Innovation Research: How to design a retro-futuristic cruise ship for families with children.

When it comes to innovation, established Market Research – be it by interviewing 5 people around the world and often writing a self-serving analysis, or by “1 – 10 monkey surveys” – is worthless. Steve Jobs agreed: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” To no surprise, the success rate of new product innovation, design and launch to market is dire. Google it and you will find many resources that tell you that at least 50% of products fail in the market despite market research and planning. The simple take-away: customers cannot tell you what they want – innovation requires observation and phantasy.

Sony’s Akio Morita said: “Carefully watch how people live, get an intuitive sense as to what they might want and then go with it.” Innovation also requires imagination and simulation – for me this means designing not just with sketches or computer renderings but with real-world models and working prototypes, physical and virtual.

People who have worked with me know that I always design with models, starting with rough foam models all the way to near perfect product resemblance – some indeed have been mistaken for the real thing and were stolen at tradeshows only to be turned in for repair with our customer’s (Sony) service department. The single biggest advantage of models is the complete unity of size, shape, function, weight and interaction, which establishes an instant relationship with the object. Therefore, my students have to start their education with basic foam modeling, transitions of shapes and building simple mechanisms. Unfortunately, many designers never move beyond sketching and computer renderings and as a result, they have little sense of form. 3D printing is the new tool of choice, but it should be used just as an iterative tool-of-proof during the design process and then at the end.

frog’s success has been based on models – neither Sony nor Apple had model shops when we started our relationships – and it always took many models before a product went to market.

Logically, Steve Jobs copied the frog model shop at Apple with a nod to our process, and so did Sony and my university in Shanghai. Since I left frog, I built my models with my friend and former frog, Rolf Milesi at Supermodelli and his team. By putting realistic-looking and behaving models in the hands of potential customers, we gain insights into their unmet needs. We can have a conversation with them about how a product might fit into their lives and how it will be used. We observe how they hold the product, look at it and interact with it. Then we designers can go back and take the next step of refinement.

At one point frog started the practice of design research ahead of the design process because many clients believe in the illusion of “paper facts” and “data”. I never bought into this and I believe that the traditional “frog way” of concept models allowed for deeper and more contextual conversations. I also like to hang out in shops and tradeshows and talk to people about the products surrounding them. Having a product or prototype to start a discussion has always been my preferred method. Point being, I was always a sceptic when it comes to design research, especially if it results in long documents with zero emotional resonance. Executive decision makers never get that message without anything tangible as they are too removed from their own employees and customers and again, for me models and prototypes always were a good bridge builder. I understand that there are good researchers but methodologies for innovation are limited – especially in a global market were traveling for a few interviews is expensive. The worst method is focus group testing within a fake environment or surveys that rate an experience from 1 to 10. Meaningless data that never can support innovation. What does customer’s “love or hate on a level 5” even mean. I just looked at a 109-page survey result with experiences rated between positive and neutral. What is neutral? Mediocre?

Now, I always had a highly critical yet supportive partner at frog: my wife Patricia. After many discussions around the challenges of global innovation research, she decided to take our frog methodology into the space of mobile selfie-video research that can capture customers around the world – in their environment and in scalable numbers. This technology comes with a robust back-end that enables a smart way to analyze the videos quickly for results. Their output in form of video insights resonates with decision makers, and the global access to customer insights is desperately needed. For example, most European car companies will only experience sustainable growth if they understand the innovative forces driving the dynamic markets in China and East Asia. As I work and teach there many months of the year, it is a market of completely different needs and purchasing decisions. In addition to models, I now also believe in mobile video as a way to observe people within their environment and to be inspired to design for a cool future.

Vidlet‘s team of former frogs and folks from IDEO is wickedly smart in asking video questions in a whole new way – almost like a new language. I will never give up my love and need for models and what they do to understand customer needs, but customer stories via mobile selfie-video are a winner.

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