The New Social Contract.

We're all in this together.

Setting the Stage: Change by Design.

Design may have been more influential on our advancement than we think, and more credence is now being given to its ubiquitous role in innovation. 

Tim Brown gives a wide range of examples and insights in his book Change by Design, but we are going to hone in on the idea of one of the final chapters, the eponymous New Social Contract.

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Products & Services: The Shadowy Line that No Longer Divides.

The businesses of physical objects and heuristic personal services can no longer be seen as separate entities. The human experience of acquiring an object is inevitably part of that object’s value to consumers, and this funnels all the way down to a business’ bottom line and its broader sustainability regardless of whether services play any part in their overt offerings. It is not enough to make a good product. The journey to acquire it must also be a positive, memorable, and customer-centric experience: The new social contract in business.


Take Starbucks, for example. Why were they able to corner such a large segment of the coffee shop market? There were many other competitors offering coffee at a comparable quality level, but Starbucks outperformed on a different metric: The customer experience. Every detail from the branding, the consistency and elegance of shop design, service, ambiance, and feel was executed on at a degree higher than the rest. So powerful was the in-shop customer experience, that a green mermaid cup in someone’s hand crossing the street became a status symbol. This wasn’t just caffeine, my friends, this was Starbucks.

Incorporating Design Thinking:
But, Don’t Make Me Think.

Everybody loves options, but these can also be cumbersome. We only have so much time, and our minds love to streamline, making quick decisions without being mired into a bog of unnecessary information and calls to action.

Mental laziness? Perhaps.

But this is also our efficient cognitive filter, allowing us to dynamically navigate our world in real time. A customer journey should minimize friction points, guiding people (or any non-humanoid customer for that matter) smoothly through their options without having to think about the process itself. Design thinking’s task is to remove this burden, and to do so in style.

The New Social Contract 1

Do you have to think of where to look for the Google search bar? Probably not. We are so accustomed to certain design conventions that their details are glazed over unnoticed. We have acquired a sense for them and can proceed to new information immediately.

Take Wikipedia, this has become a standard model and go-to online encyclopaedia where we can search anything from pairing Chianti with liver and fava beans to black holes in space; the information is displayed the same way, regardless of what we type to the left of the magnifying glass.

If it ain’t broken, don’t fit it.

Sounds like walking into any Starbucks around the world, doesn’t it?

Slick Info/Blind Consumption: You’ll Be the Death of Me.

It comes back to the social contract: Put the experience of the customer first. By improving the experience of acquiring a product through design thinking, mental effort can now be refocused on the product itself and not the process of acquiring it. Blind consumption is often the result of making a convenient, cold purchase due to necessity and unwillingness to rack one’s mind and seek out better alternatives.

Companies like Netflix and Spotify have been instrumental in solving this issue with regards to our casual viewing and listening options. Much more fluid with suggestions, favourites, and AI taking the grudging ground work and unwanted depth of decision making out of the user’s hands. Don’t know any jazz artists, but know that you want some background dinner music? Spotify has your back. Need to find a new series to watch with a friend without feeling pressured? Netflix puts an easy shortlist one click away. You are now given personal insight into these decisions without actually having to think about them.

Some Things Are Worth Digging For: Removing the Middle Ground

Up to now, most of the focus has been on making the customer experience effortless,  pleasurable, and efficient. But this isn’t the whole story. As much as our minds love efficiency, there are those passion points that inspire us and draw our deeper, more patient and nuanced attention. 

Why else would jigsaw puzzles remain popular in the era of digital photography and art prints a few clicks away on Amazon? In fact, puzzles haven’t just remained popular, they have increased in popularity (and COVID-19 has catalysed this effect even more: This is because we do enjoy a lengthy and effortful process at times, but only when we choose to do so, and only regarding topics we care for.

The demise of Blockbuster and the rise of the pimped out video store for the enthusiast, the near-death of the CD and the renewed interest in LP records, the disappearance of low-quality portable cameras and the growth of niche camera shops. 

Consumer-centric design thinking has removed the middle ground, offering an ultra-efficient effortless access to many products, and opening niche opportunities for those wishing to dive deep into a few decisions when they care to make the effort.

The Dotted Line: Signing the New Social Contract

The customer now comes first. Design thinking is brought not only into product development, but also into the customer journey. Ease of selection, friction points, and mental strain for the vast majority of the product offerings, and access to very deep information of those special few. Either way, the journey is functional, well-designed, and considers the customer experience first. This is the new social contract.