Where we are
Today’s Lab, in bullets:
- Went through all the reviewers’ comments from their 3-Ideas Presentations
- Students reacted and discussed them, adding their own comments
- Went over next week’s milestone: presenting 3 Sketch Models for each section
- Instructors gave their thoughts and notes to help navigate the design process
- Team split into their two sections. In my section, they:
- Gave themselves 25 minutes for Ideation
- Had a design pin-up to share their new ideas from that ideation session and from work over the weekend
- Worked through a Pugh Chart to organize their discussion on each product idea.
Two general topics emerged for me throughout this lab: The Power of Sketch Models, and the High Stakes of Early Idea Presentations.
The Power of Sketch Models
I find it fascinating that in my own work today I chose to make a Sketch Model for one of the concepts that I’m working on. We’re looking for what kinds of educational models can be built based on the structures of the inner ear’s semicircular canals that help us balance ourselves.
As it turns out: there’s a fascinating system of fluid swooshing past hair receptors that connect to your vestibular nerve to signal your brain whether or not you’re balanced. There are three tubes, or canals, for the fluid to swoosh around in, and each tube represents our x-, y-, and z-axis. You can see this easiest in the model below by picturing the connecting lines for each loop as it goes through the tupperware container: the three lines end up being orthogonal to each other.
And just like that: We have the basics of an Inertial Measurement Unit!
A model of the inner ear’s semicurcular canals using plastic tubing, tupperware, and balsamic vinegar.
The model sitting at the center of the lunch table, being passively and intricately examined.
What I needed to know today was:
- Can a physical inner ear model be made feasibly in our Studio?
- What are some of the variables that we could manipulate for a better educational model and exercise?
- Are inner ear semicircular canals interesting to play with?
If the answer to any of these questions was no, our design would probably not survive further development. These were things that needed to be cleared from the beginning, before we invested further development on the concept.
Critical questions should be addressed as early as possible.
By addressing the toughest questions first, you avoid spending time on an idea that may prove to be infeasible in the end. Nobody wants to work on something that you should have figured out, with a simple prototype/test early on, wasn’t feasible.
A Sketch Model is a rapid prototype made to answer a critical question that pertains to the viability of the design concept.
In other words, you want the bad news first. If the product is going to fail, you want to hear about that up front, early on, and before your sunk costs of time and effort keeps growing.
Really, more of the world should operate on the quick turn around times that Sketch Models give you. Agile testing and design processes…imagine that in the Supreme Court….
Early Ideas, High Stakes
Everything begins with an idea.
How do ideas get weeded out?
Sometimes it’s the outspoken ones. Sometimes it’s the emotionally backed ones. An sometimes, it’s the intriguing, promising ones. Truth is, it’s really hard to predict which idea pitch is going to be successful. In fact, most Venture Capitalist don’t ever award their investments on the basis of the idea. Nay. Instead, they invest in the team, knowing that together, they will take an idea —some idea, maybe one that hasn’t crossed their path yet— farther than any other team.
But in the product design game—say, once you’re part of a product design firm— the team is already chosen, now the name of the game is choosing a product idea that will be successful to bring revenues to the company. And with that, idea selection is no longer an arbitrary determinant.
If we could just have some verifier, some evaluator of ideas that can tell us how strong this idea is, we could just run through discussions much more effectively…We would have something like a template for ideas, and our smart computers would look up any existing relationships between the different components of the idea— basically, looking up the structure of the idea and comparing it against a database of previously identified successful or unsuccessful ideas. Perhaps it’s the approach to the problem, or the relationships drawn by the idea, or it might even be the combinations of technology, user, context that determine the idea’s success factor, but something’s gotta be possible.
As I learned in today’s Ted Radio Hour podcast, “The Source of Creativity” from Elizabeth Gilbert: Humans have been making art for 30,000 years, and only doing agriculture for 10,000 years. As she puts it, that means it was more important for them to create and express their ideas than to figure out a way to feed themselves regularly!
I simply argue that with so many ideas accumulated over time there must be a way to systemize their evaluation so that we are better ideators, decision-makers, and VC investors.
Idea pitches: From objectively detached to emotionally engrossed
The first day the students pitched the ideas they came up with at home, you could tell you were in an MIT lab. With a few exceptions, the idea pitches were sterile, objective, detached. I suspect that was the students’ best attempts at remaining scientifically accurate when dealing with personal ideas in a democratic team decision.
Today, however, the idea pitches were exponentially more emotional, contextual, and padded with stories. The ideas stuck out as their presenters painted a vivid picture of the product’s potential: it’s use case, what it could look like or do for you, even the impact it could have for “the world at large”.
I suspect this shift happened because since their first lab, they’ve had to present 3 well-thought out Ideas that had them:
- Do market research (identifying what segment the user lives in),
- Find existing customers to buy their product, and
- Consider the technical feasibility of the product.
Now that they’ve gotten substantive feedback on ideas presented in this format, they can appreciate including this information, instead of kidding themselves that it was possible (or feasible) to ignore that information in the first place.
The idea pitches now are more substantive, more loaded with content, and more discussion-ready. The information is still scientifically accurate, but it also adds layers of information to the idea, such as a persona for the potential user at the end of the design process.
The space where the idea is going to live— its user, its use case, its technology— all of this needs to be pitched.
Otherwise, we risk misunderstanding, or worse, letting an idea go by that had plenty of unspoken potential. The trouble is that the “scientifically minded” still interpret this information as them trying to make the case for their idea, instead of just offering the simple backbone of the idea— no dressing it up— and having the team choose it.
These two things— providing context for understanding and providing schmoozing points to sell an idea— should not be confused. In fact, understanding the difference could come to make or break an idea. And that’s a game we can’t afford to lose.
A teaser for next time…
The three ideas chosen to explore in the Sketch Model phase were, in order of highest to lowest number of votes:
- Lumber jack falling warning
- Better Crutches
- (and what came in 4th place:) Alcohol/tester wristband
It’s interesting to note that ideas 3 and 4— crutches and alcohol tester— have come up in every team I’ve mentored for the past 4 years. This tells me two things:
- There’s a reason they were never picked to move to the final stages of the design process, and
- There’s a reason they keep coming up.
We’ll see what discoveries the teams have made by next Lab, hopefully answering good Critical Questions!