The Art of Innovation

What do stand-up toothpaste tubes, all-in-one fishing kits, high-tech blood analyzers, flexible office shelves, and self-sealing sports bottles have in common? Nothing actually, except that they’re all IDEO-designed products that were inspired by watching real people. We’re not big fans of focus groups. We don’t much care for traditional market research either. We go to the source. Not the “experts” inside a company, but the actual people who use the product or something similar to what we’re hoping to create.

Plenty of well-meaning clients duly inform us what a new product needs to do. They already “know” how people use their products. They’re so familiar with their customers and existing product line that they can rattle off half a dozen good reasons why an innovation is impractical. Of course, we listen to these concerns. Then we get in the operating room, so to speak, and see for ourselves.

A few years back, for example, Silicon Valley-based Advanced Cardiovascular Systems asked us help it redesign a critical medical instrument used on heart patients during balloon angioplasty. The company sold an inflation device for the tiny balloon that the doctor inserts with a catheter through the femoral artery in a patient’s leg. The balloon is guided up into the obstructed coronary artery and inflated, compressing plaque and stretching the artery. ACS told us that the new inflation device – like the existing one – had to be suitable for one-handed use.

But when we went into the operating room-literally-that’s not what we saw. Although the current product could theoretically be used with one hand, it really worked that way only if you had a hand the size of Michael Jordan’s. In actual practice, medical technicians almost always used both hands with the device, since, as we observed, they weren’t doing anything else with their “spare” hand. So why not design the new “Indeflator,” we thought, for a two-handed technician? Why fight human instinct?

It’s precisely this sort of observation-fueled insight that makes innovation possible. Uncovering what comes naturally to people. And having the strength to change the rules. From the simple observation that technicians used both hands flowed distinct improvements. We added ribs to the base of the pump-like device so that technicians could hold it steady in one hand while they inflated the balloon with the other hand. We tilted the pressure gauge upward so that it was easy to read during inflation. We increased control and precision. We made it easier to deflate the balloon too. And we made one other big change.

There’s a critical moment in an angioplasty procedure when the surgeon instructs a technician to inflate the balloon. During the next sixty seconds or so, the balloon obstructs the artery, creating, in effect, a heart attack. At that point, with the patient still awake, the old device would make a loud clicking noise as it ratcheted into place.

Our new design lost that scary ratcheting sound.

The Art of Innovation, 2001. 120,000 copies sold in U.S. hardback. Published in 15 languages. Required reading at business schools worldwide.

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