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Storytelling In The News: #144

IDEO revolutionizes innovation and design with storytelling

May 9, 2004

The lead article in BusinessWeek this week is the impact of IDEO's work on innovation and design.

IDEO is a 350-person design firm with offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, London, and Munich. Office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. (SCS ) owns a majority stake in the firm, which operates as an independent unit. By design industry standards, IDEO is huge, though its $62 million in revenues in 2003 are puny by most corporate measures. But IDEO's impact on the corporate world is far greater than the sum of its sales.

Getting the client to live the story

What's different about IDEO? According to BusinessWeek, "it's because the company requires its clients to participate in virtually all the consumer research, analysis, and decisions that go into developing solutions. When the process is complete, there's no need for a buy-in: Clients already know what to do -- and how to do it quickly. Unlike traditional consultants, IDEO shares its innovative process with its customers through projects, workshops, and IDEO U, its customized teaching program."

Perhaps more important, IDEO gets executives to live the customers' story. "Consulting firms usually come in, go away, and return with heavy binders that sit on the desk," says Kaiser's Nemer. "With IDEO, we partner up and work side-by-side. We are internalizing their methodology to build our own culture of innovation."

Adds Sam Hall, vice-president for mMode at AT&T Wireless Services Inc. (AWE ), who turned to IDEO to redesign its mMode service: "Those guys really get it. They opened our eyes." Since the mMode relaunch in November, 2003, subscriber membership has doubled. "I would work with them again in a heartbeat," he says. "They are a fun bunch."

Having fun changing the organization

Fun? Since when is changing corporate culture fun? But that's how most corporate execs describe their experiences with IDEO. Contrast that to the fear and loathing that management consultants sometimes generate when they walk into a corporation's offices. How does IDEO do it? Perhaps it is the unusual techniques it uses to energize corporate clients -- "bodystorming," "behavioral mapping," "quick and dirty prototyping," "deep dives," "unfocus groups," "shadowing," and "be your customer."

Corporate execs probably have the most fun simply participating in the IDEO Way, the design firm's disciplined yet wild-and-woolly five-step process that emphasizes empathy with the consumer, anything-is-possible brainstorming, visualizing solutions by creating actual prototypes, using technology to find creative solutions, and doing it all with incredible speed.

IDEO's five step process

Here's how the five step process works: A company goes to IDEO with a problem. It wants a better product, service, or space -- no matter.

The first stage is observation. IDEO puts together an eclectic team composed of members from the client company and its own experts who go out to observe and document the consumer experience. Often, IDEO will have top executives understand the stories by getting them to play the roles of their own customers. Execs from food and clothing companies shop for their own stuff in different retail stores and on the Web. Health-care managers get care in different hospitals. Wireless providers use their own -- and competing -- services. Storytelling is used as people are prompted to tell personal stories about their consumer experiences. "Unfocus groups" involve interviewing a diverse group of people to explore multiple perspectives about sandals, IDEO gathered an artist, a bodybuilder, a podiatrist, and a shoe fetishist.

The next stage is brainstorming. IDEO mixes designers, engineers, and social scientists with its clients in a room where they intensely scrutinize a given problem and suggest possible solutions.

Then there is rapid prototyping: Mocking up working models helps everyone visualize possible solutions and speeds up decision-making and innovation. Some guidelines: Videos are used to depict the story of the consumer experience. Scenarios (aka stories) are used to show how a variety of people use a service in different ways and how various designs can meet their individual needs. Executives delineate different types of consumers and act out their roles (called in the IDEO jargon "bodystorming").

Then there is refining. At this stage, IDEO narrows down the choices to a few possibilities. Here’s how it’s done: The client is actively engaged in the process of narrowing the choices.

Finally, implementation. IDEO’s engineering, design, and social-science capabilities are brought to bear in creating the product or service.

Fancy jargon

IDEO has dreamed up some fancy vocabulary for what it's doing - "bodystorming," "behavioral mapping," "quick and dirty prototyping," "deep dives," "unfocus groups," and "shadowing." When you ask what do these terms mean, one comes up with rather simple underlying ideas:

“bodystorming" means: "living the customer's story"
"behavioral mapping“ means "making a vidoe of the customer's story"
"unfocus groups“ means "using multiple discinplines to figure out the story"
"shadowing" means "observing the customer's story"

Bottom line

These are not bad ideas - on the contrary, they are excellent. But what makes them strong ideas is not the jargon terminology. It's because they're about understanding and living the customers' story.

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