IDEO and The Deep Dive

It’s been over 10 years since US TV show Nightline first aired an episode featuring the inner workings of a Palo Alto based design company called IDEO. The episode became an instantaneous hit, and it is often cited as one of the most requested videos (by viewers) which ABC has ever produced. IDEO was then a well known name within and indeed outside of the design community, but what was so special about this profile of the company?

Whilst the product design produced during the program was far from flawless, the program did allow outsiders a front-row seat into an exploratory process and a working environ a million miles from those of a traditional business.

It provided the viewer with a intimate view into the workings and structure (or non-structure) of a truly creative environment. It demonstrated how radical thinking coupled with an involved prototyping process can produce many ideas.

Despite many businesses and individuals having since watched the program, it would be fair to say that not many were able to replicate such a process successfully. This is in part because many businesses still presume they do not require this level of innovative thinking and secondly because they may not feel comfortable in allowing the seemingly chaotic process of design to occur within a company, and indeed lead a company strategy.

Granted it’s a fantastic showcase for IDEO and indeed parts of it may seem a little contrived or calculated but for a company to allow such an intimate glimpse into a creative process is rare. One which is not afraid to show all the ‘messy-stuff” – that is the mistakes, the stupid ideas, and the inherently fuzzy place from where a good idea is born and more importantly the manner in which it is allowed to breathe and grow.

For me this is one of the better demonstrations of what a user-centred design process is and nicely captures the imagination, empathy and effort that’s required to create such a design. For these very reasons ‘Deep Dive’ is always worth a viewing.

Reiterating the maxim that “It’s all about the journey, not the destination”.

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On Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 at 6:52 pm Comments Off

Great Design is Brave Design

As designers we endeavor to improve how things work, look and feel; this is achieved by examining how things are and imagining how they may be. It can be argued that all design is inherently concerned with change, which in turn is brought about by making decisions. Design activity involves the process of making many decisions, decisions on how things work, how things look and how things feel. Many factors contribute to this decision-making process and an ability to take onboard multiple considerations and possibilities is a essential skill for every designer. Every single decision a designer makes, however small, will have an impact on the resulting product or service. Therefore it can be said that every product we use, be it digital or physical, is the direct result of a set of decisions.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

When designing within familiar territory and established problem spaces, the decisions taken will be influenced by existing knowledge and previous experience – using known patterns to solve known problems. Designers can call on their experience and tacit knowledge to arrive at workable solutions to problems which are similar to those they’ve previously encountered. Many decisions will be made intuitively, almost subconsciously, with the designer instinctively knowing the correct choice to make as they overcome each small challenge. Familiar problems are, by and large, easier to solve.

However not all design problems are familiar and not all problems encountered can be easily solved. Sometimes a design problem requires a substantial shift in terms of how it is approached and the manner in which it is eventually solved. Inevitably such design problems require making the type of decisions not made before, requiring a leap of faith in the hope of arriving at an elegant, efficient and effective solution – this is brave design.

“Impressing is not just done by good design; it’s done by brave design.”
– Elliot Jay Stocks

Being Brave

Brave design decisions occur when designing products and services which aspire to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, when we need to solve a problem in a innovative manner, or when we wish to differentiate a product from the crowd. Brave design decisions require a vision to see past the present, to imagine being further down the road and to envision what it’s like there. Brave design often involves taking risks, and taking risks sometimes result in failure, but fear of failure should never prevent one taking a brave design decision.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- Samuel Beckett

Failing Faster to Succeed Sooner

Success is rarely achieved without first having failed, though this is easy to forget. When we study brilliant products and successful services we often fail to acknowledge that they must have taken brave decisions, often many – be it removing features, venturing into a competitive market or simply undertaking a project which others deemed impossible. Start-ups and small teams can take these brave design decisions more easily and should they fail to work, they can be speedily rectified with a hopefully quick recovery. Brave decisions occur more naturally within those informal, collaborative environments where the decision making process is nimble and democratic. Hence start-ups and small-teams can achieve high growth rates dues to taking greater risks. They are innately brave by design.

Inevitably as an organisation grows, more layers of management are added, this results in a slower decision making process and a predilection towards risk aversion. Typically the organisations start sprightly, energetic and agile – akin to a rivers youthful stage, empowered to make iterative design decisions on a whim, zig-zagging along and forging a determined course to market. However as the organisation grows and matures taking on the necessary layers of management, it adds strata of decision making which eventually slow it down, running deep and slow, taking a meandering course out to sea. Cautiousness personified, bravery diluted.

