Kit Hickey is the co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a menswear brand which creates technically advanced professional clothing. Passionate about how people experience their clothing, Kit leads all facets of customer experience and is the head and heart behind Ministry of Supply’s customer-centric approach, constantly working to incorporate insights that lead to the next generation of clothes. We sat down to talk more about customer-centric design leading up to Kit’s keynote at CXNYC 2015.

Photo of Kit HickeyQ: You’ll be speaking at CXNYC 2015 about your iterative design process, which relies heavily on customer feedback. Can you talk about how this plays out both for your company and your customers?

A: When we first got started, about four years ago, we took the idea of agile practices to heart and were constantly iterating the product. We’d do a small batch, get customer feedback, iterate, get customer feedback, iterate the next batch, and what we found is that the early adopters loved this. They loved that their feedback was going into the product, and they loved that we were following a similar design process to the technology companies that they loved. But later adopters weren’t as happy with it. They said, “I bought this same shirt about six months ago and now it’s totally different. Why? Why did you change the product?” So what we started to do is something called the Labs. It’s basically a separate section of our site, where before we introduce a new product, we put it through the Labs. It’s a really good way for us to do this iterative design process for our early adopters, but not have it as part of the main site experience. So people know if they go to the Labs, they’ll get the new product, there’ll be a limited batch size, there might be some kinks, but they love being a part of that process and they love being the first person to have a product and give the feedback and know that we’re listening to the feedback. But that other customer, they can go to our main site and get the product that is finalized and that they know won’t be changing.

This really allows us to stay true to our DNA and do customer-centric design, do iterative design, and do small batch processes, which isn’t really seen in retail, and it’s a great way to bring some of the engineering best practices to fashion and to really ensure that we’re making the best quality product that we know people will want.  Operationally, we’re making really great decisions because we’ve already been able to get that customer feedback early on in the design process. On the customer side, it’s an amazing way to engage the customers. We’ve been able to channel the intelligence and the passion of our customers.

Q: How often do products come out of the Labs onto the main site?

A: I would say about 70% of the time. If you go to the site right now, there’s nothing in the Labs. That’s because things in the Labs tend to sell out pretty quickly. They’re usually batches of around 100-500 units, so we sell through those really fast, get that feedback, and either cut the product or make changes and bring it onto our main site as a new mainstay product. Sometimes we launch two really similar products in the Labs, just with different fabrics, and that way we can test what matters most to customers — is it waterproof breathable fabric or is it machine washable fabric? By the time new products come out of the Labs, they’ve been pretty well tested.

Q: Why did you take this direction in the first place?

A: We met as engineers at MIT. In all engineering classes, you learn about lean design, human-centered design, going to market quickly, and getting feedback quickly. But fashion’s a lot different — the biggest thing is the lead times. Once you get a batch, you’re kind of stuck with that batch for 6-9 months and you can make changes, but they won’t be seen on the market until a few months go by. But we still loved those principles that we learned at school, so we really tried to figure out ways to bring them to fashion, where there are a lot more constraints.

Join us on June 16 at Forrester's Forum For Customer Experience Professionals to hear more from Kit on taking a new approach to a traditional, linear design process.