Nov 30, 2012

Transforming Business Through Product Concepting

Josh Williams's picture
Josh Williams
Director, Product Strategy

A good concepting process can do more than inform key product decisions prior to launching a product. It can also affect large-scale organizational change.

On November 14, Hot Studio hosted "Make it Real: How Product Concepting Drives Business Innovation." This panel, led by Hot’s Wendy Owen, discussed best practices around product concepting and how it can be used as a tool to test feasibility, viability, and desirability. (See video of this panel; also embedded at bottom of post.)

Wendy was joined by an incredible group of panelists: Lane Becker, from the Internet Company; Michael Crane, Director of Innovation Strategy at AAA Club Partners; Andrew Crow, Director of Experience Design at GE; and Intuit’s Kaaren Hanson, Vice President of Design Innovation.

Here are some highlights from the two-hour discussion:

Lean UX saves lives

Farmers in India were committing suicide.

They’d have a healthy seasonal yield, but when they took their crops to market, merchants paid bottom-dollar rates that didn’t even cover cost. The farmers who were already working as hard as they could often lost hope as they sank deep into debt. Farmers needed a way to ensure they were getting a fair price for their crops.

Not every problem design teams tackle is so profound, but for Intuit’s Kaaren Hanson the stakes could be no higher.

To help the farmers, a small Intuit team, using the flexible time they’re allotted to pursue personal projects, set about finding a solution. By following a lean process, the team brainstormed a range of possible product solutions that they immediately took out into the field for testing. The first idea didn’t work for merchants, the second didn’t work for farmers, but the third concept was just right, hitting a success metric that the team had established prior to going into the field: a lift in farmer revenue that would represent a meaningful improvement in their quality of living.

“Fail” is not a four-letter word

During most of the panel conversation, the idea of creating concepts to demonstrate product value was tied directly to Lean and Lean UX. Lane Becker, founder at Adaptive Path and Get Satisfaction, is excited about the direction lean thinking takes businesses, and how it allows them to more quickly and directly identify what matters most to customers. "The product concept is the product is business,” he said.

While many large businesses have already embraced Lean into their process, many more—especially older businesses—haven’t made the turn yet. A big factor is the fear of failure. Within protected organizations, failing is encouraged, but more often, failure freaks people out, and they try to mitigate risk as much as possible, resorting to heavy process designed to de-risk with every step. At GE, panelist Andrew Crow is trying socialize a different view. He wants people to think in terms of hypotheses, tests, and learnings. If the test for a particular hypothesis is positive, the team is encouraged to keep moving forward, and if the results are negative there’s still something valuable to learn.

Michael Crane, from AAA Club Partners, is taking a similar approach as he works to define innovation within his organization. He’s getting ready to launch a new digital product specifically designed to help find the next generation of AAA members. This represented a dramatic shift for the 110-year-old organization, and to sell it through Michael first had to help the company understand the value of getting a product in users’ hands. "We sold it as an investment strategy,” he said. “It will be something we can learn from."

Cooking vs. Baking

There’s a time for following a clean and ordered waterfall process, just as there’s a time to go fast and not worry about breaking things. Andrew Crow compares the two approaches to the precision required for baking and messier exploration of cooking. When you’re ready to cook, know that you’re going to get messy.

A critical first step in following a lean process is getting the team on the same page. "It's difficult to get people to agree, but if you can focus on alignment, it's easier to move an idea forward," says GE’s Crow. When teams can all see the value of an idea, work moves faster after that.

Intuit’s innovation philosophy is simple: establish deep customer empathy; let thinking go broad, then go narrow; and experiment with your customers. Ideally this is a small, dedicated team working offsite (or away from their usual desks), with direct access to customers.

And while rapid design and prototyping are effective for making things it also drives systematic changes within an organization. It’s not just making products; it’s making a company.

Video of the panel:

More to come...

Hot’s strategy group will be holding further panels like “Transforming Business Through Product Concepting” in the months ahead. Stay tuned for details about the strategy group’s next event, a discussion on trends, challenges, and the future of design consulting with leaders from several local agencies.

See more from "Our Thoughts."