We Put the ‘No’ in Innovation

Here’s an ad that I saw in the May 1, 2009 issue of The Week magazine. It’s from Post advertising their Shredded Wheat cereal with creative from Ogilvy:

Progress is Overrated

Personally, I love it. Just as wrong-headed financial management is being righted in this economy, we can reclaim the oft-maligned word innovation to mean actual progress.

So where does real progress exist? It’s in between the innovation hucksters and those too reluctant to strive to make things better. I think Barry Curewitz, managing partner of Whole-Brain Brand Expansion, advocates for a rational, balanced approach to developing new products in his article, “Innovate with Balance.” due out in the May/June 2009 issue of Marketing Management magazine.

In summary, Barry argues two major points:

  1. His research shows companies are chasing too many strategies in a time when there’s too few resources, with identifiable shortcomings in the operations of otherwise good product ideas. In other words, in this time of tight budgets, invest wisely by supporting only what has potential, and then invest with real commitment. His examples of market performance for common household products demonstrates the point clearly.
  2. Companies can benefit by balancing structured, analytical methods with less structured, creative methods. We need the former to execute development plans, and we need the latter to create unique products, e.g. collaboration between MBA’s and creatives; coordination of innovation methods with Stage Gate methods.

Brad Bird on Sacrificing Ideas

Here’s a quick clip of Brad Bird talking about the film creation process and giving up particular ideas for the good of the overall concept. I find that’s one thing people learn along the way: it’s good to critique and trash ideas, just as long as it doesn’t get personal.

His dig on “businessmen” is over-generalization of course, and we understand his point: making a film is a design process, and can’t be reduced to analysis.

The clip is from an interview on The Incredibles DVD, and includes bits of negotiation between Bird and the producer who has to get the film made on-time and on-budget, an insightful peek into how Pixar makes fantastic movies and fantastic profits.

Democratized Design at BMW

At the end of the concept design phase you’ll need to select among the concepts you’ve developed, and there are various methods for doing so: customer feedback (e.g. desirability testing), a decision market, an executive decision, a vote, and so on. The last option, voting, becomes more interesting when you keep the designers anonymous to keep the focus of the decision on quality.

In the case of BMW and their new Z4 they arrived at this…

by anonymously choosing these designers…

Most people are surprised the male-dominated role of BMW auto design was awarded to two women. To me that’s a useful case study for using an anonymous competition for not only getting to the best design, but also breaking through cultural barriers to do so.

Concept Art Book is Now Online

Concept Art is distinct from the design concepts I talk about here, but they do converge at the point of expressing a powerful image of the artifact. The Concept Design book, by Scott Robertson with a forward by Francis Ford Coppola, collects the work of seven concept artists, but the book has been sold out. I’m happy to discover they’ve posted this online version as a reference

Concept Design Book Concept Design Book rdinho10

Images That Sum Up Our Desires

We are, by turn — and a writer says it with sadness — essentially a society of images: a viral YouTube video, an advertising image, proliferates and sums up our desires; anyone who can’t play the image game has a hard time playing any game at all.

— Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, p 33

Reverse-Engineered Concept: Waterfree Toilets

Here’s a reality we deal with all the time: toilets that use a great deal of clean, potable water in order to flush. This urinal for instance, requires one gallon, or 3.8 litres, just to flush some pee, which seems excessive:

Urinal with 1.0 gpf

The sustainability problem here has multiple facets: the availability of water, the financial cost of water for the building owner, and the energy needed to treat and transport water, just to name three. The latter challenge alone makes up a large percentage of every city’s energy expenditure.

Let’s say we were a toilet manufacture responsible for a great deal of this water use. How might we develop concepts to address this problem? Here’s how I would use two tools from the concept design toolbox:

The problem we’re trying to address here is very clear (as opposed to, say, create a toilet that people are more likely to buy). So we can play with idealized design to set our bar very high for solving this particular problem. A ideal design statement is:

A urinal which uses no potable water at all.

Then the team could play question the brief on this statement to generate variations. Here’s a few:

  1. A urinal which uses greywater.
  2. A urinal which flushes with something other than water
  3. A urinal which does not use water
  4. A receptacle that accepts urine that is not a urinal

…and so on. Then the team could take each of these statements and workshop them, sketching and sharing and playing with ideas. Each different set of constraints helps us think differently and generate different ideas, for example the first could have us thinking of all sorts of ways of capturing and routing greywater.

We could probably generate several plausible concepts using this combination of idealized design and question the brief. One of those might be the Falcon Waterfree urinal.

Waterfree toilet

And a little PR doesn’t hurt…

Waterfree toilet

Play Literacy

…yes, that term sounds a little dumb, but it’s an idea I think will be important in the future. A deliberate spin on computer literacy, I think play will not only be important to designers to support creativity and innovation, it will be important simply to get along in an electronic world.

In the past I’ve argued that software tools will continue to be created much faster than we can possibly design quality interfaces for them. So consumers who can and are willing to play with a device to figure it out may be more successful.

I had this thought today while driving and navigating with the Google Maps iPhone app (I know, I know). The iPhone is slick, and the app is slick, but for so few functions it ain’t easy to use. But the slickness, the playfulness, of it all helps me overcome this. The desirability of the device and the experience make me want to overcome the usability. As designers, we can build playfulness in to help people, and, cynically, playfulness might be a sexier product development approach to sell than usability.

