July 7, 2008

Good morning, team,

Last week, I read an article in the June 2008 Harvard Business Review: “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, an innovation and design firm in Palo Alto, Calif.  Here’s how it starts:

“Thomas Edison created the electric lightbulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. The lightbulb is most often thought of as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlor trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful. So he created that, too.

“Thus Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive of a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device. He was able to envision how people would want to use what he made, and he engineered toward that insight.

“Edison’s approach was an early exanple of ‘design thinking’—a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold and supported.”

This observation got me thinking about people who design great products and the particular approach they take in the design process. In the article, the author points out five characteristics most typical of designers.

The first is empathy. Good designers can imagine the world from many different perspectives and are acutely aware of details that others don’t see. It’s always about people first and how others will experience (feel, think about and use) their product.

The second is integrative thinking. Good designers can analyze what’s needed and also consider all the contradictory thoughts that might confound them. They create novel solutions to go beyond and dramatically improve the existing alternatives.

Third, they are optimistic, believing that at least one of their solutions will work and improve upon anything that currently exists.

Fourth, they constantly experiment, always exploring new possibilities.

And fifth, they often work in a variety of disciplines, never taking just one approach. They are not only engineers, but can also think like marketers, psychologists, anthropologists, etc.  They involve themselves with other specialists to expand their view of the world.

Certainly, we are not all designers by trade or inclination. But for anyone in business, whether you produce lightbulbs or provide a service, creating something that people want to buy and use is the name of the game. I think we can all use the suggestions Brown mentions in his article as a guide for creating better products and services.

Your challenge this week is to consider these five approaches and see if you can apply them to your work. Maybe you’re a manager trying to think of a new way to motivate your team members. Could you design an activity that would inspire them? Have you considered what they would experience while doing the exercise?

Perhaps you’re working on a new product, and you haven’t really looked at it from a marketer’s point of view. Asking your marketing associates how they would promote your product might give you the perspective you need, even if it contradicts your original design ideas.

Say you’re a product marketing professional. Don’t forget to include your engineers from the get-go if you want to deliver a successful product. Are you convinced that your innovative ideas will be useful to others? If not, why would anyone else be convinced? Quite simply, have you actually used the product or service you’re offering? Try it out so that you know exactly what it feels like.

Everywhere we look, we see problems that can be solved through innovation:  energy usage, health care, world poverty, to mention a few. As the author writes, “These problems all have people at their heart. They require a human-centered, creative, iterative and practical approach to finding the best ideas and ultimate solutions.”

This week, try taking a more people-centric approach to solving problems and use some of these five characteristics to help you innovate.

Have a great week,