How to earn a Return On Innovation

May 17, 2001
Upper managers at some companies seem to think products appear magically under toadstools. But there is to magic about how a development process can lead to innovation.

Bill Dresselhaus
Dresselhaus Design Group
Portland, Oreg.

Edited by Leland Teschler

Explanations that are exclusively verbal can lead to misunderstandings. One example of this phenomenon occurred in the development of InFocus Corp.'s innovative CableWizard product. The original idea of shaping it like a hockey puck was rejected until FUSE, a Portland, Oreg., industrial design firm (, executed 2D and 3D sketches and mockups of circular versus rectangular product shapes. Visualizing and simulating the round "puck" concept, with developed details of form and features, made the difference.

This general schematic of a product-development process will vary in detail between projects and products. The process is both cyclic and linear. Any implementation of it needs a balance between continuous iteration and simply getting the job done.

Facilities for designers at RKS Design Inc. (, Thousand Oaks, Calif., include space for collaborative brainstorming, simulation, and modeling. Overall, there are provisions for both clients and staff to work either independently or interactively.

Industrial design and development consultancy FUSE Inc. (, Portland, Oreg., is known for quickly and creatively conceptualizing innovative product ideas and turning them into real products. Typical steps in the process include devising mockups, getting a variety of users to interact with them, and engaging potential users and developers in perfecting aspects of the final product.

Companies that use the words "empowerment" and "out of the box thinking" to describe product development should be leaders in innovation. However, this is not necessarily so. Management may give lip service to innovative products and processes, but development budgets are often the first to get slashed when future earnings look punk. Studies have proven that even overbudget development dollars have the least impact on negative revenue and can have the most impact on better profitability. If product development is bad, then everything else will be bad.

How, then, does the design engineer devise innovative products in an environment driven primarily by quarterly profits? I submit that the best strategy is, frankly, to try and beat the system. One important tactic is to promote and foster a "culture of simulation," where simulation is used to overcome negativity towards new or innovative ideas. By simulation, I do not mean finite-element analysis, the narrow view held by some design

engineers. A simulation can be as simple as a sketch on a napkin or a diagram on a whiteboard. It is anything that moves an idea beyond a verbal-based description towards realization. Routine simulation of ideas and concepts is an effective way of getting around the repressive culture that often arises when corporate departments are driven only by limited vision and shareholder demands.

One of the problems designers face in creating environments conducive to innovation is that management sometimes holds a rather dim view of nontraditional product-development activities or processes. Some executives think products go through a quick design phase based on the first idea to come up, and then go immediately to full production. Others view product development as just a short interim phase prior to manufacturing set-up.

In actuality, there are six fundamental, generic phases in the product development process. This may come as a surprise, perhaps even to some in the trenches, who may think six phases is about four too many.

There are at least two problems that arise with supposed simpler or abbreviated models. First, each of the six phases requires its own time and resources. Ignoring or diminishing a phase misses the output that comes from it, effectively impoverishing the next phase as well as the end product.

Second, each phase needs proactive facilitation, unlikely to happen if management is unaware of the existence or purpose of that phase. In either case, the result will be a misconceived, malnourished new product, which probably won't survive to adulthood.

Concepts come first
The first real stage of a product's evolution is concept development, fed by early raw ideas. It is separate from design development and engineering development, the next two phases. One of the benefits of treating concept development as a separate, distinct phase is that the ideas and concepts that come out of it often empower a company to do more than its competitors that may use the same product technology.

In today's intense customer-oriented product culture, creative product usability ideas often flow from a focus on early and aggressive concept generation and development. A product that is genuinely easy to use, or, better yet, even compelling to use, is what often sets it apart as the market leader.

Successful concept development involves tactics such as 2D and 3D idea sketching and many other varieties of simulation for defining problems and finding needs. It includes brainstorming and ideageneration sessions, as well as risk assessments and plenty of research. The best product developers often dedicate special war rooms or interaction spaces for concept development where there are tools and facilities for idea generation, interaction and presentation.

Concept simulation is a proven vehicle for getting others involved in various aspects of the effort to share ideas. When people are engaged in exchanging ideas, creative collaboration comes naturally.

Indeed, collaboration has become another of those corporate buzzwords. What is so interesting about the hyperbole surrounding the term is that it makes it sound almost mysterious and complicated. But collaboration is simply the result of engagement with an idea. Get people engaged and you won't have to worry about collaboration. It will simply happen. And, simulation is absolutely the key to engagement.

