3 Techniques for Better Design Innovation

Design innovation articles justifiably focus on sprints, collaboration, and creativity as we did in 5 tips for innovative UX designs. Here, we focus on the frequently overlooked field of decision science.

Design Innovation Technique 1: Role Play

design innovationThere’s a famous story about former Intel CEO Andy Grove. Initially, Intel had thrived by manufacturing computer memory. As market conditions shifted, the profit margin for memory decreased. Grove realized that a change was necessary and employed a simple technique to identify a new direction for Intel.

In discussions with the COO, Grove asked what would happen if the board fired him, and a new CEO joined to lead the firm. What would the new CEO do? “Microprocessors,” replied the COO. Grove agreed, and thus began a new era. Intel invested heavily in microprocessor designs and grew to become the dominant supplier of microprocessors for PCs.

Grove and the COO forged a new direction and literally re-designed the computer industry. If this isn’t design innovation, I’m not sure what is.

As this anecdote illustrates, the role-play technique itself is straightforward. Persuading leaders to take it seriously is not always easy. If you disagree, think about the number of innovative ideas and designs that are never considered because “that’s not how we do things around here.”

Lip service is irrelevant. Genuine design innovation requires temporarily removing yourself from the equation to gain a fresh perspective.

Design Innovation Technique 2: Mental Simulation

design innovation decisions

The conventional approach to decisions is to assess a series of options and then select the best in the series. The idea behind this time-tested approach is to avoid rushing to a possibly erroneous decision. While rational and straightforward, three concerns emerge:

  • Choosing from a fixed list of options can constrain creativity.
  • While it’s wise to look before you leap, assessing many options can lead to analysis paralysis.
  • This approach does not work well in environments requiring quick, decision action.

Psychologist Gary Klein’s offers an alternative based on his extensive research with firefighters and neo-natal intensive car nurses. When assessing a raging fire, firefighters literally do not have time to evaluate various options. Instead, they engage in mental simulation. They play out a single scenario in their minds to determine if it’s likely to succeed. If success is likely, they take immediate action. If not, they turn to another option. Nurses perform the same exercise when deciding how to care or extremely sick infants. Klein and other researchers have found this technique extremely effective with an important caveat. Only experts with deep experience can perform this mental simulation. A brand new firefighter could not reliably engage in this exercise.

Even if your work environment does not require rapid-fire decision-making, there’s no harm in experimenting. You might find mental simulation a fun and useful alternative to the weighing list options one-by-one.

Design Innovation Technique 3: Conceptual Model

Decision expert Michael Robert suggests another unconventional approach to decision making. Company leaders can identify specific conceptual models and then assign staff to use these different models during the decision-making process. The objective is to induce each person to launch his inquiry from a different vantage point. When people come back together, they often find out that they have come to different conclusions about how to proceed.

Imagine that your company is deciding whether to launch a new mobile app. A common approach is to send a survey to potential customers, evaluate the responses, and then conduct more in-depth research with a small number of prospects; focus groups and in-depth interviews are often employed.

This approach is reasonable but not without risk. What if the focus groups settle into group think despite the best efforts of a skilled moderator? What if the in-depth interviews yield results that are all over the place? What if these qualitative methods point to the need for a larger, quantitative study, but time is tight, and resources are limited.

Instead, gather a small team and assign each person a single research method such as:

  • Conducting a financial analysis of similar products already on the market. What is the estimated cost for developing a similar app? What is the likely ROI? How crowded is the market likely to be by the time the app will be released?
  • Performing a series of expert reviews of similar mobile apps. What works well? What needs improvement? Are there serious gaps in functions and features?

It’s not necessary to perform these specific analyses; there are many types of research and assessment. The point is for team members to view the challenge through several lenses in tandem rather than reviewing a list of options as a group. The problem with the latter approach is that it often occurs in a meeting room with a handful of people and a white board. Rather than draw on facts, research, and reporting, decisions are informed by highly subjective opinions.

Organizations that thrive in the design innovation space move beyond the conference room and conventional approaches to decision making. Role play, mental simulation, and shifting conceptual models keep decision making fresh and innovation design moving forward.