Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thanks for Visiting -- I'm on an extended blogging hiatus.

Check out past posts for interviews with interesting folks from LEGO, IDEO, Design Continuum, Frog Design, Project H, DripTech, Stuart Karten Design and others...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Small By Design: Entrepreneur-Designer Stuart Karten Talks Shop

For those that follow the design consulting field, Stuart Karten Design feels like a larger firm than it is.  With only around 28 employees, it's like the little munchkin stepchild to the larger design consultancies of the world -- size-wise at least.
But the firm, and its namesake and founder Stuart Karten, have been at it for almost 27 years.  Success has been building slowly but steadily for the company, which is transitioning to the name SKD.  Says Stuart about that move:  "I mean, Stuart Karten Design could be two people, and it’s much bigger than me at this point."
Much bigger, and much more successful.  In 2008, Stuart and team won their first National Design Award for innovations in the hearing aid market.  
I recently talked with Stuart about his firm, his "Dear Stuart" column in Fast Company, and how he's become one of a truly rare breed -- a successful designer and entrepreneur.  Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:  

ThinkingDesign:  Are you small by design?  And if so, why?
SK:  Yes.  For a number of reasons.  For one, I’m still pretty involved with most of the work.  So, I like to be involved with projects.  I’m also a big believer in providing high-level service.  The way I tell it to potential clients is that we don’t have a "B" Team.  You don’t come in and meet me and a couple of other people, and then we introduce you to the people who are going to do the work.   Lately we’ve been taking work from firms that are three and four times our size. 
Another reason is that I like to work with people that I like and projects that I like, so I can be selective.

ThinkingDesign:  Sounds like a good philosophy.  What gives you the most satisfaction?
SK:  From a project standpoint, it’s the work we’ve been doing with Starkey with hearing aids.  I’m very proud of the work from multiple perspectives.  One is that I believe we’ve done some great work in terms of functional innovation for them, and using all the dimensions of my business – the research, design, and engineering.  We really brought it all.  We did great research, and it led to very good short-term solutions and very innovative long-term solutions. 
For more about that project, take a look at the talk I recently gave on the topic:
User-driven Innovation from Kicker Studio on Vimeo.

I’m very proud of what we’ve done for Starkey and the partnership that we developed.  Also, the work we did led to nice recognition and it allowed me to go to the White House to meet Michelle Obama, so that was a real career high.  We won a National Design Award for it.  

Sexiest hearing aid out there...
ThinkingDesign:  Congrats!  Tell me about your “Dear Stu” column in Fast Company.  Were you trying to create some notoriety for yourself?
SK:  Well, I was asked to be an expert design blogger by Fast Company, and I didn’t want to do the same kind of blah blah blah about products or complain about design thinking, like the stuff that’s going on right now.  And I thought that no one had played the humor card, so I decided to play the humor card. 
I had some fun with it, and now I’m posting more traditional blogs and have kind of steered away from it, but it was fun.  

Dear Stu -- Can you help me be more innovative?
ThinkingDesign:  Playing on that theme, I’m an MBA graduate from a year ago.  I’m looking to get into the design field.  How do I get a second look from a company like yours?    
SK:  What do you do?  You call people up and invite them to be on your blog and make friends that way.  That kind of stuff.

ThinkingDesign:  Thanks for that... In the world of design for social impact and humanitarian design, how do you stand on design’s ability to save the world?
SK:  I don’t think I or my firm can personally save the world.  But we can be responsible about the kind of clients and the kind of work we take on.  We’ve always had about 30-40% of our work focused on the healthcare and medical world, and that gives us a lot of psychic income and makes us feel better about the work we do day to day.
In terms of the other question about using design and design thinking as a way to solve bigger problems, I think it’s great and there’s potential there.  I think what we’re really talking about is just looking at problems more creatively.  And that’s what designers do, and we have a process for doing it, which allows people to accept it more easily. 