An over-reliance on justifying every minute design decision can result in a stunted, stagnant environment. Doug Bowman’s recent experience at Google nicely illustrates what can happen when quantitive data has too much influence over what should be a qualitative process. By designing-with-numbers you may arrive at a good design but rarely will you achieve a truly great design. To achieve great design product managers must trust their designers intuition and their ability to make the brave decisions.

Following Your Intuition

Design inspiration often begins with a simple hunch, an intuitive feeling that something could work, could be potentially great. Getting up and actually exploring the idea and attempting to create a product based on a hunch is courageous, requiring a creative environment, an appropriate skill-set and a deep set determination among other things. Making a start is the hard part, after that it’s a matter of making the right choices and sometimes taking the brave ones.

It could be said that there are two ways of advancing through design – incrementally or by disruptive breakthrough. User interviews and focus groups will generally provide the type of insight that produces incremental or evolutionary advancement.

However to create something truly innovative and game-changing you need to follow your intuition and make the brave decisions, and not rely on your users insights to determine your products strategy.

Below are four examples of what I would consider as brave design decisions which eventually proved to be great design decisions:


Initially Twitter messages longer than 160 characters (the standars SMS carrier limit) were split into multiple texts and delivered in sequence. The team decided to place a limit on the number of characters that would go out via SMS for each post. They settled on 140, in order to leave room for the username. Many would argue that setting such a restriction on message length coupled with the omission of attachments or other enhancements was commercial suicide, however by employing these constraints they effectively created their own social communications powerhouse – with engineer Jack Dorsey remarking that

“One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”
- Jack Dorsey


James Dyson’s personal quest to design a revolutionary vacuum cleaner involved a long arduous process. He prototyped obsessively for over three years, varying certain aspects gradually until he arrived at the product he had envisioned. All this time he was sinking further into debt, the venture could have potentially ruined him but he soldiered on, learning from each of his failures – convinced he could get his design to work.

“I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative… We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually. To me, solving problems is a bit like a drug. You’re on it, and you can’t get off.”
– James Dyson

Ford Model T

When Henry Ford set out to design and popularize a revolutionary means of transport, he did so without even asking people what they wished for. When questioned about why he didn’t he replied -

“If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford

Supporting the widely held belief that truly disruptive innovations rarely if ever come from asking customers what they want.


Knowing they could not compete directly with the raw computing power of the Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, Nintendo instead focused their efforts on the area which really matters – the user experience. The key innovation of the Wii is how it makes players feel while they play – happy, engaged and active. Proving beyond doubt that user’s emotions are not necessarily enhanced by improved specs and faster processors and that the best graphics don’t necessarily result in the best user experience. Releasing the Wii was a brave but undoubtedly a genius move by Nintendo, instead of fighting a battle they were doomed to lose they instead subverted the market dominance by Sony and Microsoft and focused on creating their own niche. The physical interaction involved in playing the Wii became the key differentiator for Nintendo ensuring it was a runaway success.

I decided not to include the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to brave, innovative design. Suffice to say that Apple have been pushing the boundaries of both interaction and industrial design for many years. All the while removing what they deem unnecessary be it interface features, disk-drives or usb ports from our computing devices, however the popularity of their products has never been greater.

This has all been achieved by a strong focus on creating great products coupled with a superior user experience – by taking the brave decisions. Admittedly even Apple gets it wrong sometimes, as has been proved recently, however you can be assured of one thing, they have learnt from their mistakes and will bounce back smarter, better and braver. I will leave the last words to one of the true design visionaries of the computing industry.

“Don’t ask users – they simply dont know what they want.”
– Steve Jobs

Remember. Be Brave.

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On Monday, August 16th, 2010 at 11:26 pm 2 Comments »

This Is Spatial Tap

Of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic that is so fulfilling about using appropriately designed tools is that they become an extension of the user themselves, be it their body, their hands, or indeed their mind. Apples more recent device is a case in point, the iPad reduces the user interface to the extent that one feels as if they are actually ‘holding’ a webpage or application – and to all extents and purposes they are. However if one was to take this notion to the next logical level surely we would find that for many circumstances the ultimate interface would be no interface at all, and in turn the minimal physical interaction necessary, excepting neural and thought based interfaces, would be a simple and discrete gesture.

