Design Thinking Leads to Constant Innovation

By Shel Horowitz

Why design a pizza cutter with the handle directly on top of the blade? Because IDEO observed how inexperienced cooks with poor motor control — young children — tried to bear down on the blade of a traditional long-handled pizza cutter in order to control it better (ouch!).

By observing “extreme users and extreme non-users,” IDEO often develops innovations that are widely popular in the profitable middle.

IDEO is one of the most successful design consultancies in the world. When Business Week released its annual list of 20 most innovative companies, 16 were current IDEO clients — and one was IDEO itself, for the second year in a row.

IDEO’s Anand Vengurlekar, former brand manager of Lego Europe, survived the company’s grueling interview process — being grilled for an hour each by every employee at every corporate location in the US and Europe, even the receptionists — and presented examples of “Design Thinking” to the Family Business Center’s April meeting at Chez Josef in Agawam.

Design Thinking creates magic such as the Swiffer, which created a $1.2 million product niche without any noticeable impact on the sales of traditional brooms.

Why innovate? “Sometimes Shanghai feels like a suburb of Boston. The pressures are right next-door.

“I’ve seen so many CEOs stand up and say, ‘we’re going to increase profits, margins and employee morale.’” But if you can substitute any other company making the statement, “it’s a me-too strategy. From companies that don’t know their strengths.”

Illustrating his point with a Venn diagram showing a series of intersecting circles, Vengurlekar said that successful innovations are desirable to people, viable as a business, technologically feasible — and fit into existing systems.

Innovations have three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.


For Design Thinking, the world has to provide “inspiration, not just validation” — and smaller, faster companies have an advantage. “You’ve got to go out of the office and discover, observe. Then you come up with concepts and immediately match them out to the world. It took Europe’s largest ice cream company much longer to bring out a new ice cream flavor than it took Toyota to come up with a new car. All these focus groups and managerial signoffs. So instead of having clinically white labs, they got a little hut on the beach. They made prototypes, walked out, said ‘hi, what do you think of our ice cream?’ It knocked off a heck of a long time off their development process.”

At a hospital, IDEO put a camcorder by an emergency patient’s head; it showed the administrators what the patients were experiencing: staring at the ceiling with no idea what’s happening. “If they want to improve the customer experience, it begins by telling the patient what’s going on with that critical 15 minutes of their lives. If you can understand what your customers are thinking and feeling, no one can touch you.”

IDEO often uses the technique of exploring analogous situations. “We took the hospital emergency teams NASCAR racing: teams of people, high pressure, don’t know what problem they’ll face; it’s very similar. We let them absorb what they could observe.”

One difference: NASCAR crews, with their emphasis on extreme speed, may have more than one unit of expensive equipment, so that several people can address a problem at once.

“A leading motorcycle maker wanted extreme customer service. We took their people and swapped them into a world class hotel. And the hospitality people got to find out how the motorcycle people created a cult.”

Insights come from both extremes, but too many marketing people look only at Mr. & Mrs. Average. “Talking to extreme users can be fascinating. For a leading sneaker manufacturer, the extreme positive users were shoe fetishists. We also got insights from people who hate sneakers and would never wear them. For a gym, Curves focused on extreme non-users.”


Vengurlekar suggests generating instant prototypes to expand your thinking.

Sinus surgeons wanted to improve on the drills they were using. “The previous product was pencil-like; it was very difficult to control, and that’s not what you want when you’re drilling someone’s nasal cavity. One of our designers came back with a highlighter, a film canister, and a clothespin, taped it together [in the shape of a gun], and said, ‘do you mean something like this?’ It allowed us to get immediate feedback.

“New ideas are fragile. You don’t know which will survive. Go through hundreds of iterations of [quick and inexpensive] prototypes; little bits of each prototype survive into the product. From each one you learn something new. Procter & Gamble has multiple formal steps to validate a product, but they’re still willing to roll up their sleeves and get on the floor with us.

“Have prototype-driven specs, not spec-driven prototypes. You’ll know when you get this right, when you’ve gained empathy, and you’re ready for specs, and you’re terrified.

McDonald’s prototypes new drive-in experiences by modeling it on a table with simple toy tools. “It’s very cheap, you can come up with hundreds of ideas, and people can give feedback without getting caught up in ego. You build something and think around it.”

Vengurlekar had a few questions to ask FBC members:

  1. What could you prototype in one day that would give meaning to your stakeholders? In one week? One month?
  2. What is the meaning that your stakeholders get? What tangible prototype would create that?
  3. How will you find out what gives meaning?


“You’re creating a story through your campaign for your clients. If you can’t tell a new story about your prototype, maybe you haven’t really come up with anything new. It’s very easy to seduce yourself that you’ve come up with something innovative because you’ve extended the reach” of your existing machine or process. Stories allow stakeholders to use Design Thinking instead of specs.

“Apple understands how to talk to people about computers; Sony completely forgot, and now iPod has 75% market share,” dethroning Sony Walkman’s decades of portable music dominance.

“You can show the right story to your channel managers and they’ll get it, and use Design Thinking to come up with some innovative stuff.”

A closing thought: “Does your workspace encourage inspiration? Cubicles don’t. My office, with white boards, does. Who do you pull into your company to inspire?”