ThinkingDesign:  What kinds of jobs won’t you take on?
SK:  One filter is just understanding that what we’re going to be working on is something that people want and need.  Inherently, you know what categories you’re in and what’s going to be the outcome. 
We won’t do things that hurt people – guns or weapons or things that will hurt people or affect people negatively.

ThinkingDesign:  You’re one of the well-known design shops around, but you’re also an entrepreneur.  To what extent are the skills that make you a good entrepreneur the same that make you a good designer?
SK:  You learn lessons.  I’ve been through three recessions.  The first one I was totally blindsided and the business almost went under as a result.  The second I was a little smarter about it and got us through it.  But this time, we’re actually thriving.   
There are also external forces that lined up that allowed us to be more successful this time.  Design is in a much better place.  But we’ve also engaged in a lot more PR this time.  We used to get most of our work through referrals, but I amped up the promotion this time. 
I also recognized that engineering and that level of production was going to be outsourced and be done for free, so we really amped up the front end of the business and invested in research and understanding how research worked in conjunction with design.  We’ve always done it, but we never spoke about it, formalized it, and had people that specialized in it. 

ThinkingDesign:  How do you approach research?
SK:  Our tool is called “mode mapping”.  It’s a tool that allows you to visually represent ethnographic research so that designers can get engaged, and the benefit is that you can explain to clients where you found your unmet needs and where you found your potential new solutions. 

The Y axis represents emotional states and the X axis represents time. 
Mode Mapping 101
We birthed it here on one project, then started using it on other projects and it’s really started to take on a life of its own. 

Mode Mapping 202
ThinkingDesign:  What else has affected your ability to be successful as a small firm in a space of growing gorillas?
SK:  One of the things that lined up for us is that we’ve always been a hardcore product design firm, but with added value because of our ability to do high-level research and use it to get to really good solutions.  On the spectrum of other industrial design firms, a lot of them haven’t embraced or raised their level of research capability, at least in our sized firms. 
The bigger firms were strong in that area.  Then, because a lot of hardcore industrial design was able to get farmed out and be produced for free.  If you need an MP3 player, you can get someone in Asia to, not only make it, but also design it for your for free in exchange for making it.
So, the big firms went for greener pastures.  They created the term "design thinking" and started applying it to service design and these larger humanitarian efforts.  And as a result, it left a gap.  We were able to slip right in there and give people, in essence, somewhat of the same quality level of what they were receiving from these larger firms, but with a singular focus, which was to get to a product.

ThinkingDesign:  Tell me about your concept designs.  Why do you do them?
SK:  The broad stroke is to flex the studio’s creative muscles, without the constraints of a client or budget.  Then, in essence, it becomes a PR tool for us, and we’ve had a lot of success with it.  One of the projects is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

That's right -- you can find this beauty at the MOMA, forever...
The projects are really fun.  Did you see the chandeliers?  We have people calling all the time wanting to buy them.  I wish I could make them.

I mean, I guess we could make them.  They’re durable and all, but that’s not really the business we’re in.  I tell people that we would make them one, but they would have to supply the bills, and $10,000 on top of that.  No one has taken me up on that yet. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Using Leadership to Drive Innovation with Design Continuum's Dan Buchner

Dan Buchner, VP of Design and Innovation at Boston-based Design Continuum, will be the first to tell you that there is no silver bullet to transform a company from cost-cutter to innovator. It’s much more nuanced than that, with enlightened leadership being perhaps the one necessity.

I first met Dan when he came to Cornell to run a design thinking workshop for the second meeting of “Creative Design for Affordability” in March of 2009. Dan grew up and spent his early career in Canada, and I was immediately drawn to his cool, laid-back approach to driving innovation and creativity in business.

Aside from his role at Continuum, Dan is also “Innovator in Residence” at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, NC. With the CCL, Dan has unleashed Continuum’s innovation process to try and help leaders understand that process first hand, and then assess what concrete actions they must take to drive behavior change throughout their organizations.

