-year-old grandchildren. The target audience for games consoles became significantly larger. And Nintendo’s cash registers were ringing.

Good framing helps us come up with good ideas

In the moment where you define a value, you open up new, but limited, room for opportunity. And in this situation limitation is good, because it means that some ideas are no longer valid. It means your innovation process has a focus — you look at your users’ situation in a new way.

In the Nintendo example, if the user is sitting on the sofa and is physically passive, you ask yourself how you can get them to get off the sofa. You ask yourself which activities usually get people to come together. You wonder whether the user can play somewhere else, instead of on the sofa. You wonder whether the user can play using something other than a traditional controller, which only requires them to move their thumbs.

Then you come up with the idea of using a different type of controller with a movement sensor. The idea that a user can stand up and play a game standing in the living room in front of the TV. The idea of a balance board. You develop ideas with a completely different focus than thinking about whether Halo or GTA will work with your console. Bowling and tennis make more sense. You stop focusing on aesthetically convincing experiences and instead focus on whether the user experiences a connection between their movements in the living room and on the screen. You start working to make the movement sensor as precise as possible.

Coming up with a good idea doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the product of a conscious effort to develop ideas within a limited room of opportunity, led by the value you define.

Good framing defines the area of decision making

If Nintendo had not defined a radically different value from the ones seen previously within game console design, they would not have worked with movement sensors and the new type of controller. Formulating a value leads to idea generation and helps with prioritisation. As CEO, designer or finance manager, questions begin to answer themselves.

Back to Nintendo:

Question: Should we develop a powerful processor?
Answer: Only if it helps us make users more physically active and social when they play. And it doesn’t sound like it will. So, no.
Question: Should we develop controllers or joysticks which can interpret the player’s physical movements?
Answer: Yes, because we think the existing controllers on the market aren’t compatible with our goals and that developing new controllers can better support our goal of physically active play, where users can have fun together.

If you know you want to create a situation where users experience that it is fun to be physically active and social (perhaps across age groups), it becomes easier to accept and reject ideas. This means that you can move more quickly from discussing what to develop, to how to develop new movement sensors, a new type of controller or new ways of playing. Instead of competing towards the same goals as Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo found a new focus for their product development. A well-implemented value can work as a compass for employee decisions — it is easier for them to navigate towards what they should do, when they know the outlining value or values.

But how do you define a value which gives a relevant focus for developing new solutions, for instance?

The first phase requires an understanding of writing a toast, whilst the second phase requires an understanding of users’ wishes, problems and preferences.

Phase 1: Choose one of the user’s values or character traits you want to celebrate

The first phase is like the thought process behind a good toast at a party. It is about celebrating a value seen in the bride, groom, friend or whomever you are celebrating. You decide whether you want to praise them for being social, generous, thrifty, physically active, strong, thoughtful, imaginative, empathetic, brave or for some other value. Then you write a toast full of anecdotes, showing how the person you’re celebrating is, for example, brave. Maybe you also make fun of that one time it got out of hand, but the fundamental purpose of the speech is to praise the person for being brave, and to say that you like them because of it.

The same thought process lies behind the development of a strategy which paves the way for new ideas. Do you want to make a product or business which gives the user the opportunity to be imaginative or creative (Minecraft), brave (Jelly Belly BeanBoozled), social (Facebook), safe (Volvo 740), strong (Crossfit), agile or athletic (Nike Magista Obra), or something completely different?
Which character traits can the user act out via our product?

The defining values are about what we want to achieve for our users. A good value points towards them and is focused on how it will benefit them.

Phase 2: Research whether potential users want that value to play a stronger role in their life

When you’ve found the value you think your company can support, the next step is not to ask your current users what they want, but instead to thoroughly investigate potential customers’ lives and wishes. Does it make sense for them to have the opportunity to identify themselves as being thoughtful, responsible, strong, brave or as some other value?

Once you have done your research and made that decision (let me know if you need help!), comes the third phase, where you create convincing products. I won’t discuss that here, as you will do a better job of that on your own.

First and foremost, I would recommend that you choose one or two well-chosen values and then find out whether potential users want that value to play a stronger role in their life. If the answer is yes, you’re heading in the right direction.

So next time you’re working with innovation — be it in the form of a product, a process or a service — follow the three phases above. By framing your goals using values, you do not get tied down to a rigid process or come up with bad solutions. On the contrary, you develop a frame of innovation which can lead your process of innovation to places you never would have reached just using ‘free thinking’.

Fact Box

By ‘frame’ we mean stating something with a particular focus. A good example of framing is calling student grants “coffee money”. This has different connotations than calling student grants “financial help for poor students”. The truth is, student grants are both, but they can be framed differently, depending on what you want voters to support. Framing can also be used as a tool to develop new ideas and assess new initiatives, by for example stating the focus of the value you want the new change to create.

Read more here
Kees Dorst: Frame Innovation
Roberto Verganti: Design-Driven Innovation – Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean
Per L. Halstrøm: Design as Value Celebration: Rethinking Design Argumentation

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