Design Thinking and Innovation: 101 Methods for Success

By Madanmohan Rao
June 06, 2014, Updated on : Thu Sep 05 2019 07:30:18 GMT+0000
Design Thinking and Innovation: 101 Methods for Success
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Innovation and design thinking certainly seem to be some of the hottest business buzzwords these days – after all, long term success comes not just from creative brilliance but a commitment to discipline, structure and rigour as well.


Illinois Institute of Technology’s Prof. Vijay Kumar has put together a useful compendium of design thinking toolkits for innovators in his book 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organisation.

The book combines the science and art of innovation, and presents a practical set of collaborative tools to make innovation activities reliable and repeatable. The material is spread across 326 pages, and is richly illustrated with colour photos and graphics showing innovation teams and collaterals. The author frequently references the bestseller Ten Types of Innovation (see my review). See also my earlier reviews of the books Innovation Expedition and Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation.

The author defines innovation as ‘a viable offering that is new to a specific context and time, creating user and provider value.’ Successful innovation requires a focus on overall experiences and not just on products, execution in ecosystems and networks, and a multi-disciplinary design focus.

The core focus of the book is on four stages of the innovation spiral: research, analysis, synthesis and realisation. Innovation activities go back and forth between these four quadrants, between real world phenomena and abstract frameworks, in a non-linear iterative manner.

Within these quadrants, the author presents seven categories of 101 design methods: sense intent, know context, know people, frame insights, explore concepts, frame solutions, and realise offerings. Here are my key takeaways from these categories of design methods and their applications.

1. Sense Intent

In this step, companies need to figure out what major changes are taking place in the world, which space they want to play in, and where they want to grow. The focus should be on the big picture, megatrends, overviews, and an intent to address a problem space, eg. Amazon’s intent to get into e-book readers, Peapod Labs identifying educational apps for children, Singapore Polytechnic deciding to include more projects in its curriculum.

Deign methods useful in this stage are buzz reports (from news scans), cultural trackers, expert interviews, sourcebook of innovation types (offering, process, delivery, finance), trends matrix and convergence maps.

2. Know Context

In this phase, the innovator moves from overall trends to specific surrounding conditions for target audiences. The focus is on deep inspection of industries, stakeholders, competitors, and mental models, eg. Apple’s reading of the post-Napster world, use of social media in Obama’s earlier campaign, and ClubV’s analysis of the edutainment market.

Design methods applicable here are era maps, innovation evolution maps, financial profiles of companies and offerings, contextual research, analogy maps, competitor-complementor-collaborator diagrams, Michael Porter’s Five Forces model (potential entrants, substitute offerings, customers/buyers, suppliers, competitors), SWOT analysis, and interest groups.

3. Know People

The company now focuses on specific end users, their needs and behaviours. Empathy, observation, personal engagement and problem solving are indispensable parts of the design process. Immersion in users’ daily lives, open listening and deep dives into their problems and aspirations is called for.

This mindset is shown via Twitter continually modifying its offerings to the needs of the users and advertisers, Japanese car manufacturers understanding how Indians place religious objects in cars, Fiat opening itself up to ‘large-scale listening’ to 10,000 ideas from 17,000 members, the Communidad Diabetes project using a cards kit to understand diabetes behaviours in Latinos.

The author shows a number of design tools in action in this phase: 2X2 matrix of research participants, user research plans, human factor analysis (physical, cognitive, social, cultural, emotional), POEMS framework (people, objects, environment, messages, services), field visits, active/passive video/photo ethnography, interviews, cultural artifacts, image sorting exercises, and simulations. All these should be stored in a user observations repository or database.

4. Frame Insights

In this phase, the company moves from real world research into ideas and insights, which can then be converted into actionable principles for innovation. The aim is exploration, looking for patterns, locating gaps, making conjectures, and identifying opportunities.

Examples here include Google deciding to keep Android an open ecosystem, innovators mining open data from San Francisco and New York for visual insights, Amazon eyeing products beyond books, National Hockey League identifying offerings for new fans, frugal innovations such as Godrej’s Chotukool, and even Gandhi’s insights into the connections between rights, identity and political movements.

Useful design methods applicable here are symmetric and asymmetric clustering, cluster recombinations, value webs, ERAF diagrams (entities, relations, attributes, flows), Venn diagrams (to identify overlaps and outliers), tree/lattice hierarchies, position mapping (to identify extremes and transitions), user group definitions, user experience maps (defined, fres, immersive, accessible, significant, transformative), user journey maps, and, finally, design principles generation.

5. Explore concepts

With this phase, the innovators now move from the world of inquiries and observations into the world of possibilities and offerings, from brainstorming into specific concepts. On the one hand, they should challenge assumptions and examine the world as if they are already in the future – at the same time they should be seeking clearly added value and explaining how it could work in scenarios.

This, for example, is how IBM moved from manufacturing to services, US National Parks explored tree planting excursions, ThinkeringSpaces chose flexible surface design for children’s educational aids, and why Kickstarter requires aspiring founders to submit story videos.

Design methods applicable here are ideation sessions, ideation games, opportunity mapping (offering, system, strategy), value proposition statements, storytelling, storyboards, persona definition, concept matrix, metaphors/analogies, role play, puppets, scenarios, prototypes (form, simulation), concept clusters and concept catalogues.

6. Frame Solutions

In this phase, the company moves from concepts to solutions with rationale, value frameworks and scenarios. Solution prototypes (both appearance and performance), storyboards, value networks, role play, foresight scenarios, and solution roadmaps are useful here, with all results being archived in a solutions database.

Solution diagrams are particularly relevant, of various types: relations (networks, matrix), groupings (venn), hierarchies (trees, lattice), process (flow, time series), locations (map) and quantities (bar, pie). Innovators should look at tactical solutions (short term), strategic solutions (mid term) and visionary solutions (long term), with value implications for users and providers. Examples include Microsoft’s vision videos to project future uses of Kinect in medical rehabilitation, and Inventables planning toolkits for designers.

7. Realise Offerings

In this phase (not quite final, since more research and new prototypes may again be called for), actual offerings are rolled out and communicated. Prototypes are realised, implemented, evaluated and pitched to the audience. Examples here are the Wright brothers creating gliders before actual planes, Facebook rolling out different versions of its social media platform, and Kennedy announcing the moon mission.

The design toolkit here includes strategy roadmaps, pilot projects, platform plan (core and options), team matrix, implementation plans, competency maps, innovation briefs for marketing channels, and vision statements.

In sum, the author provides a range of tools to support his five key insights into innovation: (1) innovation is a discipline, not a mystery (2) innovation process needs clear modes, mindsets and methods (3) four primary forces shape innovations: business, technology, design, and society (4) innovations need collaboration and teamwork (5) common innovation processes benefits many diverse projects and sectors.

Some of the material seems repetitive, but that’s perhaps because each method section can be read independently of the others. A list of references or further reading would have rounded off the material perfectly. Overall, the book certainly deserves a place in the reading list for entrepreneurs as well as aspiring corporate and social innovators.

Author profile:

Vijay Kumar is a professor at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. With over 30 years of experience on design innovation, he is a methodologist, planner, teacher, and advisor. He has consulted to numerous global organisations such as Autodesk, Bose, Daishinsha, Hallmark, Kraft Foods, Liberty Mutual, Motorola, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, SAS Airlines, T-Mobile, Texas Instruments and Wells Fargo. Kumar has also led his design consulting practice in India for more than seven years. He completed a bachelor of science from the University of Kerala and program in product design at National Institute of Design in India.