All of this is much easier said than done, as Dan will readily admit.  Edited excerpts of our recent conversation follow:

ThinkingDesign: So how did you make the leap from product design to organizational design and leadership?

Dan Buchner: Within two years of graduating from design school, I got put in charge of the design team of a small Canadian manufacturer in Ontario. It was pretty na├»ve on their part, and for me it was a baptism by fire. I’d never managed anyone in my life, and suddenly there were people that had been with the company for 30 years who were reporting to me.

I got really interested in why really good designs never made it to market. When you look at it, you realize that much of it is because of organizational dynamics. Lots of decisions get made for good reasons but they water the idea down.  What makes it to market in most cases pales in comparison to the original idea.

ThinkingDesign: So what are the key pieces to leading/managing design effectively?

DB: I got a job with Moen and helped set up the new product development process. At the time, they were essentially a manufacturing firm, and about ¾ of the revenue was from products designed 25 years earlier. They were essentially cost reducing, making the same thing over and over again, which was fine in that industry at that time. But with the advent of Home Depot, and the consumer coming in and starting to make decisions about what kinds of faucets they wanted to put in their homes, the owners of the company decided we needed to become a consumer products company.

The first thing was becoming concerned about what the consumer might want. At that time in the early 90’s, if you wanted a faucet, you phoned the plumber, and they put in what they wanted.  But when the consumer gets involved, we had no capability to understand what they wanted. So that was the first step – a consumer research capability.

 The second was the ability to actually design and prototype and put into production new products. We had a system at that time that was in place, and everyone was spending time trying to take a few cents out of here or there.  So I set up the new product development process, the design department, and the market research department. I also helped set up an innovation incubator there.

ThinkingDesign: How does the leadership part play in?

DB: Leadership is huge. The company had been a private company and had been quite happy to be #2 in the marketplace and they made lots of money. Then the company was sold to a public company – the precursor to an organization called Fortune Brands. And they came in and said, “You’re not going to be a sleepy little manufacturing firm. You’re going to be a consumer products company, and you’re going to be #1 in the market. You’re going to grow at 10% a year in an industry that grows at 1 or 2 % a year.” We got a new CEO, a phenomenal leader, and that was his charge.

ThinkingDesign: What behaviors did you see in him that drove your later work?

DB: Intense focus on the customer. He spent huge amounts of time talking to plumbers, retailers, and homeowners. He was out there in the field. He also had an amazing ability to communicate to all different kinds of people. He could talk to truck drivers one day and then come back in and talk to Wall Street analysts the next. And he’d be compelling to both audiences.

The other thing he did was set the strategy for the company. He came in and said, “We can’t be world-class at everything.” All the ownership and everyone thought we could do everything, but he focused the organization and said we’d be the product innovators in our category, and that we'd have to say no to investments in other areas.

ThinkingDesign: Isn't “Innovation Lab” just another way of saying R&D?

DB: Most of the time, when you say R&D, people think about basic science. The innovation lab I set up and ran was about exploring consumer context in a much broader way. It was about exploring trends that may affect consumers or the industry well into the future, exploring emerging technologies that may be applied in some way to create whole new categories. We looked at the future of piping in the home and the effects it might have on faucets and shower experiences going forward. It wasn’t about basic science, though we had a technologist involved in it. It was about scanning for technology and looking to see if there were interesting ways to apply it.

ThinkingDesign: You know what’s funny? The first time I ran across you and Continuum was in a clip from the Today Show segment when you were in the shower.

DB: I was actually the client on that shower research. We brought Continuum in for it. I was their biggest client for six years. I brought them in to design a new line of products, and part of the deal was that they had to help us learn the product design process ourselves.

ThinkingDesign: As we know, you eventually did make the jump over to Continuum. Were you successful in helping Moen master the product development process themselves?

DB: Absolutely. They grew from $240 million to $1.1 billion in eight years, and only some of it was acquisition. A lot of it was the new products – about 20-25% of the growth came from new products. It was a pretty phenomenal experience. It was really fun and exciting to be part of the transformation, and once all those capabilities were in those place, it got kind of boring for me.