Poor mindsets are often a big obstacle to developing a focus on simulation. Tell engineers to describe an idea, and they often begin scribbling numbers and formulas and talking about them. Too often, the most common forms of communication in a product-development environment are verbal and alphanumeric. The problem is that numbers and words simply do not convey concepts well enough to give others a good understanding of what one really has in mind.

Poor or inadequate communication leads to incorrect mental models, ultimately resulting in inappropriate actions and reactions. What an audience perceives as reality is what they will go away with and act upon. Incorrect perceptions will lead to bad actions, bad planning, bad decisions, and subsequently bad results and products.

When a product concept is described and discussed only verbally, the participants must translate such verbal interaction into their best mental models. Typically, everyone will have varied perceptions based on their interpretations. It is not surprising, then, that vastly different mental images will form of what has been presented, and that individuals go away and act upon them inappropriately. The results are generally unfortunate.

One example of this phenomenon occurred in the development of InFocus Corp.'s innovative CableWizard product. When design engineer Jory Olson first proposed his brilliant idea of a round, puck shape for this revolutionary data/video projector interconnection product, it was immediately rejected. Why? Because Jory initially said to the development team: "Why not make it round like a hockey puck?" The resulting perceptual images turned off his listeners and they defaulted to preferring the more obvious rectangular form-factor alternatives.

It was not until Mark Schoening, principal of FUSE, a Portland, Oreg., industrial design firm, was brought in to execute 2D and 3D sketches and mockups of circular versus rectangular product shapes that Jory's audience recognized the value of his idea. The original concept, fully conceived in Jory's mind, of course, was right on. But the images conjured by his audience from his first verbal description nearly killed it. Visualizing and simulating the round "puck" concept, with developed details of form and features, made the communication (and success) difference.

It is not really all that surprising that Jory had trouble conveying his idea verbally. Verbal communication stimulates the left side of the brain, the part associated with logical, verbal, and abstract faculties. This tends to repress the right side of the brain, the creative, visual, and concrete lobe.

The purpose of visual simulation is to get right-brain, three-dimensional creative thinking involved. To do this, enlightened companies often set up special "simulation labs." These labs will, of course, often have computers in them for digital/virtual simulation, but also, and perhaps even more important, lots of simulation materials available like pieces of foam, cardboard, wood, simple tools, drawing materials, glue, and the like for any and all forms of quick and interactive simulation. And whiteboards, lots of whiteboards, especially the kind that can capture and print the image on the board.

Using multiple media appropriately for simulation of ideas will optimize understanding and results. Clear communication uses language that appeals to the appropriate senses and is a key to innovation. The trademarked term for this is Sensorization, or going beyond just visualization. Auditory ideas should be presented to the ears for hearing, not just by frequency charts or data. Ideas requiring visual evaluation should be presented visually.

The same goes for kinesthetic, tactile, or olfactory ideas: using appropriate sensory simulation. Verbal or alphanumeric data is appropriate and useful to a certain extent, but, for example, one can't "hear" a graph of an audio driver's frequency response. Interactions with multiple modes of simulation have a better chance of creating perceptual models that are uniform and clear. The understanding that results will lead to better actions, planning, decisions, results, and productivity, especially when groups are involved.

An example of this took place when the product-marketing group for one high-tech company proposed an innovative interconnection system. The idea looked plausible on paper, but it seemed to some that there might be problems using the components. To test viability early, the industrial design firm, FUSE, was brought in to mock up the system and let team members handle the pieces.

The mockups were made of simple materials and constructed to simulate the system components and interconnections in their basic forms. A group interaction session revealed that the system, as originally proposed, could be too easily interconnected incorrectly, and the complex mix of connectors and cables was confusing to the user.

However, at least two viable alternative designs fell out of interacting and exploring with the physical mockups. In addition, an engineer simply passing by the session was immediately engaged by the mockups and saw another alternative solution that hadn't occurred to anyone else.

Something happens psychologically to people who use well-designed products. Using such products makes people feel good about themselves as well as think positively about the product's source organization. RKS Design Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif., has come up with a proprietary way of finding out how customers view products. The trademarked term for it is Psycho-Aesthetics, developed by RKS founder and president, Ravi Sawhney.

The issue is much more than simply whether the product exceeds performance expectations. Does using the product make users happy? Do they feel good about themselves because they own and use it? Is the experience of using the product a rewarding and positive one? These questions are critically important to ask and rather difficult to answer objectively. The RKS methodology pokes into such questions with the answers feeding an iterative development process. The idea is to move efforts constantly toward providing users with high psychological as well as economic value.

Focus groups and user interactions have long been used for product market research. However, the engagement process is too often primarily verbal. Queries concerning user expectations and responses to existing products are the usual fare, although questions regarding proposed or imaginary new products or features are also submitted, though, again, often only verbally.

