How designers get the edge with anthropology and Chuck E. Cheese

Designers and marketers struggling to define and differentiate their products in a sea of competing merchandize should look to anthropology and Chuck E. Cheese (the chain of family entertainment centres), says the head of a design company.

Despite the abundance of technology available today, the 21st century isn’t exactly a great time for inventors, according to Tom Kelley, general manager of Ideo, a San Francisco-based design firm.

Ideo is the design house behind devices such as the Apple mouse, Powerbook, and Palm V, as well as more utilitarian products such as the standup toothpaste tube.

“It’s no longer good enough for an inventor to innovate. Today inventors also have to out-innovate the competition,” Kelley said during his keynote on Design Innovation at the Autodesk University event in Las Vegas.”

The event brings together Autodesk insiders, as well as instructors and users of Autodesk design software from across the world to share ideas and insights, and participate in training classes and discussions.

Kelley is author of The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm – where he demonstrates how the most effective ideas for creating and improving products or processes come from keen observation of how regular people work and play on a daily basis.

The Red Queen Effect

Business, the Ideo executive said, should avoid “the Red Queen Effect ” – a reference to the episode in the Alice in Wonderland sequel Alice through a Looking Glass”, where Alice complains to the Red Queen.

(In the book Alice asks the Red Queen why they seem to be running but not getting anywhere. The queen’s reply was: “If you want to get somewhere else you have to run twice as fast as that.”)

Kelley said to outpace the competition his company often turns to anthropology and emulates Chuck E Cheese – the children’s party place – in employing the theory of “experience benefits.”

Anthropologists, he said, are very good at studying people and the challenges they face, and finding solutions to their problems. “This is essentially what inventors are supposed to do — find problems to solve.”

For instance, by studying how people behave and react to challenges, he said, designers can develop new products or make improvements to existing ones.

Making a better tooth brush

When asked by the Butler Co. to design a better children’s toothbrush, Ideo studied how children actually brush their teeth. The resulting design was “counter-intuitive” to previous conceptions, Kelley said.

Theoretically, he said, children would need smaller toothbrushes because they have smaller hands than adults. However, Ideo designers noticed that children were less dexterous than adults and held toothbrushes with their fists.

“With the aid of 3D design tool we were able to develop a brush with a much larger handle and one that was soft and squishy as well,” Kelly said.

Butler reported the resulting design placed their company ahead of competitors. The lead held for about 18 months, until other manufacturers began developing their version of the design.

Seeking the “experience” benefit

The Ideo general manager said companies need to look at certain key phases of product development:

  • Commodity – When an item is relatively cheap, but considerably risky to produce
  • Product: When the item can be produced with a degree of consistency and less risk, but may be more expensive.
  • Service: When less labour and even lesser risks are involved, but the item may be more expensive than it was at the product stage.
  • Experience benefit: Here customers are offered , not just the product, but also an enhanced experience when they use it.

Kelley said companies should strive provide the “experience benefit” to differentiate themselves from the competition.

He uses the analogy of baking a birthday cake. At the commodity stage, a parent might opt to bake their own cake, obtaining baking ingredients from scratch . The costs of the ingredients could be a little more than $2 but to an inexperienced baker, the exercise is fraught with risks.

At the product stage, the shopping savvy might resort to buying a ready-mix cake product, which is more expensive but easier to bake with guaranteed consistent results.

At the service stage, a parent can buy a ready-baked cake at a slightly higher price, but will be able to pass on the labour of baking to someone else.

Finally, “holding a child’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s may be a definite headache for the parents but it’s a guaranteed hit with the kids – and becoming a hero to your child is the enhanced experience benefit,” he said.

More and more companies are feeling the need to achieve this experience benefit to develop better relationships with their clients.

Richard Paolini, a technology integrator at Kimball Architecture, a architectural firm at Coraopolis, PA says his company achieves this by enabling clients gain a better understanding of project designs the company executes for them.

He said by creating digital design models in Rivet Structure, modeling software and AutoCAD 3D, clients get a better visual and conceptual understanding of how a model will work in the real world. “Clients gain a greater involvement in the design process.”

Digital prototyping, he said, also enables architects to experiment with a greater number of design options in a shorter period than they would with analog drawings or physical models.

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