I’d always wanted to try consulting, and one day Continuum called me and asked me to come over.

ThinkingDesign: What’s the value in your relationship with the CCL, and partnerships like that in general?

DB: I got involved with the Center For Creative Leadership and ultimately became their “Innovator in Residence,” so I became an advisor to the EVP of research and innovation to try to find ways to make the center more innovative. I eventually worked on a really interesting project to bring their really expensive leadership training to rural India in low-cost ways. That was a really fun project that we did with them.

At one point, they were getting lots of requests for some programming in innovation and leadership, and they asked if I would be interested in developing something with them. One of the big hurdles to innovation is that a lot of leaders kind of get the idea that they need it and they like to talk about how innovative they want their organization to be. But they don’t behave or make the necessary changes for that to happen.

Leadership can be either a barrier or catalyst for innovation in organizations. So we co-developed a two day program that mashed up Continuum’s approach to innovation and the CCL’s approach to leadership, and it’s aimed at upper middle managers inside organizations. What we do is have them experience parts of the innovation process, then have the reflect on what they as a leader are going to have to do to foster a climate where it can happen.

ThinkingDesign: Is there a silver bullet there? And if a company goes from 0-60 in the innovation space, how long might that take?

DB: It all depends on the size of the organization, how committed the leadership is, the availability of the necessary resources to do it. Some of the companies I work with in developing countries just don’t have access to basic prototyping stuff. So there’s just basic infrastructure that needs to be in place. Generally, what happens is that some smaller group within the organization decides that, as a group or department, that they need to become more innovative, and they’ll undertake it themselves. For me, that’s one of the most successful models, because when they show success – drive growth, increase profits, whatever – the rest of the organization pays attention and starts to put some of that in their group, or the leadership says, "That’s really cool. We need to have some of that in the rest of the organization."

But it can take years. I think it takes longer in successful organizations, actually, because you don’t want to mess with success. When people are under particularly high levels of stress, they can be more willing to change.

We’re seeing a lot right now in organizations who have gone through the downturn and downsized and realize they can’t go back to the way they used to do things. So our business is booming right now, and I think that’s a large part of it -- people aren’t going back to the way things were before the downturn. They’re actively out getting new ways to do things.

ThinkingDesign: Any examples you can point to of that?

DB: Well, most of it is proprietary, but if you look at Indra Nooyi [of Pepsico] talk about "performance with purpose":

There’s a very enlightened leader that’s going to take Pepsi from a snack food company to a nutrition company, so that means you have to change a lot about the way you do things.

The Pepsi Innovation Fellowship Program is a component of a project we’re doing with them. To help Pepsi change the fellowship program is used to bring in young innovative thinkers. It’s a very enlightened program.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Intersection of Design, Public Education, and Community" with Project H's Emily Pilloton

Emily Pilloton is the founder and executive director of Project H Design, a  non-profit team of designers, builders, and teachers with a current focus on using design to re-envision public education.  She’s also the author of Design Revolution:  100 Products That Empower People.
Emily says her twin goal for the book was to make sure people know that humanitarian design isn’t just about products, and that it’s not just about the developing world.  To illustrate her point, she uses examples like the Brita water filter and WalkScore.com (a great website for promoting "walkable" neighborhoods) alongside more traditional humanitarian design products like Kickstart's water pumps in Africa.

In the book, she also points to some of her group’s own creations, like Learning Landscape, a grid-based playground system using reclaimed tires for elementary math education, as examples of designs that empower people.

                                       (The Learning Landscape in action)

Emily has been spreading the word about humanitarian design through public appearances at conferences like PopTech (she was one of their 2009 Social Innovation Fellows), and (not kidding) the Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Emily Pilloton
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

I recently spoke with Emily about her work with Project H, and how its scope has expanded recently.  She’s highly ambitious in her attempt to use design thinking and problem-solving to tackle some huge issues, like rural poverty, education, and community development through Project H's work in Bertie County, North Carolina.

