Where do Design Ideas Come From?

I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at Union Square Ventures yesterday, organized by Gary Chou and Christina Cacioppo. The focus of the panel was on the topic of “what should I make”, and we bounced around to touch on issues of process, insights, founders, and funding. I spent a bit talking about insights, and here’s what I talked about.

In the context of design and innovation, an insight is a provocative statement of truth about human behavior. Insights are one of the main output of design synthesis, and so by definition they are interpretative and subjective. That’s a lot of words, so let me try to explain what I mean by way of an example.

One of our startups at AC4D is a company called Feast For Days. The premise is simple: get together with a group of people, cook together, and take home enough meals for a week of eating. Founders Jonathan and Ben arrived at this seemingly simple idea through the process of design. They observed and interacted with lots of low-income shoppers and families, and through these months of research, they gathered raw data around shopping and eating behavior. They noted that:

These statements are true, at least for those that they observed. These factual statements become the foundation upon which insights are formed.

Then, through a series of synthesis methods, they came to the conclusion that:

This is a jumping off point that builds upon the facts, and it’s an interpretation – an assignment of meaning to the data that was gathered. This interpretation may be wrong, because it’s a guess. It’s a good guess, but because of the complexities of culture, there’s no guarantee that it’s right.

Finally, they identified insights based on their interpretation. These insights – these provocative statements of truth about human behavior – look like this:

Each of these is a “statement of truth” because each takes an authoritative tone, even though each statement is not necessarily true. This authoritative tone makes it possible to use the insight as a point of departure to identify design constraints. Each of these insights is about human behavior, as they describe actions, emotions, and other aspects of motivation. And each is provocative because it acts as a logical gatekeeper: based on the statement, other things have to logically follow. For example:

These final points are design constraints: they become the boundaries that dictate what the product or service should do, and they indicate how it should be done.

If you examine this process, it’s one that starts with fact, and makes assumptive and inferential leaps on top of the facts. Each leap is a step away from something we are sure about, and so each leap is risky. This is the risk of innovation: it demands that someone makes inferences, and not only makes them, but builds upon them. The larger the leap, the more likely it is to be wrong. But with a larger leap comes a more unexpected innovation: a more jarring, differentiated, and unique idea.

You’ll also note that, when moving from initial interpretation to insight, new knowledge and assumptions were introduced.

These additions come from within the designer, and speak to the role of experience. The more things the designer has experienced, the broader a palette of extra knowledge they have to leverage, and they can use this to further build upon and refine interpretations in order to arrive at unique and useful insights.

In bringing this full-circle to the question of our panel, this process of observations, interpretation, insights, and constraints acts as the process of identifying and defining “what should I build”, and it even offers support for the next phase of design: “how should I build it?” It’s a rigorous process, one that can be done in any context that involves people, and one that’s guaranteed – not to develop ideas that are marketable, valuable, or even useful, but to identify new ideas that are grounded in the complexities of human behavior and culture.

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