However many of the gestural interface implementations we have seen recently are concerned with how we as users might interact with a digital reality or unreality as the case may be. Projects such as Microsoft’s Natal demonstrate how a Natural User Interface (NUI) may be used to enhance our gaming environments by using our own bodies and actions as the proverbial input device in order to control a corresponding digital self or avatar.

In a recent re-reading of Don Normans excellent book the ‘Design of Everyday Things’ I was prompted to consider the real-world scenarios whereby a gesture based system would be advantageous in interacting with physical objects.

What implications would such changes have on our lives?

Many of the interactions which strike me initially would be scenarios where one is somewhat reticent to touch a shared surface, however by affording the modification of such behaviors would we be facilitating the creation of a generation physically averse to many everyday interactions which we as humans currently take for granted?

As our interactions with objects head in a direction visibly reminiscent of something approaching telekinesis how will this affect the way in which our everyday artifacts function and in what ways will designers harness gestures to influence behavior.

Which interactions or physical devices do we encounter on a daily basis which might benefit from such an interface?


An obvious choice surely? Maybe not. Many public facing doors in buildings are already using motion sensors to detect a person as they approach. Would they benefit by requiring a directive gesture to open? Probably not, although many of us would be familiar with two scenarios in which such solutions fall short.

a) The first we’ll call ‘Playing Chicken’ – When one walks towards an ‘Automatic Door’ with the intention of entering the building, yet the doors fail to open with sufficient time, forcing the individual to either break stride or stop, face the glass and wait patiently for the doors to acknowledge their presence.

b) ‘Getting Smart’ – when the flow of people using an automatic door is out of step with the sensors timing. Causing awkward uncertainty and nervous approaches by those who wish to enter, daunted by the prospect of getting sandwiched between the unforgiving glass panes.
The name of which is my tribute to an old spy TV show Get Smart in which the character confidently faced the prospect of simliar door malfunction.

However if a simple hand gesture were required would people feel socially awkward ‘waving’ to an inanimate object, or would it only be a matter of getting used to this slight change in behavior. For instance only 15 years ago a person may have avoided the prospect of having a full-blown conversation in a public space over a mobile device, yet nowadays many feel obliged to do just that not only by necessity but mostly by choice. Social conventions regularly accommodate technological advances with a unforeseen pace.

Toilet Seats

Use of a gestural command to lift and close a toilet seat would be of great benefit hygienically speaking, particularly in public spaces where one would be much less inclined to touch a toilet lid. When I researched this idea a little further it transpires that some other designers have had ideas along similar lines.

TV & Audio Systems

Use of a hand wave to change channels would initially seem useful, yet imagine a scenario where there are several people watching TV who might have differing opinions on what exactly to watch. Moving a simple single-user interface such as a remote control into a to multi-user scenario may unnecessarily complicate an otherwise straight-forward situation.

Imagine your next home audio system being able to recognise your gestures such as snapping your fingers to switch it on, a wave of your right hand to play and raising ones hand to raise the volume correspondingly. Would we want for such a thing or a would it be more a hindrance than a help.


I also remember thinking that taps would also benefit from having a non-touch interface. Again we are already familiar with motion activated taps but what about one where we facilitate greater control, allowing a user to turn it on/off, modify the flow and adjust the hot/cold streams – this could be achieved through use of gestures. Until this morning I had forgotten my thoughts on such interactions, that is until I received a message from Jasper Dekker, a product designer with Flankworks in The Netherlands who for his graduation project designed a tap which is controlled via spatial interaction.

You can view a demo of this tap in action below. There is also a more polished conceptual demonstration available here but the initial prototype spoke to me more, for some reason.

Neat huh? Seeing this prototype in action, it again struck me that the potential for gestural interfaces is vast and, if you excuse the pun – untapped, and we have only seen the beginnings of the impact such a subtle, virtually invisible technology can and will have on our daily lives.

As children we watched movies such as Star Wars where Jedi characters used their innate ability to manipulate objects at will, such behavior seemed magical at the time. However as man-machine interfaces continue to advance and their applications broaden, our interactions with the world and the objects within will accordingly becomes less intrusive and more natural.

Where else can you see gestural interfaces adding value in our day to day life?

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On Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 at 1:01 am 2 Comments »