But first things first...
ThinkingDesign:  How’d you get the invite to Stephen Colbert?  That must have been something.
Emily Pilloton:  They just asked me.  It was totally surreal.  He’s such a ham.  I totally have a non-romantic crush on him.

ThinkingDesign:  You handled him really well.
EP:  Thank you.  I totally blacked out.  I brought a posse with me, and afterward, I had no idea what I said and I asked them and they said, “I don’t know, but it was totally great!”
I was terrified.  I made the mistake of watching a bunch of different ones, and he just slays some people. I think it helps to have props, though, like the landmine shoes I brought.

ThinkingDesign:  How’d you get the idea to put your book together, and what was the process like?
EP:  In hindsight, when I was putting it together, Project H was not even a year old.  For us, the book was an exploration of what was out there, and we used it to sort of benchmark what had been done within humanitarian design. 

As a product designer, I sort of hate products.  And obviously there are products in there, but I wanted to show that humanitarian design is not just about products.  There are a lot of things in there that are websites or systems or just ideas or initiatives, and that they all came from a very specific design process.

I also wanted to make the case that humanitarian design is not just about the developing world.  There are a lot of things in the book that you can go out and buy at Target.  It’s not about the poor as much as it’s about smart, creative initiatives that came from the design process for a variety of markets.

ThinkingDesign:  Why do you hate products?
EP:  It’s not that I hate products; I love the idea of a product.  A thing that you can hold in your hand can have so much personality and impact on your life.  What I don’t like about products is how designers think of them.  A lot of times that’s the goal of a designer – it’s all about these artifacts that you can make a million of that you can sell and make money.

I’m much more interested in design as a process, and whether you come out of that process with a product or a house or a website or a business plan, that doesn’t really matter.  It’s the process that got me into design in the first place.

"Product design" just feels very outdated to me.  I’m interested in different models. Like, if someone commissions me to design a chair, why would I design a whole new chair when I can design something like craigslist, where people can go out and buy chairs in their neighborhoods, or get used ones for free?  Why do we always assume that the solution is a new product?

ThinkingDesign:  Okay.  Fair enough.  So you’re now working in education.  What’s meaningful to you about your current work?
EP:  More than a year and a half ago, we were approached by the superintendent of the Bertie County School District in North Carolina.  He asked us to come down here and build the learning landscape playground.  It’s made out of reclaimed tires, and you use it in combination with this whole series of games that we wrote that are in line with public school curricula. 

He wanted us to come down and build one for each of his elementary schools.  His district is falling apart at the seams. It’s the poorest county in the state, with 17 people per square mile.  In the whole county, there are three restaurants.  Up until a week ago, you couldn’t get Internet.  In many ways, it feels like the developing world.  It’s very rural.

So that’s how the relationship started.  We built the playgrounds and discovered that the superintendent was this amazing visionary and was brought in to fix the district.  As part of his strategic plan, he wanted to bring in young, innovative thinkers, and I guess we fell into that category.

So, learning landscape was the first project.  And we found out that he was this kindred spirit who really believed in design in a place where not many people even know what that word means.  He basically said, here’s my credit card.  Here’s your budget.  Go build three computer labs that will help get kids excited about technology.

                                (Coolest computer room in the county)

That led into a bunch of other projects.  We built a new weight room for the football team, then a big campaign for the whole county with this big green dot to try to get free broadband, which now we have.  Well, it’s not exactly free, but we now have cables that come out here now, which is the first step.

ThinkingDesign:  Do you live there now?
EP:  Yes, I do live here now. We moved here, because we were doing all of these projects, working with the superintendent.  But we got to the point where we still felt like consultants.  We were still doing projects and leaving.  We felt like we needed to be more a part of the community to get to the next level. These things were having impact, but they were still sort of viewed as like things from the beyond that were being dropped here.

