Innovation As an Advantage, Not a Risk

Many people simply know IDEO as a leader in the product and service design market. Product developers or innovations may even know a few of their key products or clients. This information, although compelling, misses out on the most interesting information about IDEO. In the HBR case study ‘Phase Zero: Introducing New Services at IDEO (A),’ Amy Edmondson provides interesting insights into how IDEO does business, and most importantly, the process they follow to derive new insights into customer behavior and needs.

IDEO takes on many kinds of challenges, but the space that appears most compelling to them is the Phase Zero projects. These projects are preliminary explorations of a market space, utilizing Human Centered Design principles. The article used an example of when IDEO worked to find a new market for Simmons mattresses as a mechanism to show the difficulty in turning an intangible service into a tangible product.

Throughout the early years of IDEO’s life, work was done through four phases:

  1. Concept Generation
  2. Concept Development
  3. Detailed Engineering
  4. Manufacturing Liaison

They found that early on, clients came to them with full specs for what was to be built. They were treated as a manufacturing liaison who also did a bit of design work. Then, after the Internet boom, clients began requesting products that were more diverse and most often incorporated an IT aspect. Over time, clients recognized IDEO’s ability to use their human factors experts to conduct qualitative research that laid the groundwork for the later phases. It involved “observation-based research, strategic frameworks, opportunity maps, and concept scenarios” that provided insights into the framework of possibility, actual needs, and existing trends.

The Simmons project kicked off with the challenge “find new opportunities for a mattress company.” The phase zero work was then divided into 3 sub-phases. 0a involved getting additional data from Simmons on their existing awareness of mattress buyers and setting a framework for the project. This was also the start of the “field research” where IDEO studied mattress users environments, behaviors, and needs as well as the typical manufacturing process of a mattress. Not only did they capture hours of interviews on video, but they also captured users natural sleeping habits. Yes, IDEO asked interviewees to turn the camera any time they took a nap or went to sleep. Phase 0b involved developing stories and paradigms of the archetypal user. This required that they recognize the longitudinal usage change and how that fit within the larger system of need fulfilling objects in someone’s life. Finally, phase 0c transformed those insights into product concepts, ensuring the core value propositions were retained, and that they would fit into the natural usage patterns identified.

All of this work took an incredible amount of Empathy, Trust, and Openness. Ideo employees had to allow themselves to see beyond structures they expected, and share the feelings of those they interviewed and observed. Participants had to trust IDEO researchers that they would not judge them, and Simmons had to maintain faith that this approach would prove fruitful. Finally, Simmons and IDEO had to maintain an open mind regarding everything they saw and heard, and accept the results in the same way as they would with more common quantitative research. Done well, phase zero can lead to unexpected insights and revelations that could never happen ‘in the building.’ The lesson? Talk with, observe, and trust your customer. Their needs are real and waiting to be discovered.