Mind The Gap
A long time ago, a brilliant man by the name of Vince Barabba, who had been Director of the Census Bureau under two different presidents, offered me and my colleagues an intriguing challenge. In his role as general manager of corporate strategy at GM, he had been thinking about a vexing problem facing the car maker. They were struggling to build cars that were differentiated by brand and appealing to customers.
They were certainly doing a lot of market research and theoretically trying to understand the behaviors and preferences of their target customers. They were definitely employing talented and seasoned car designers. Yet each brand was indistinguishable from the next, and as if disappointing sales weren’t enough, five different red cars were featured on the cover of a popular weekly magazine exemplifying how interchangeable and undifferentiated they were across brands.
Vince saw one failure in the process that he could identify—researchers weren’t connecting with designers in a way that informed the design process. They either weren’t discovering anything designers could use to influence the desirability of the end product, or the data they were collecting was a foreign language to the designers it was supposed to inform. If they didn’t understand it, how would they know what they could do with it?
Recently my partner Michael Donovan and I had the pleasure of meeting with Margaret Price from Microsoft. She passionately described a “gap” she was confronting every day. Call it a knowledge gap. Call it a language gap. Margaret’s job at the most valuable company in the world is, simply, to bridge that gap between designers who are thinking about people, their needs, and their very human condition, and technologists who are building the products and services intended to help those humans function and succeed in their everyday lives at home and at work. Designers maintain that they understand what people need, but they don’t have the language to transmit that understanding to the technologists who have to build software and applications.
It occurred to me during that conversation with Margaret that we are living in a world of “gaps.” The gap between those who understand and those who are building the systems which increasingly are the gateways to daily living. The gap between humanists and technologists, between designers and executors of their vision. The gap between those who want to learn and grow into productive informed citizens and the ability we have as a society to give them the tools, education, and experiences they will require to participate. The gap between those who hold the keys to the kingdom and the brilliant multi-colored tapestry of the society they are serving.
Vince asked us to create a common language. Margaret is evangelizing on behalf of Microsoft to create a new world order where designers learn the language of those who build systems so that they can influence the outcome. It will take all of us to be sure that those who have an appetite to build this new world order and make it a reflection of our noblest collective selves have the opportunity to make their voices heard. It seems we are very good at building tunnels of increasingly nuanced knowledge and capability. It’s time to spend as much energy on what might be the most difficult, yet most important task—building bridges of understanding.