And during the course of the year, we’d gotten to know a lot of the students and a lot of teachers, just by bringing them into design brainstorms or whatever.  We figured what better way to take the design to the next level than become teachers ourselves.  We believed that design could become more than something you hire consultants for, but something that could be bred from within in the public school system.

ThinkingDesign:  How have the students reacted?
EP:  It’s going to sound terrible, but the teachers here are not good, and the students haven’t ever been challenged.  I don’t think that anyone ever believed in them.  There’s just not a lot of pride in education.

What design has offered to these students is not only something hands-on – like our first project was to build corn hole boards.

   (I never thought I'd use Corn Hole and Design Thinking in the same sentence.)

Now we’re doing graphic design on them to auction them off to raise money for our next project, which is public chicken coops.  It’s not a text book to memorize for a test.  It’s something that these kids can pick up and understand, and it’s really challenging.  It applies all of their core subject learning.  

ThinkingDesign:  Do you teach this stuff as individual skills, or as a design thinking toolkit?
EP:  Both.  In the wood shop, they need to know how to use a router, a table saw and a chopsaw.  But we went into it and started at high-level design thinking.  We started with discussing the strategy they should take when they enter this space.  
We made a list of all the ways we could build the corn hole boards and ended up with four different ways.  The process helped them problem solve their way through it.  It’s important for them to take that problem-solving approach, and then learn tools like Illustrator so that they can go produce it.

ThinkingDesign:  To what extent are you trying to incubate ideas, processes, and solutions that other places can implement or learn from?
EP:  It’s really tough.  We get asked all the time -- like with this curriculum -- about how we’re going to scale it.  Of course I want to do that.  But one thing I’ve learned over the past two years is that it’s really dangerous if you celebrate too early.  I wanna make sure these things work first. Even with the computer labs- they’ve only been built and in use for a year now.  It’s an architectural solution, and we know it’s going to stand up, but it takes a long time to measure its effect on the students’ test scores and overall engagement.

With this one-year curriculum, I’d love to see it in other communities, but it takes time, and I’ve learned to take things sort of slow.
The other thing, with the Studio H program, we wrote it as a one-year program that you could conceivably drop into any rural school district.  But instead of scaling it that way, we’ve started looking at it from another way.  Could you take this program and turn it into an entire charter school?  Because right now, it’s only available to the junior class, so they spend the other three years doing the same old thing.  So that might be a different approach.  

ThinkingDesign:  Now you’ve gone from small-scale projects into huge, daunting community development and education projects.  What's your end game?
EP:  With Studio H, this not about us teaching design.  I don’t care at all if any of these kids go to design school.  That’s not why we’re in it at all.  But by the end of the year, they will have the creative and critical skills to call themselves designers. They’ll have the construction skills to call themselves industry-relevant contractors.  And so over next summer, we are going to hire them as our construction crew to build a farmer's market downtown.  So there is a community development angle here.  We’ll spend the summer practicing pouring foundations and actually building.
I’m really interested in that intersection between design, public education, and community. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Design for the BoP: Irrigating the "Perfect Solution" with DripTech's Peter Frykman

Peter Frykman is founder and CEO of DripTech, a low-cost drip irrigation company based in Palo Alto, CA.  I first met Peter when I moderated a “Design for Affordability” panel at last year’s Net Impact National Conference at Cornell.

I've since learned how extremely affordable DripTech's product is, and how important that is to the company's value proposition.  Says Peter:  "A small system could cost as little as $5, but typically farmers will invest $100 or more for a larger installation.  This is almost always purchased without any formal financing, though we look forward to adding this option in the future.  The purchase price of the system is usually paid back with 6 months in savings and gains."

A lot has changed in Peter’s world since last November, so I thought now would be a good time to catch up with the mechanical engineer-turned-start-up CEO.

I wanted to ask him about how design and the design thinking methodology he learned at Stanford has helped fuel DripTech’s growing success, and also how design thinking expands into business model development  as Peter and Co. begin to scale DripTech in India and China.  Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

ThinkingDesign:  How did your business idea come about?
PF:  Driptech was founded out of a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability at the d.school at Stanford.  The d.school is an interesting organization -- it’s an example of the benefits you get when you cross-pollinate and collaborate in different fields. 

