Our work creating digital products and services always starts with a discovery phase. But our clients often want to truncate discovery and get right to the making part. I kinda get it. Especially when we tell them we want to conduct our own interviews of team stakeholders, and we want to do our own user research. It takes time and costs money, and for clients who have already conducted research, it can feel like they’re buying the same horse twice. Of course we’ll take whatever they have—“Bury us!” we say—but we still insist on identifying for ourselves the inputs that will inform whatever recommendations we’ll eventually make.
I call it “getting stuff in the box.” It’s a reference to that scene from the movie Apollo 13, where they realize the C02 filters are failing, and they need to rebuild the extra square ones on the command module so they fit in a round receptacle. “I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole.” (So good.) Anyhow, in the next scene there’s a bunch of NASA guys dumping a huge box of random stuff on the table with a mandate to “make this, fit into the hole for this, with nothing but that.”
Discovery is how we get the stuff in the box that we’re going to need to solve your problem. Don’t let “nothing but that” characterize the stuff our team has to work with when it comes time to tackle your biggest challenges. Because here’s the thing: those NASA guys would no doubt have done their level best with a nearly empty box of sad bric-a-brac. But how great is it that they had duct tape, and a spool of wire, and a space suit, and some pliers, and a hose? Likewise, we’ll devise a solution with whatever information and insights are available to us. But as long as we’re in the phase where we’re putting stuff in the box, let’s assemble a rich profusion of insights and ideas, quotes and context, so when it’s time to get to work, we have inspiring material to work with.
Credit to Steven Johnson, who first pointed me to this inspiring scene in his excellent book "Where Do Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation". I read it 12 years ago and think about it once a week.
I was 37 when I started working in design strategy, old enough to know not to shout out “Turtle Excluder Device!” as the meeting wrapped up. Most people avoided my gaze and walked away. I managed to catch the sleeve of one colleague gathering up his things. “No, really, you have to hear this.” (It was like that moment in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which begins with a bedraggled uninvited “grey haired loon” accosting guests at a wedding so he could tell a longish ghost story about why you shouldn’t slay an albatross. In my tale, you’re the wedding guest, I’m the loon.)
In college Bio we learned that there used to be a whole industry around tourists helping newly hatched loggerhead turtles get to the ocean. So many hatchlings were getting run over while crossing roads on their way to the sea! So many were being eaten by gulls! If we could only save more baby turtles, the thinking went, their populations would rebound. But then a young graduate student named Deborah Crouse conducted a population modeling exercise for her PhD thesis, and discovered that no matter how many hatchlings were saved, the number of turtles laying eggs wasn’t increasing. And breeding pairs are what you need to make more turtles (I’ll cover turtle sex in a separate post.) Her work uncovered the real problem: that turtles weren’t surviving adolescence because when they got big enough, they’d get trapped in fishermen’s nets. This insight eventually led to the invention of metal hatches called Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that were built into fishing nets. When a sufficiently heavy turtle gets caught in a net, it springs the hatch and the turtle swims free. Today TEDs are often mandatory, and the turtle populations are far healthier as a result.
What lessons in product strategy can companies learn from the Turtle Excluder Device?
Fast forward almost 20 years to me blurting out, “Turtle Excluder Device!” We’d helped our client design V1 of their telematics platform, after which people came out of the woodwork with bright ideas about what features they'd like to see next. Sales, Service, Maintenance, Product Management—everyone had thoughts about what they’d like to see in V2. Our challenge was to find a way to shepherd these ideas far enough along that they could be honestly evaluated, and potentially cross the gauntlet of doubt about their feasibility, likelihood of adoption and cost. So we created a workshop that incubated numerous ideas, deeply considering how they’d come to life and be experienced over time. And we had a large swath of critical stakeholders participate in shaping each idea, which helped because, well, everyone likes to have a say. The output we created was a marketing story for each—a website—that made it look like the idea was complete, built and launched. We shared these mock marketing websites with customers, other users, and senior leaders who eventually aligned on which ideas to fund and which to pass on. We created a Turtle Excluder Device—for ideas!
Since then, I’ve realized that many companies have problems that could be solved by some version of a metaphorical TED. Maybe their strategy isn’t surviving the design phase because it was thrown over the wall from some long gone consultant. Or their design intent is getting lost in development, because engineers never had a chance to weigh in on its feasibility. Or the finished product isn’t surviving launch because Marketing isn’t clear on its true benefits. In each case, what’s needed is a process that can shepherd great ideas to fruition, and keep them from perishing in corporate environments that are weirdly effective at killing them off.
That’s what we do at Supply. We help our clients succeed not just through expert digital design and development, but by helping them efficiently and effectively set up teams and processes to improve the parts of the product development lifecycle that need it most. Sometimes, that means building a Turtle Excluder Device.
(Big thank you to my bio teacher Dr. Paulette Bierzychudek at Lewis and Clark College, who told us a good story about great science that I’ll never forget.)