Update: Only tangentially related is how receive serious political ideas from comedians

In one “astounding half-hour” of television, Stewart viewers saw “more trenchant talk of the financial crisis and the responsibility of the networks than you’d find on any news channel, all the more surprising in that it aired on Comedy Central.”

Not surprising, really, in that comedians like Lenny Bruce did this long ago. It’s just another place where we like to coat our serious work with a bit a humor and fun to make it palatable.

Communicating Concepts

When I see concepts that are received well, the concept itself can usually only take a portion of the credit. Just as important is how the concept is communicated. Some of this is common knowledge: make it look good, choose the right level of fidelity, show it in context. Others are maybe not so obvious…

  1. Show what’s new, then stop. As opposed to stories which can take their time to create worlds full of intricate characters and details, effective concept narratives should only last as long as they can sustain interest, inspire, and present the new. When I’m done showing what’s new, I’m done with the presentation.

    The temptation here is to show everything the team worked on, because the work was hard and full of careful detail. But like a beautiful movie set, the rest is there to support the concept, not become part of the story.

    The Charmr concept is a good example, focusing on day-to-day diabetes management only.

  2. State the time frame. Setting expectations of the purpose and feasibility of a concept is often accomplished easily by stating the time frame for a concept; we perceive a concept for next year’s product very differently than a concept for 10 years in the future.

    I find it useful to think in terms of the three concept types described in the book Product Concept Design: A Review of the Conceptual Design of Products in Industry:

    • Product Development Concepts support the definition of the product specification, which is needed to set detailed goals of the design of the subsystems of the product and for the following phases of the design process. An example is the concept for the second generation One Laptop Per Child XO-2.
    • Emerging Concepts are created in association with technical research or the modification of products for radically different markets. They unravel the opportunities of a new technology or market and growing user needs, and facilitate the company’s learning and decision-making process. An example is IconNicholson’s Social Retailing.
    • Vision Concepts support the company’s strategic decision-making by outlining the future beyond the range of product development and research activities. There is no expectation that this kind of vision concept will be implemented, and therefore the technical and commercial requirements are less restrictive than in other kinds of concepts. An example is frog design’s Aura.
  3. Distribute a holistic presentation. Whether it’s a model, a document, or Web 2.0-style syndication, the elements of our concept should stay together in one media piece so that anyone who experiences it will understand it.

    While not a concept, the way Apple presents the iPhone exemplifies careful, holistic packaging. Starting with Steve Job’s keynote presentation and extending to the video guided tour the tone is exciting, educational, and includes all the relevant information in one media clip (I would embed them here, but notice that Apple doesn’t let me do that).

    Unfortunately forums like the Techcrunch blog can be brutal on concepts when the presentation doesn’t do justice to the concept. I think different presentation can change that.

IDEO’s Open Dev of the BugBase Hardware/Software UI

It’s not often we get to peek inside anyone’s concept design process, so this blog from IDEO has me starting up my reverse-engineering machine….

An open project between BugLabs and IDEO, this deep-dive exploration of the BUGbase UI is focused on re-envisioning the BUGbase interface with an eye toward integrating new display and input technologies.

The outcome of these explorations will feel less like a finished product and more like a concept car. And like any successful concept car, we hope these provocations will not only help us gauge users’ interests, but will spur constructive discourse and inform future design, engineering, and business decisions.

BugLabs’ commitment to openness presents a unique and exciting opportunity for us to be as inclusive about the design process as possible. For this quick two week collaboration, we will be conceptualizing new interface paradigms, designing new tangible user interface directions, and creating the associated industrial design/housing-modification solutions.

Concepts as Inspiration


Concepts strive to sway opinion by eliciting emotions. Fundamental to this purpose is the new, the aspect that is beyond question different than what has been done in the past. The new is what causes the audience to pause and react.

This reaction can be polarizing (yes/no, this/that) in order to make progress toward a detailed design. This reaction can be stimulating, sparking new ideas to increase the number of possibilities. Effective concepts are carefully constructed to appeal to particular emotions.

Boredom is the enemy of design concepts.

Webinar with Bill Scott of Netflix, Yahoo + 20% Off

Bill Scott of Netflix, formerly of Yahoo, will be hosting the Future Practice webinar tomorrow, helping web designers learn how to create designs that are easier to implement by illustrating the UI engineer’s point of view. And you, my dear readers, get 20% if you enter the code VTWBNR when signing up.

I recorded a bit of our rehearsal with Bill. He’s killer smart — an O’Reilly author and frequent presenter — but has a great laid back style that’s such a pleasure to learn from. Here’s a ~7 minute edit:

A Quantified Value of the iPod Design

This study — Who Captures Value in a Global Innovation System? The case of Apple’s iPod — is one of the best I’ve heard of in a long time. The researchers traced the parts and assembly of the iPod and attributed the value generated by each step by part and by country. A few key stats: of a $299 video iPod, Apple gets the largest piece of the pie: $80. The other portions are relatively small; China only gets $4 for assembly.

Hal Varian of the New York Times made this key observation about how Apple’s capabilities generate their benefits:

The real value of the iPod doesn’t lie in its parts or even in putting those parts together. The bulk of the iPod’s value is in the conception and design of the iPod. That is why Apple gets $80 for each of these video iPods it sells, which is by far the largest piece of value added in the entire supply chain.

Those clever folks at Apple figured out how to combine 451 mostly generic parts into a valuable product. They may not make the iPod, but they created it. In the end, that’s what really matters.

I’m encouraged by studies that highlight the value of concept design given my work in this area. Here’s a question for you: how would you most like to learn more about concept design: a book? videos? something else?