The Deans of Design
From the computer mouse to the newest Swiffer, IDEO is the firm behind the scenes
A second key to design thinking is rapidly prototyping initial ideas and exposing them to users. It helped IDEO when working on the new Crest toothpaste tube for P&G. A big challenge was improving the traditional screw-on cap, which always gets gunked up with toothpaste. IDEO first suggested a pop-on, pop-off cap. But when designers worked up rough prototypes and watched people use them, they quickly noticed that users kept trying to unscrew the cap even though they were told how it worked. The action was a well-ingrained habit that would probably be impossible to break. So designers came up with a hybrid: a twist-off cap that had a short thread but would still be easy to clean. "It doesn't matter how clever you are, your first idea about something is never right," Brown says. "So the great value of prototyping-and prototyping quickly and inexpensively-is that you learn about the idea and make it better."
The prototypes don't have to be elaborate, Brown is quick to note. Not at all. For instance, IDEO was working on a surgical tool design for Gyrus ENT. During a meeting with a roomful of surgeons from the company's advisory board, not much was getting done-just lots of hand waving and gesturing. Seeing that this sort of abstract back and forth wasn't getting the group anywhere, an IDEO engineer stepped out of the room for five minutes and came back with a crude tool model slapped together out of a whiteboard marker, a black film canister, and a clothespinlike clip. "That prototype crystallized the conversation in the room and allowed the project to move forward," Kelley says. "That kind of prototype also lowers the bar so that everyone in the whole organization can do a prototype, which really contributes to a culture of innovation. No one will mock you for bringing something unpolished to the CEO."
Fragile. The third big element of design thinking is storytelling. "Ideas are fragile even when they're prototyping," Brown says. "And in large organizations in particular, new ideas can get killed very easily because people don't understand them or connect with them." Vocera came to IDEO with technology for a two-way wireless device that could be clipped to a shirt pocket or worn on a lanyard. It was ideal for hospitals, big-box stores, or corporate campuses. To dramatize how the Star Trek-esque device would work, IDEO produced a five-minute film that the firm later used to get venture-capital funds and that served as a basis for marketing the product.
Most people are probably not really aware that firms like IDEO exist. They may assume that companies do design in-house. Others may have discovered design firms through the reality television show American Inventor, which pitted inventors and their products against one another for a $1 million prize. At one point in the show, the finalists started working with design firms to improve the look of their inventions, their functionality, or often both. But American Inventor gives a misleading view of companies like IDEO because "it assumes design is something that is added late in the process," Kelley says.