                (Pollination or cross-pollination?  That's for Peter to know, and for you to find out.)

We were the only three-person team in the class:  one business student, one mechanical engineer (my background is in mechanical engineering – I studied that as an undergrad and stayed on to do masters degree), and one designer from the masters program in product design.  I had been familiar with the Stanford methodology for user-based design for some time, but that was my first experience working with business students.

Our product designer had a good business sense, and I was good at product design.  Our business student was really good at corralling us.  We were prone to getting wound up on tangents and going crazy with some of the design, so she did an effective job at managing our progress. 

ThinkingDesign:  How’d you go from taking the design from class to actually starting the company?
PF:  The best advice I ever got was from a mentor and advisor.  I told him I thought I was entrepreneurial and wanted to start a company or join a start-up, and could he give me any advice?  He said that, every year, about 50 people came into his office and told him the same thing that I had just told him.  The only difference between them, he said, was the ones that started a company just did, and the ones that didn’t didn’t.  They were all smart motivated people.  He said:  “If you want to be entrepreneurial, you just have to go do it.”

ThinkingDesign:  How do you design differently for the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) than for the developed world?
PF:  To me, design thinking has to be user-focused.  It comes down to whether it’s participatory, whether the user is at the focal point of the design process.  In many ways it’s even more important that you involve the user heavily in the design process when you’re targeting the product or service towards an emerging market or BoP customer, because there’s less wiggle room in getting the value proposition right.  If you don’t get it perfectly right, it’s not very forgiving, because these customers don’t have a lot of capital. They’re unable to take lots of new technology risks, so you need to make sure it’s the perfect product for the customer before you sell it to them.

You and me buy all kinds of junk that’s not perfect because we have money and it’s not important.  We can buy something with three features that we like but five that don’t really fit because we’ve got that luxury of those extra financial resources, but that’s not necessarily the case for a farmer that earns $2/day.  They have to get what they need and nothing more.

                                                   (DripTech's "perfect product" in India)

ThinkingDesign:  How did you get to that “perfect product”? 
PF:  We were very fortunate that the product we were looking at – affordable drip irrigation – is a good product for lots of farmers.  If you’ve got an enormous market, then finding a niche that your product really fits can be easy.  And when you’re a start-up, you need to focus on getting those first customers and finding the farmers, in our case, for whom the product is a perfect fit, then branching out from there and adding additional products and configurations.  That's what opens up new markets and new market segments.
So, you go out and you meet with farmers, you design your product, and then you come back and deliver it to them and the farmers that are like them.  There’s no such thing as a product that will fit everybody’s needs, but you have to pick somewhere to start. 

One of the main challenges is that you have to pick your ideal customer, and then, when you go to market, you have to target that ideal customer.  Because ultimately, if you’re going to be sustainable and scalable, you have to get the ball rolling and start getting some volume.  That starts with your early adopter customers.

ThinkingDesign:  Where did you do your research?  And did you go back to them for feedback once you’d done the initial design?
PF:  We did our initial user research in Ethiopia and sent some of the product back to them once we had produced it.  But when we went to start the company, we needed to find a place that could be a little more welcoming in terms of market infrastructure – democracy and banks and the ability for us to come in and out and operate, and shops where people buy things – so when we looked at that, we saw that India is really the easiest place for us to start.  There are more subsistence farmers in India than there are in all of Africa. 
After we had done our initial product testing and shown that the product worked in the lab, we needed to show that it would work in the hands of actual customers, so we went and did a pilot study.

ThinkingDesign:  What did you find when you commissioned the pilot?
PF:  We had a small team and very limited resources, so we tested it with about 15 farmers, and they all said that this saved them water of course, but also time and labor.  And that was a big surprise for us, because we didn’t know how much labor flood irrigation requires.  And these farmers were quite happy that they didn’t have to do all this backbreaking work.  They could just turn the drip irrigation on and have their elderly father watch it and turn it off when it was done and go do other work.

