I’m on the Better by Design CEO Study Tour, visiting a host of companies in the SF Bay area. I’ll try to post notes as I go.

IDEO is held up by many of the exemplar of user centered design, and certainly some of their output has shown that. I was a huge fan of the silver Palm V, and it turns out they were the folks behind it.

However their magic juice is simple, in my opinion.

Firstly they simply spend a lot more time and energy on gathering end user requirements. That’s in language they wouldn’t like, as they prefer to use words like empathy and observation, but regardless their clients are all happy to spend months of time on IDEO looking at the underlying needs of their clients. They used a nice example several teams that  IDEO formed to develop a new baby incubator for Nepal, but only one team realised (through observation and questioning) that the baby incubators were not the solution to the core problem. The core problem was actually high infant mortality, and it was happening way back in remote villages rather than in hospitals in main centers. The group went to the villages and after returning designed a simple sleeping bag inspired baby warmer. The other IDEO groups designed baby incubators, which would, like the existing ones, sit unused in the central hospitals.

I would argue that we can get the the same effect simply by asking why. Why are babies dying, why are the incubators not used, and so on until you get the root cause. This, 5 Whys, technique, is a classic Lean tool, but it’s also a classic consulting tool, design tool and learning tool for 3 year olds.

So ask why, observe end users and spend time uncovering the real root problem.

Which brings me to the second of IDEO’s secrets – to encourage play. As children we natively understand that we must pick things up and arrange them in different ways for fun. This is progressively beaten out of us, as we cede creativity to Designers (with a capital D) and Writers and so on. That’s rubbish, and we all need to back ourselves to give it a go. We also need to keep learning, and to use Designers and Writers when it really matters.

So – give it a go, and encourage everyone else to prototype, design and write.

Thirdly and finally IDEO teams remain focussed on one task until it is finished. This means firstly having a team, comprised of multi-skilled people who are very good in at least one area. Then it means ensuring that the team has its own space, the budget to travel to see end users and, the time to complete the work and most of all, no other legacy tasks or overhead. That’s difficult for most companies to manage, and this is just the product or service design stage. It’s also tricky to take the greatest people away from their current tasks and put them on a team. However my own experience is similar – breakthroughs happen with high performing teams working full time on specific tasks. These could be new products, but also performance improvement for large plants. The team works on the business, not in the business.

So – if you have a big problem or opportunity – consider forming a team and unleashing them full time for a few months.

About Lance Wiggs

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