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The value of designing for the future customer

Designing for the future isn’t about guesswork. With the right principles and approaches we can use foresight to build a better working world.

4 minute read.

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The purpose of looking at the future is to disturb the present,” said Gaston Berger, the French cognitive scientist and Futurist pioneer, in the early years of the twentieth Century. He presumably didn’t have access to a sophisticated statistics package, or the same seven years of longitudinal, corporate performance and foresight adoption data that René Rohrbeck and Menes Etingue Kumd did when they published their analysis in a 2018 article for the Journal of Technological Forecasting and Social Change 1. But if he did, then he might have drawn the same conclusions as they did and added that the purpose of looking at the future is because future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% growth 1.

The perils of not looking ahead, however, were as apparent in M. Berger’s time as they are today. He would have witnessed the demise of the vaudeville and silent movie industries as the more engaging and immersive “talkie” formats took over. The reduction of US automobile manufacturers from over 250 in 1908 to effectively 3 in 1929 as easier to drive, easier to repair, cheaper models better responded to motorists’ needs. It would probably come as no surprise to him that since 2000, over half of the firms that were in the Fortune 500 have now gone bankrupt, been acquired, or ceased to exist 2. Often because they failed to recognize changing consumer trends and see disruption coming before it was too late. The collapse of high-street giants Thomas Cook and Toys “R” Us, who both seemingly spectacularly misjudged shifting retail needs, being recent cases in point.

Looking to the future is important for brands and businesses, and from a commercial perspective, not just an academic viewpoint. Nowhere is this truer than in designing new products and services.

Typical corporate timelines mean that it can easily take years rather than months for a significant innovation to move from inception to in-market delivery. We need to focus not just on the needs of our current customers today, but also the needs of our future customers tomorrow. Because often, by the time we have developed something that is actually live, our future customers are already with us. When we don’t do this, we face a sort of unplanned obsolescence, a perpetual lag of outdated innovation that is no longer wanted or needed (electronic pagers anyone?).

View of city through kaleidoscope

Service channel interplay in 2025

So how can we avoid these pitfalls and ensure we recognise the value of designing for the future customer?

  1. Bake futures into design - Foresight and futures research techniques are naturally well-aligned with the discovery and define phases of a project. They offer permission to focus on the longer term, create new perspectives and a structured future foundation for ideation and proposition development.
  2. Take off the blinkers - We need to look outside in as well as inside out. One of the main reasons that firms get blindsided by disruption is that they become too introspective in their thinking over time. Looking at the problem through broader cultural, category, competitor or consumer lenses can offer valuable new insights, and help to eliminate future blind spots.
  3. Involve real people – By understanding people at the leading edge, who are already “living the future”, we can uncover clues to needs and behaviours we will be designing for. It sounds obvious, but it is surprising (to a researcher) how often research is omitted or limited from design programmes. Interviews, group discussions, co-creation sessions, ethnographic and quantitative studies all add valuable insights.
  4. Amplify “weak signals” - Learn from the cultural and corporate edges. Early market innovations from our own, or parallel industries, at-home or abroad, often offer a good shortcut representation of the world to come and how to compete and succeed effectively.
  5. Collaborate and cross-pollinate - We have found that lab formats, co-located teams, and applying agile principles are all effective in helping to break down silos, spread good ideas and speed up innovation timelines. However, more systemic changes to working patterns would be likely to pay even more sustainable dividends.
  6. Run a twin-track programme - We don’t have to have the ultimate solutions immediately. Facilitate a research and design process with different time horizons in mind. The first, focusing on a minimum viable state, that takes inspiration from the future, but that can be build next quarter. The next, focused on a longer term, 5-to 10-year target state that is bolder yet requires more investment of resources.

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