People will always say that BoP customers won’t pay to reduce their labor, because it’s a sunk cost and their own time that they’re not paying for out of pocket.  Sometimes that’s true, but they certainly appreciate it when you save them hard labor.  They might not pay much to forgo it, but they are certainly happy when it happens.

                                                 (Some very appreciative Indian farmers)

ThinkingDesign:  So you’d proved that the product worked.  How did you prove the business model from there?
PF:  We knew the product was good, but we had to show that people were willing to buy it at a price we could make money on and scale with.  We started looking at where we could make our first sale, so we actually got connected with somebody who introduced us to local government officials in China.  They wanted to buy our product for local farmers, and that was how we made our first commercial sale to 200 farms through a local government in China.  We went over and installed those at the beginning of this year.

Now, the farmers have been using the system for at least six months and we’re getting great results back.   

ThinkingDesign:  Have you found any unintended uses of the product, or people imitating it yet?
PF:  No imitators yet.  Of course, there are lots of commercial drip irrigation companies out there.  Our system have these little micro-jets of water, which are really neat because you can see them squirting up at the same height if the holes are facing up.  We always install them with the holes facing up as a technical test, but what we realized is that, usually when we do an installation like this, it looks really cool.  So all the kids in the area come out into the field and sort of play in the system.  So that’s been an unintended use for our product – as entertainment for the local children.

                                     (An unintended but wonderful use for DripTech's design)

ThinkingDesign:  You have to design the whole business spiel -- the supply chain, the business development and sales infrastructure and all that.  Do you revisit the design thinking process at all from here on out?
PF:  I think the concept of rapid prototyping and iterative design is really ingrained in our company culture, so even when we’re thinking about business model and marketing materials and anything that’s sort of customer –facing, we go through the same process and we get a lot of quick ideas and test and refine them.  And that’s kind of who we are. 

We’re very methodical about testing things out, and of course, there are lots of good examples of models that have started to work in this space for distribution and marketing, so we can borrow from other peoples’ success as well.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eating Should Be Simpler -- Thoughts on Michael Pollan and "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

I just finished Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and am grateful to him for removing yet another of the veils that industry attempts to cast over us through clever marketing:  that all eggs are the same, that all meat is the same, etc.

The design of food systems that are hurting (some might say destroying) the health of a civilization that lacks a consistent, traditional food culture (i.e. the U.S.A) is surely design -- and power -- placed in the wrong hands.  What the book did for me was to deliver the design of my own eating and drinking and consuming back into my own hands.

I marvel at the widespread impact Michael Pollan's work has now had on our society -- the benefits that thoughtful journalism can still provide.  And yet, after all his work and all his reporting, one of Pollan's most lasting contributions for me is his newer book, "Food Rules", in which he summarizes his philosophy on food and eating in 7 words:  "Eat food, mostly plants, not too much."

Here's a really entertaining, short interview from the Daily Show that encapsulates much of what's both wrong and right with food today:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Michael Pollan
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Open Innovation at Frog, IDEO, and GOOD

I'm sure there are plenty more, but IDEO, Frog Design, and GOOD are really darn, uh... excellent at doing open innovation and crowdsourcing.  Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure if I can call them excellent at this, since I don't know the actual outcomes yet.  But here's some info on them:

OpenIDEO sources ideas from the crowd on how to make the world a better place:

Introduction to OpenIDEO / OpenIDEO.com from IDEO on Vimeo.

FrogMob solicits ethnographic data from the crowd to "gather a quick visual pulse on behaviors, trends and artifacts globally."  It aims to give a rich visual description of how products are used globally.

GOOD gathers ideas and content for their magazine issues from the crowd on topics ranging from Work to New Orleans to Water.  Fascinating what they come up with.

Who else does this well?  I'd love to hear about the groundbreakers in this space that I'm surely not aware of.  Thanks!