Unfortunately, verbally based interaction frequently does not lead to the kind of data needed for useful new product and feature definition. Such data often actually creates confusion and disparate results instead of resolution. Computer simulation and rapid prototyping tools make it possible to avoid such difficulties by realistically simulating product ideas at early stages of market research. Rather than creating unreliable mental models from verbal descriptions, virtual and physical interactive representations can result in more useful and valid human responses, and consequently far better products.

Cultural issues
Simulations themselves are often just plain fun as well as highly productive. The effort needed, however, to develop a corporate culture where simulations can flourish may not be fun and, in fact, may be quite difficult. Some companies simply do not have operating mentalities that are conducive to simulation and focusing on concept development. Getting simulation off the ground in such situations is tough.

One problem is the fear factor: simulations often reveal unanticipated problems or serious design flaws. This should be an obviously good outcome of the process, but for some it can make the simulation process intimidating.

One can throw a lot of verbal you-know-what around about an idea that sounds pretty good, but in reality may show up to be a bomb when demonstrated or simulated. What needs to be recognized is that, in the absence of simulation, these unanticipated, unseen problems can wind up in the final product, perhaps spelling its doom.

It is all too easy to take a poor or sloppy stab at simulation and botch things due to an inadequate approach. Typically the physical drawings, making of models, or simulation process itself are not where problems occur. It is in the support of these processes and the ideas that stimulate them.

Applying the 80/20 Rule, it is quite probable that 80% of all ideas generated by people in companies get discarded, ignored, or never even heard. Certainly not all ideas are good ones. Nevertheless, companies that have a culture recognizing that everyone from the CEO down to the lowest-level employee can have legitimate and creative ideas, and that promote the expression and simulation of these ideas for evaluation, tend to have a far more successful, profitable, and innovative product-development enterprise.

Without simulation, it is tough to tell the good ideas from the bad ones. Besides recognizing the legitimacy of ideas from all levels, management must also fund and support a simulation culture. Setting aside war rooms for brainstorming is one aspect of this, as are special "forensic labs" for dissecting competing or similar products.

Frankly, however, where most companies fall down on simulation is in providing enough funds for training on tools. Powerful and affordable MCAD and CAID product-development simulation software is increasingly available in most companies. The developers, designers, and engineers using the tools unfortunately often do not get enough training to optimize their productivity and value to the company from these tools. Having the best tools to do a job is pretty inefficient if the users are not at maximum competence in their applications and productivity.

It takes courage to advocate simulation in companies where the culture is one of an operations mentality. Here, for example, it may be tough to even get manufacturing personnel to sit on a development team working on up-front design concepts. Simulation and early participation on concepts may be viewed as risky or unproductive: it requires putting money, people, and time up front and early in the process much more than has been the case in previous projects, especially for a group traditionally perceived as back-end.

There is risk of ridicule as well. Some people, and perhaps some highly placed, may wonder why their designers and engineers are playing with cardboard boxes and foam blocks when there is "real" work to be done.

Additionally, simulations, even simple ones, can provide answers or resolution so quickly that the process and results can be deceptively trivial. Simulation outcomes can seem obvious, once accomplished. But they are only obvious in hindsight. The problem is that simulation can make a course of action or solution seem so obvious or resolved so quickly that doubters will wonder why you wasted the time going through the exercise in the first place.

When wanting to implement innovative and risky programs and ideas in a company, it is helpful to remember something many old hands at development have found true: "Coward today, Scapegoat tomorrow." Developers who don't have the courage, often at the risk of their job, to fight for the process or idea that they know in their hearts s right for the product and company, most often end up paying the piper regardless when the product hits manufacturing and the marketplace without having done the right thing.

Why simplicity of use is important
Next time the marketing department wants you to add a few more features to the product you're working on, show them these graphs. They were originally devised by Bill Buxton, chief scientist at Alias/Wavefront and SGI, the world-class industrial design, special effects, and visualization software and hardware makers. Product features are good if and only if they make the product better and easier to use, not more difficult or confusing.

Though product features may increase, people's capacity to understand new concepts and tasks is finite. Problems frequently crop up when product developers expect too much of their potential customers with feature creep and too little attention to how the product is most likely to be used. The needs and capacities of the users must be the foremost consideration.

Bill Dresselhaus is an industrial designer whose credits include work on Apple Computer's Lisa machine in the early 1980s. He has written a book, ROI: Return On Innovation, available through his Web site, Images here are courtesy of Dresselhaus Design Group Inc. (which has also trademarked "Return on Innovation"), FUSE Inc. (, and RKS Design Inc. (

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