Friday, May 21, 2010

What people really want is a Star Trek tricorder

Star Trek Classic Tricorder
Photo by David B. Spalding

While searching for information on the elements of good design, I came across this post from September 2009 by IDEO CEO Tim Brown. Brown talks about bridging Six Sigma with his trademark innovation mantra, Design Thinking.

In Brown’s post, he quotes Chuck Jones of Whirlpool, who compared design thinkers to quantum physicists (concerned with multiple possibilities) and everyone else (including Six Sigma practitioners) to Newtonian physicists (concerned with defined measurement). Brown confesses that, because of these differences, he once was highly skeptical of Design Thinking's ability to operate in a Six Sigma environment, thinking that Six Sigma was toxic to innovation. He now thinks that Six Sigma can help new ideas get better faster by improving product quality and functionality in the implementation phase. He also suggests that perhaps we should cycle between Design Thinking and Six Sigma in the product development process. He wraps up by saying, "…the biggest challenge will be to build business cultures that are agile enough to incorporate both."

In the reader comments, someone posted what I was thinking as I read his post, that Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) may be an attempt to marry Design Thinking with Six Sigma. However, I'm not sure if DFSS, which, as I understand it, relies on the voice of the customer, fully integrates the concept of Design Thinking, or more specifically, the component of breakthrough innovation.

Lorenzo Kidd and I were discussing innovation the other day and the difference between the smaller product innovations that significantly alter a common action (via a systems thinking approach) and the huge innovations that change the entire game, moving all of us in a new direction (via something more akin to complexity theory, perhaps?).

My favorite example of a smaller, albeit breakthrough, product innovation is P&G's Swiffer® WetJet®, which fundamentally changed the way we keep floors clean. There’s still a need to mop the floor the old-fashioned way periodically for a more thorough cleaning than WetJet® provides, but one can maintain a much cleaner floor between full moppings while feeling the need to drag out the old mop much less often. WetJet® removed the biggest pain of floor-washing: the bucket. This substantially lowered the user’s resistance to cleaning the floor. I suspect that P&G didn't frame their goal as creating a better mop or floor soap, but as finding an easier way to achieve a consistently clean floor. Did customers articulate this need? Maybe. But if they'd asked me, would I have said I would be willing to mop the floor more frequently? No! Yet that's exactly what people do, quite willingly, because it is just so darn easy to have consistently cleaner floors via a minute or two of effort here and there with a WetJet®. So, despite being somewhat counterintuitive, WetJet® clearly satisfied an immediate, unmet, hard-to-define customer need in a new way.

But what about those things that aren't so clearly tied to voice of the customer? Things that make us scratch our heads for years and say, "Why would anyone ever use that?" The things that businesses first shrug off as irrelevant or disruptive to operations? Things that are endlessly criticized in the news? Things that, years after they are introduced, become so integrated into our lives that we wonder how on earth we survived without them?

You know, like the internet.
Personal computers.
3G phones.
Rechargeable batteries.
Social media.

The needs behind these breakthrough innovations were so far from anything the customer could have possibly fathomed or articulated that, in a business environment, where products are determined by voice of the customer, the breakthrough ideas behind them could have died in their infancy. These ideas were so incredibly ahead of their time—radically predating what I suspect most product development teams would have been capable of relating to the voice of the customer. But, if they wouldn't have been developed as early they were, we would not be benefitting from them today.

And these ideas changed everything.

I think the true breakthrough innovations come from accurately figuring out what the customer will need, but can't possibly understand yet. It requires seeing much further down the road of progress than anyone else can. It's figuring out in the late 1960s that what people really want is a Star Trek Tricorder even though it seems like ridiculous science fiction (Lorenzo's example) and pursuing it until it doesn't seem so unattainable after all. Maybe it's more like listening to the whisper of the customer's subconscious than the clear and lucid voice of the customer.

How do we do that?

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