Sketching the Future of Innovation

sketchLast spring I wrote about Bill Buxton:

Many years ago, when e-mail and Internet access were just becoming the norm in business, I met a guy named Bill Buxton, who was then with Alias Research. His passion was trying to make virtual ‘presence’ imitate, as much as possible, physical ‘presence’, to get the technology to adapt to our preferred information behaviours, instead of the other way around.

Bill’s mantra was:

Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the “things” that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.

To that end, he had computer screens around a circular table in his office, each showing the head and shoulders, and the computer desktop, of one his meeting participants, so that virtual meetings were as analogous as possible to ‘real’ meetings. He had another screen above his office door with a picture of a door on it, that he could virtually ‘open’ or ‘close’ to signify whether he was, or was not, available for impromptu e-consultations and e-conversations.

It was a little hokey, but Bill was (and still is, in his new work) on the right track.

Since then, Bill has moved forward with his work on the Customer Experience and written a book called Sketching User Experiences. The concept of ‘sketching’ is summarized in the graphic above. It is a “low-fidelity representation” of the customer experience that is detailed enough to provide context for how the customer lives/works/uses your product, but short enough that it doesn’t consume inordinate time to do so. The video (1:26:00 in length) explaining this in detail is here. He’s very entertaining, though the technical quality of the video is not great, and the first half is more valuable than the last half, IMO.
The key points he makes in the video and book are:

  1. Nobody creates new products from scratch — almost everything produced today is a sequel, incremental, “n+1” product.
  2. Innovation only comes from inside organizations when “someone misbehaves and it turns out well” — through skunkworks and other ‘unauthorized’ activities.
  3. The software industry (and, I would argue, just about every other industry) therefore only innovates and grows through acquisition.
  4. What is needed to remedy this is a much better creative design process.
  5. Apple was rescued from the brink of extinction when a returning Steve Jobs authorized its exceptional and long-suffering, long-ignored lead designers to do what they do best — the result was the iMac and then the iPod. Although the iPod was best-of-breed and quite innovative, it still had (and has) many serious design flaws stemming from disconnects among the various groups of designers and engineers (“I have 50 different songs on my iPod all named ‘Adagio'”)
  6. If we critiqued books the way we critique technologies, the reviews would all be about the binding and the type font. We need to start critiquing all products by the quality of the user experiences they deliver, not by their features.
  7. Great successes only happen when they are preceded by miserable failures. That’s why you need to do lots of experiments and fail often and early in order to learn how to succeed. The Prototype blog (who I thank for pointing out Buxton’s new work to me) relays a great story that Buxton uses to illustrate this:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
  1. Sketching is fundamental to ideation, and ideation is the critical ‘front end’ to any good design process. Unlike prototypes (see diagram above) sketches are freehand, gestural, and they telegraph intent and emotion. They are caricatures, exaggerations — like the drawings of concept cars and new fashion models, accentuating what’s different and engaging. They are tentative and exploratory, and the best ones resemble the design-idea sketches of Renaissance thinkers. They are quick and inexpensive, plentiful (so you have many alternatives to explore), and clear about what problem they’re investigating.
  2. A challenge with sketching is: How do you sketch interaction? You need to practice a lot to become skilled at conveying feeling, phrasing, intention, movement in a sketch.
  3. As you move from ideation (sketching) to pre-production engineering (prototyping) you get more invested in fewer alternatives, the idea gets harder to change and criticize, and there is less room for new ideation and innovation. Sketching is getting the right design, while prototyping is getting the design right. Two different skills needing two different kinds of people. The more sketches you offer, the more open you remain to constructive criticism, iteration, learning from failure. Ideas are not valuable — it’s what you do with them that brings value. So entertain as many as possible, and use sketches to ensure they get a fair airing.
  4. The more persistent (how long and extensively it is available for review and consideration) and the more malleable a sketch is, the more thorough the iteration and the better the ultimate design. You need to give ideation time and space. You can’t afford not to.
  5. Sketching, like music, involves both a craft (the technical skill) and an art. You need to learn the craft first. Both need practice to become good at doing them. Not everyone is good at it — just make sure someone in your organization is.
  6. The art of sketching is to some extent a wizard’s art — it is about simulating and representing reality using ‘illusion’. In the video Buxton shows several examples of how inexpensive illusions that simulate user experiences produce ‘aha’ understanding of unmet needs and design problems, and allow exploration of solutions to them. For example, he shows how, by pinning a complete newspaper to a wall and then trying to read it through a cutout cardboard ‘window’, you can start to appreciate the user experience of looking at a window on a computer screen without the context or awareness of all the rest of the content in the site, and start to think about ways to start to create information landscapes and context-setting mechanisms that overcome this online limitation.
  7. We have a dangerous propensity to think we understand things intellectually, like our customers’ wants and needs, without reproducing the customer experience in sufficient depth to really understand their experience, and hence to ‘get’ experience.
  8. We also need to be good ‘collectors’ of information that could have value later. We need to be constantly paying attention. Buxton carries a camera everywhere he goes.

