Innovative design must be viable

Design to become production oriented in an organization, three ‘forces’ have to converge:

* A deep user understanding;
* Multiple prototyping; and
* Strategic business design;

We call these forces ‘the three gears of design’.

There’s the ‘break through route’, where innovation really thrives. If one begins with the user and set out on a path to look at the broader context of their lives and activities, one will see a whole new set of opportunities to be tapped. The Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design has developed an ethnographic methodology for understanding the user’s activity that reveals a whole new set of opportunities and helps set new criteria for innovation.

The next round is to build on those news insights to develop ‘outside the dots’ concepts exploring many new and even seemingly crazy ways to deliver bigger, broader user value. The ‘design key’ in the concept development process is to create and consider a variety of ways to deliver against ones criteria through multiple prototype exploration with an open mind to feedback and reconfiguration along the way. With user feedback, one can continue to narrow ones options and create the concept that is most distinctive and creates the most value for the user, perhaps tapping into a need or opportunity that no one (including the user) had even recognized or articulated: that’s the breakthrough. The computer mouse for Apple was perfected by IDEO following extensive prototyping and iteration in order to meet the seemingly impossible requirement of increased reliability at 10% of the original cost of its Xerox version. Similarly, concept cars are unveiled at auto shows to generate customer feedback and further refine the design.

Creating the right conditions:

With the ‘big idea’ in hand, one can take on level three, strategic business design, to model a unique system of ‘strategic hubs’ and ‘supporting activities’ that will not only deliver value to the user, but also competitive advantage and profit to one. Pushing the concept through to a point that it is viable and profitable is not easy. This is where the ‘no trade offs’ attitude pays off. It requires a lot of hard work and much iteration, but every team behind a great breakthrough will tell one that their conviction and collaboration pushed the project through to fruition. South west airlines’ activity system has allowed it to become one of the most innovative providers of consumer value in a highly competitive industry, becoming a sustainable competitive industry, becoming a sustainable competitive advantage that other airlines have attempted (in vain) to copy.

For each of the three gears, there are many tools and techniques that are used by great design teams, but the depth and rigor behind each gear cannot be compromised. Moreover, it is never a clean and linear pass through process; it is very, very iterative. It’s not about using a restrictive set of rules – but instead creating the right conditions under which some user idea business models serve as the touch points throughout an iterative development process. It is about liberating oneself and the team from the constraints of early perfection and not being preoccupied with getting it right too early, so that one limit ones possibilities. What companies find when they practice iterative prototyping- be it a product concept or a business model – is that they work their ideas through earlier and faster, leveraging the experience and perspective of senior management.

When conditions are ripe for innovation and the general design principles and methodology of design are put into play it is remarkable of big impact.

On any level fraught with operational issues and the need for manufacturing plant with an eye on improving the operational and organizational challenges of its past, Boeing and its architectural firm NBBJ decided to put design thinking to work in its broadcast sense and create a ‘democratic’ workplace where blue collar workers and white collar engineers, sales, and corporate people work side by side with the product (Boeing 737) at the core. The new work place, opened in 2004, was infused with the design message of collaboration and the idea that every individual was important, with the focus on the product rather than the process. Real improvements were noted and plane unit costs were decreased, resolution times shortened, and the number of ‘flow days’ in the factory for final assembly reduced by 50%. Results demonstrate that one can improve operational effectiveness by understanding employees as customers.