All good innovative projects are based on human needs. At the beginning of a creative project, it may therefore be helpful to interview as many people as possible to try and make them express not only their obvious needs but also their latent, indirect and unconscious needs. Already Henry Ford realized in the early days of the automotive industry that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have answered “A faster horse”.
Focus groups and market research can guide small improvements to existing products, but are basically useless to identify new needs. This insight forms the basis for so-called design thinking developed at the legendary design and innovation company IDEO in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley and the d.school at the nearby Stanford University.
By pushing beyond the most obvious concepts and observing people’s behaviour and trying to identify with their situations, at an early stage of the project, you can get impulses to something that is radically different from previous solutions. Instead of solving problems and responding to existing needs, you can create new opportunities and new needs. The steps from the first mobile phones to camcorders, and from camcorders to smartphones are both examples of this kind of thinking.
IDEO also used design thinking when developing the first computer mouse for Apple. By integrating human needs with new technology and economic sustainability, a number of new and revolutionary products have been created. These solutions can then be applied to completely new areas.
Starting from the human needs requires that you really take the time to walk around in different environments and with empathy and an open mind study how people really behave in different situations and try to get into what they think and feel. It may help to see yourself as an anthropologist studying the human behaviour, and watch people the same way as you would curiously be watching the animals at the zoo. A source of inspiration may be the zoologist Desmond Morris richly illustrated book “Manwatching: A field guide to human behavior“, in which the author describes people’s behaviours based on the same methodology that the zoologists use to study animal behaviours.
Most interesting and rewarding for the creative process, these explorations will be when looking beyond the obvious and searching for the extremes. If you want to design new household appliances, it’s not primarily the neighbour’s kitchen you should visit, but instead the kitchen of a five-star restaurant, the military canteen serving 500 soldiers per hour, or the kindergarten kitchen. You should have your antennas out looking for experiences and observations that seem unexpected or surprising.
It is solely by focusing on the deeper human needs and challenges we face as a society (a sustainable environment, good health, social development, a safe environment) that we can create the new products and services that are absolutely necessary for the future, and which both satisfy the needs of the individual and society. Such a challenge filled with a greater meaning, creates the enthusiasm and commitment that is the seed for a real change, and not only marginal improvements of existing solutions.
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