This approach seems to work well for technology companies (hardware and software producers) but suppose your ‘product’ is, say, research reports, or improved health outcomes for your community? Can you ‘sketch’ new product design ideas using Buxton’s techniques?

I think you can. And I think that’s where the idea of customer anthropology comes in. This anthropology is one of the techniques you use to research unmet customer needs. The transcription of the customer observations and interviews is a kind of “sketch” of your customers, and the needs that your enterprise might fill. But this isn’t what Buxton is getting at when he talks about sketching — he’s referring to the process of ideation to address those needs.

In my new job, we’re starting to use customer anthropology to get a deeper understanding of our customers. We’ve identified about 15 distinct customer ‘segments’ with clearly different needs for the five types of research ‘products’ we offer:

  • Awareness products: Reports that filter and distill the firehose of information out there down to short, succinct explanations of what’s happening in the economy, the industry and society as a whole that would appear to be important and will probably affect our customers.
  • Research products: More in-depth reports that explain what these current developments and trends mean to our customers — how these developments are affecting our customers and how they’re dealing with them.
  • Guidance products: Reports that suggest what our customers should do in response to these developments.
  • Events and spaces: Facilitated seminars, workshops and meetings, in physical or virtual space, that allow our customers to help each other learn about or act on these developments.
  • Tools: Applets, online or on flash memory or CD, that help our customers self-assess their knowledge or understanding of these developments and their implications to their businesses.

As regular readers know, I generally tend to believe that things are the way they are for a reason, and before I propose changing things I want to make sure I understand those reasons. So my hypothesis is that the current design of these products is pretty good. But my instincts tell me that, like most products out there, the design could be much better.

So I’m going to try to develop “sketches” of possible new designs for our five types of products, that draw on understanding how the current design has evolved, and on the results of our customer anthropology into what our customers want and need that they are not currently getting. I’d love to get Bill Buxton, a fellow Torontonian, involved in the process, to see how his technique translates to non-technology product design.

I suspect I may have to ‘hire’ a sketch artist, though I’m certainly going to scour our organization to see if we have some hidden talent in this area.

If this is successful, it could become the standard ‘front end’ to our ideation and innovation process– the means by which we respond in a consistent, disciplined and creative way to identified unmet customer needs and develop new and better products.

What do you think? Is this a process that might work in your industry? Is there a sketch artist in your future?

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3 Responses to Sketching the Future of Innovation

  1. Jon Husband says:

    I presume you know all about the Cognitive Edge approach of archetype sketches derived from the narratives in a community / system. I’m virtually certain that you do, as you’ve known avbout the Snowden et al approach for much longer than me. But just in case …I think that such sketches are very powerful ways to clarify and understand client (and constituent / stakeholder) issues.

  2. Jim Rait says:

    I spent a lot of time with Bill Buxton interacting with Alias to improve the way we could sketch and interact with consumers in the FMCG products arena… designing new packaging… which you may have on your shelf at home! It is an incredible way of Design Fast Action at every stage through the process… making things tangible to make the right decisions at the right time… it saves an incredible amount of discussion time and opens up the possibility of increasing the search area for dialogue to find the more exciting (to consumers) answers!

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