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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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 »