Idea Summary from Change by Design back

We‘ve recently read IDEO Tim Brown‘s book Change by Design (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009) and felt like sharing our likings with you. This is not a review of the book, rather bits and pieces we thought are interesting, fresh, good for thought or simply funny.

Change By Design Book Summary

On design thinking

The book starts with tackling difference between being a designer and thinking like one. References to, thoughts on and examples of design thinking are prevalent in the book. To no surprise, since in recent years IDEO and Tim Brown in particular are acting as gospellers of it. For a quick review of the notion, refer to Tim Brown’s TED talk
and/or article in Harvard Business Review.

On role of prototyping

One frequently expressed notion in the book is that of how much early (and frequent) prototyping is instrumental to design success (“fail early to succeed sooner” is a famous phrase by David Kelley). Tim Brown also argues that “time to the first prototype” can be seen as one of the measures of how innovative organization is. Furthermore, fast prototyping (over and over) allows for continuous feedback and improvement and at the same time saves the company from the trap of commitment since “the greater the investment in an idea, the more committed one becomes to it” (p.90)

Few thoughts on prototyping (also dubbed as “thinking with your hands”):

  • “The faster we make out ideas tangible, the sooner we will be able to evaluate them, refine them, and zero in on the best solution” (p.89).
    “Successful prototype is not one that works flawlessly; it is the one that teaches us something – about our objectives, our process, about ourselves” (p.105)
  • “There are many approaches to prototyping, but they share a single paradoxical feature: They slow us down to speed us up” (p.105)
  • “Prototyping should start early in the life of a project, and we expect them to be numerous, quickly executed, and pretty ugly” (p.106)

On innovation

In terms of a recipe for innovation, sure, Time Brow agrees there’s none. However, he argues innovation as continuum can be understood as a system of 3 spaces: inspiration, ideation and implementation, whereas any project can loop back through these spaces more than once as team refines ideas and examines new directions. One of the best tools in yielding great results across the 3 spaces of innovation is, again, prototyping:

  1. at inspiration (the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solution) prototyping has the capacity to inspire new ideas
  2. at ideation (generating, developing, testing ideas) it serves a perfect check tool to ensure incorporation of emotional and functional elements necessary to meet the demands of the market
  3. at implementation (going from project room to market) they are superb in communicating an idea with sufficient clarity

To make sure the developed solution is realistic, the author introduces three constraints to be kept in mind during the process of development: desirability (people factor), viability (business/organization) and feasibility (technology). To paraphrase, at any given time during the project, team should make sure the solution addresses user needs, is viable business wise and is technologically feasible.

On user research

In terms of most often mentioned concepts (we haven’t counted, that’s just the feel) “design thinking” is somewhat losing to “human centered”. Now, to create anything human centered the team must first find out what humans want/need. Reading the book one gets the feel that IDEO never outsources this strategically important task of user research, and that the company favors qualitative rather than quantitative methods.

What we particularly liked as methods for getting user insights are “unfocus groups” and extreme users. Bringing in people who fall on the extremes of certain product/service use (children and chefs for kitchen tools story on the p.44, for example) significantly enriches insights and inspiration. And same refers to unfocus groups, where instead of inviting “average” people, unique individuals (consumers and experts) participate together. For example, to gain insights on new concepts for women’s shoes, IDEO “invited:

  • a color consultant
  • a spiritual guide who led barefoot initiates across hot coals
  • a young mother who was curiously passionate about her thigh-high leather boots
  • a female limo driver whose full livery was accented by a pair of outrageously sexy stiletto heels” (p.61)

Few others thoughts on user research:

  • “the basic problem is that people are so ingenious at adapting to inconvenient situation that they are often not even aware that they are doing so” (p.41)
  • “observation: watching what people don’t do, listening to to what they don’t say” (p.43)
  • And our favorite one, not Tim Brown’s, but quoting Tom Ford on user research: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse” (p.40)

On company (work) culture

Now we know few things about IDEO approach to innovating, but who are those people in the teams and how do they make innovations happen? Speaking of people Brown emphasizes the need for T-shaped personalities (reference to concept coined by McKinsey) successfully performing in teams since “all of us are smarter than any of us” (p.26).

The author takes care to distinguish between MULTIDISCIPLINARY and INTERDISCIPLINARY teams, whereas in the former “each individual becomes an advocate for his her own technical specialty and the project becomes a protracted negotiation among them, likely resulting in a gray compromise”, while in the latter “there is a collective ownership of ideas and everybody takes responsibility for them” (p.27).

In terms of work environment, the following thoughts were (we thought) interesting (all from p.32):

  • “A culture that believes that it is better to ask forgiveness afterward rather than permission before, that rewards people for success but gives them permission to fail, has removed one of the main obstacles to the formation of new ideas”
  • “Relaxing the rules is not about letting people be silly so much as letting them be whole people”
  • “Physical and psychological spaces of an organization work in tandem to define the effectiveness of the people within it”

On innovation portfolio

The book presents “Ways to grow matrix” developed by IDEO (p.161) which combines innovation types with grow paths a company can take. Few pages explaining each quadrant lead to a logical conclusion: “though it might be tempting to focus on incremental projects in which business forecasts are easy to make, this shortsighted approach leaves companies vulnerable to the unforeseeable events of the type that Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed “The Black Swan” (p.165). A word of advise? “A company’s best defense is to diversify its portfolio by investing across all four quadrants of the innovation matrix”.

On problems we create

In the second part of the book Tim Brown dwells on big things: bringing innovation culture to organizations, role of design thinking in solving truly global problems and role of designers in all of this. And if we (designers) can’t now think of much in solving global warming, as designer, at least be aware of what we do since “in our enthusiasm for solving the problem in front of us, we fail to see the problems that we create” (p.194)

“… so of course we accepted”

Ah, and for the final quote, we very much liked the following story expressing company culture:
“When Hewlett-Packard asked IDEO to study microfinance in East Africa, our human factors experts did not know what they were getting into. We did not have much experience with Africa, and it would be generous to say that we are experts in microfinance. So of course we accepted the assignment” (p.205)

Generally, Change by Design is an easy common sense read, and best absorbed with a cup of coffee in an open terrace on a breezy spring morning. And since spring is coming…


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