Using weak signals in business

If you only look at megatrends, you can miss opportunities that are hidden beneath the surface. Weak signals are often the first indicators of potential change.
A weak signal can be defined as an emerging issue, not easily identified but one that has potential future impact.
Prior to 2007, there were weak signals around rich graphical user interfaces in consumer devices alongside other signals pointing to the rise in touch interfaces. Apple famously recognised these signals ahead of other more established mobile phone companies. The iPhone launched in 2007 and the rest, as they say, is history. In the example below there are a number of weak signals that The Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra gathered during 2018 as the basis for future discussion. Some of these are macro issues that are likely to impact society in the long term, however, others such as a potential ban on all plastics could impact many of us both personally and professionally in the medium to long term.
weak signals
Figure 1: Weak signals, Sitra
In a business context, it is crucial to identify the weak signals related to your organization since they point to the direction in which your industry is moving. Identifying weak signals that are relevant to your organization or business often produces surprises. These weak signals require sensitivity and attention to be able to identify changes required to stay ahead of the competition. Identifying weak signals is therefore critical in developing a competitive business that is prepared for future challenges as we have seen in the iPhone example above.

Characteristics of weak signals

Novelty: a weak signal is an indicator of something new or a new perspective on a known subject.
Surprising: a weak signal is surprising to its interpreter.
Challenging: a weak signal forces one to challenge existing assumptions and is therefore often difficult to detect or easy to overlook.
Significant: a weak signal suggests something that may have an impact on the future.
Delay: a weak signal describes something that is not yet significant but requires time to mature.
Source: Sitra: Mikko Dufva

Identifying weak signals

An open mind is key to identifying weak signals as our personal bias and views will tend to guide our thoughts. Placing yourself in unfamiliar surroundings is a good technique as well as researching futurologists and industry-specific publications and papers. Think as wide as you can as often the most impactful signals are found at the periphery or in areas that lightly touch your organization or industry.
Another classic example of identifying weak signals that produced a market leading product is the design of the original Mazda MX5 sports car (although some of this story may be an ‘urban legend’) In the late 1970’s Mazda launched a design competition between their internal design teams in the US and Japan with the objective of recreating the magic of classic British sports cars. So, the story goes that the US team decamped to a Caribbean island with the task of designing the new car. Their brief was to ‘take as long as it takes’ to design the new car. The combination of unfamiliar surroundings and a relaxed unpressured atmosphere together with talented designers resulted in the MX5 which went on to be highly successful for Mazda winning many top awards.


Once you have mapped the weak signals that have the potential to impact your organization or business, it is important to spend time analysing and interpreting them. Data is nothing without interpretation. Think about how they will change your customers or your employees and how they might combine with other signals or trends to accelerate change.
Take another look at the diagram above and think about your business context. Choose one weak signal and start to ponder and speculate what kind of impact that signal would have on your business or industry. This is often better done in a small group – open your mind and you may well be surprised at the outcome!
At Gofore our consultants work with our clients to help them identify the weak signals that have the potential to impact their future business or organization. Although we have yet to decamp to a Caribbean island, previous projects have resulted in organizational or cultural change programs and new service and business design initiatives. One common denominator in all these projects is that the outcome is always very different from what was expected.
More reading on the theme of weak signals:

Minna Puisto

Minna Puisto is a business designer with robust experience in design thinking and facilitation methods. Minna is an open-minded and inspiring professional aiming to develop customer-centric and profitable services. Minna has extensive experience in business development, innovation, new business models, defining value propositions and launching new services.

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Andy Sarfas

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This is the last part of blog series: “Design Essentials: How to Prosper on Every Platform”.

Know Thy Customer

We have now discussed platform and context, so let’s dive a bit into our customer.
Your customer is most likely a Homo Sapien.

The need for self-expression

I sometimes like to fall back on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when trying find fresh ideas. To simplify the theory, after the essential needs for humans have been fulfilled, comes the level of self-expression.
Some animals do self-expression, but this is where human behaviours are on another level. Expressing identity is nowadays a hot topic; maybe it always was. Clothing, makeup, jewellery, behaviour and rituals are a part of every culture since ancient history. The ruling Pharaoh in ancient Egypt had various styles of crowns to express his/her authority.
People do self-expression via brands as well:

In a culture that values individuality and personality, what we choose to wear, to drive, even what we order at a restaurant, are potential opportunities to fulfil our need for self-expression and marketers must understand and find ways to fit their goods into this process.


A business cannot reach any individual if there is no clear understanding of what a brand, product, or service symbolically represents.


The need for belonging

The internet is the ultimate way to find like minded people. Maybe you like Manga, live gigs or DIY – There’s always a community available online. The way to connect with communities happens through electronics, mainly apps and websites. Ultimately, all the social connections that are not made in real life rely on some sort of data transmission. As a designer your goal is to build the best possible experience on top of that connection. (Let’s not forget the importance of the whole software team). The Long tail  enables easier customer acquisition and sales based on niche items and services.

some neuroscientists have suggested, human beings could be wired to feel pain when we are bereft of social connection, just as evolution has wired us to feel pain when we are deprived of our basic needs (e.g. food, water and shelter).

(Belonging) offers “reassurance that we are not alone,…


Brand Archetypes

Successful brands are based on customer values. By creating a lifestyle brand, you have a better chance at succeeding.

(Lifestyle brands) can help us to connect more with our ideal version of ourselves

These businesses have figured out how to earn the respect and trust of their customers by giving them access to the lifestyle they crave.

The underlying idea of a lifestyle brand can be traced easily back to Carl Jung and the concept of archetypes. An archetype is a universal idea, symbol or motif, that is repeated throughout history, art, literature, mythology and religion. The 12 Jungian archetypes are presented here:
12 Jungian archetypes
If you wish to build a great brand, you should understand your audience, and build a lifestyle brand based on the ideal version of themselves. Pick 1-2 archetypes to start with.
If you look closely, you will start noticing these archetypes all around you in brands.
Take a look at Patagonia, a clothing company that markets and sells outdoor clothing.
Instagram screen shot
Their marketing is full of awesome landscapes, people living the active outdoor lifestyle. Recently they entered the fight against the climate change, big time.
Now try to categorise them with the 12 archetypes provided.
My interpretation of the archetypes: Explorer + Jester with some adjuncts from Hero. Is your interpretation different?

Putting it all together

As a designer, you need to have a mindful attitude towards life. Learn to observe and enjoy the notes you take. These notes are an invaluable asset for you. To observe things better, start carrying a pen + notebook or a rangefinder camera with you. This helps you get better at observing.
In order to design something great, you will have to tackle multiple things at once. Learn to take a wider perspective, but also be able to focus on the tiniest details. Service design considers touchpoints  as any possible interactions happening with your brand, that might affect the way how he/she feels about it. By understanding what happens at each of the touchpoints, you are able to design a better customer experience.
As a service designer, you are obliged to observe your personal experiences and take part eagerly in any new experience opportunities. Especially in large cities, where these services are often well-formed. Think like a service designer when you are having a holiday. This works vice versa, too: Think like a customer when you are doing service design work.

As I was writing these three areas of blog posts, I realised that a book would be a better format. I hope I was able to give you some fresh perspectives on design. By tackling platform, context and customer – you are on your way of becoming a great designer!
This post ends blog series: “Design Essentials: How to Prosper on Every Platform”.
Part 1: Design Essentials: How to Prosper on Every Platform – Know thy Platform (Part 1)
Part 2: Design Essentials: How to Prosper on Every Platform – Know thy Context (Part 2)
Thank you!

Gofore Oyj

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