Dell Design Chief Offers Insights to SDM Fellows

Ken Musgrave By Kathryn O’Neill
April 29, 2011

Ken Musgrave, executive director of the Experience Design Group at Dell Inc., recently visited MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) to meet with SDM Fellows and share lessons from his award-winning career in product design and innovation.

Organized by Neil Gadhok (SDM ’11) and Aravind Ratnam (SDM ’10), Musgrave’s visit was part of the SDM Industrial Relations Committee’s Speaker Series. "The sessions are open only to members of the SDM community and provide Fellows with an inside perspective on industry issues from business leaders," explained SDM Industry Codirector Joan S. Rubin. "We are grateful to Ken for his visit, which was extremely well-received by everyone who attended."

Musgrave began by emphasizing that the design of products and services should not be a leap of faith but a deliberate process centered on who the users are and what they value. "We organize not around products but around customers," said Musgrave.

Determining user needs requires research, and Dell employs a wide variety of experts, including psychologists and ethnographers, to ensure its decisions are data-driven. "Everything that can be measured should be, which leaves minimal things you have to guess at," he said. "We have a lot of cognitive psychologists who do work around perception and values, [researching] what tradeoffs people will make."

Musgrave’s group directs the design of every category of Dell product, from handhelds to notebooks to servers—a setup that is rather unusual, he said. All the decision-making around design at Dell takes place at the highest level—in a forum that includes the vice chairman and head of each business unit. As a result, the company is more design-driven than ever before, he said.

"We try to limit the amount of decision-making that has to be made as a leap of faith. If you get everything that’s data driven and measurable done right, the leap is more of a step," he said. "The burden on the design organization is to establish the value of what we’re trying to pursue—then get others to collaborate and get onboard."

The key to motivating creative people is to take a step back and explain how the work will contribute to larger business goals. "Getting a guy who drew cars all through school to redesign a server is hard," Musgrave said, explaining that when he addresses his group he focused on what Dell wants to accomplish with a given product.

An industrial designer by training, Musgrave said he realized early on that designers are often ill-equipped to translate their design aesthetic to a business setting. But, when designers fail to make connections, they lose credibility and their organizations suffer. Perhaps that’s why he is a convert to Dell’s "prove-it" culture.

"The operations leadership at Dell is just phenomenal, so if you’re going to build a design culture, you have to be willing to work … within the culture that’s there," he said. "Dell really trusts data."

Musgrave’s presentation was followed by a rich question and answer session with the SDM fellows in attendance. Topics covered ranged from the influence of marketing on design to the role of the product manager to maintaining a competitive edge. "Design can’t be the only answer," he noted. "We have to make sure we maintain credibility in all aspects of the product."

Ken Musgrave