At Supply, one of our founding principles is:
On the surface, this might seem like a mantra that makes it easy for us to avoid partnering with companies that don’t approach us with a “great idea” in hand, but it’s quite the opposite. It is a call for us to remember that companies with a clear mission attract talented people who are invested in both the company’s success and in the customers they serve. They are deeply entrenched in the challenges of the business and the problems facing their customers, and because of this, they are often brimming with great product ideas. Unfortunately, most companies lack a process for fostering and evaluating internal ideas, especially when faced with the challenge of deciding which, among many, are worth pursuing.
So how do we help our clients identify, clarify and envision their great ideas, and then determine which ones are worth pursuing? We look to the humble soup can. More about that in a minute, though. Let’s start at the beginning.
First, talk to your team and collect ideasInterview individual team members and ask them to share their product or service ideas. Aim for a one- to three-sentence description of each one. Don’t worry about vetting at this point. Once you’ve talked to all team members and feel like you’ve amassed a decent collection of ideas, identify and merge any duplicates.
“There are no bad ideas. Only good ideas that go horribly wrong.” — Jack Donaghy (30 Rock)
Next, come together and strengthen each idea as a group
Once you’ve got your hopper filled with ideas, bring your team together to discuss and strengthen those ideas. Give yourself some time to do this — consider dedicating one to two days to workshop them. This may seem like a big investment, but if even one idea worth pursuing rises to the top, it will have been worth it. This is how we approach it:
Step 1Depending on the size of your company, you’ll likely want to split your team into smaller groups. It’s been our experience at Supply that the most productive groups are often composed of individuals who represent different roles in the company. The ideal group might consist of an engineer, a sales associate, a designer and an executive, for instance.
Step 2This is where the soup comes in. You’ll want to evenly divide up all of your ideas amongst the groups (we usually have them pick the ideas out of a hat). Then have the groups turn their selected ideas into concepts. They will need to give each one a clever product name, write a value proposition, and identify what essential features are required. We like to use a soup can illustration as the framework for this stage of the process. Each concept gets turned into a label on a can of soup that has a name (your clever product name), a promise (your value proposition), and ingredients (the features of your product idea).
You’ll want them to spend about five to ten minutes working on each concept. It’s best to limit their time so that they act on intuition and have less opportunity to second-guess themselves.
Don’t overthink it; five to ten minutes is plenty of time to be clever.
Step 3Once they have completed their initial draft of each concept, have the groups exchange soup cans with one another. Now they are going to explore how those concepts might evolve when thought about through the lens of a different audience, and through the lens of an emerging trend. Doing so will help ensure that your final product is relevant in the marketplace and meaningful to your intended audience.
You can either provide the groups with audience personas and trend descriptions, or you can give them a few minutes to identify their own. Have them look for outlier trends and less-frequently considered audiences, then write out how the concept might change when viewed through these new filters. Challenge them to be willing to completely overhaul the concept if need be.
Sorry kids, not even AAA could make a car rental service for teen drivers happen.
Interesting is fine, but interesting & meaningful & impactful is where you want to be.
Step 4By now each concept should consist of one or more soup cans accompanied by notes on the impact of emerging trends and/or a potentially unique audience. They should be starting to feel much more robust. Have each group swap concepts once more and spend some time storyboarding out a hero scenario for each one. A hero scenario is the description of a customer’s experience from beginning to end that demonstrates the core value of a concept.
If some groups are uncomfortable drawing, don’t fret — have them describe the scenario in words. Encourage them to write out what the customer is thinking as well as what they are doing, as this may surface additional opportunities.
Real heroes take a Lyft home at the end of the night.
Step 5Lastly, have those same groups take one final stab at rewriting the soup can labels. At this point, they will usually feel like they need to be updated.
The can on the left is the store brand soup. The can on the right is top-shelf stuff.
Once you’ve finished refining, critically assess each concept as a team
By now you should have a number of well-thought-out concepts that have been put through their paces. Some people will naturally develop a favorite or two, so how do we impartially identify which ones have real potential?
Begin by defining what a successful concept looks like. We usually challenge our clients to grade each one using the following questions: Is the concept actionable and achievable? Is it customer-centric? Is it differentiated? Does it align with the company’s vision? Before you begin the grading process, you will want to discuss as a group what each of these terms (e.g. actionable and achievable, customer-centric, differentiated, aligns with vision) means and looks like to ensure that everyone is aligned.
Grading — not just for teachers.
Then visualize the top concepts
At Supply, we believe that one of the easiest ways to determine whether or not a concept is viable is to jump to the end of the product-development process. This means marketing your “new product” to potential customers for feedback.
Choose a few of the top-scoring concepts to push forward and continue exploring. You may even find that some concepts overlap and can easily be combined. Once you’ve narrowed it down, the next step is to create mock marketing web pages for each one. These should include a value proposition and an overview of the core features, accompanied by supporting UI mockups, in order to help it feel more compelling and real. These don’t need to be actual web pages — static comps created with the aid of a designer work just as well.
It’s all coming together now.
Now get feedback from potential customers
Rather than simply asking participants to pick a favorite, use your mocks as prompts for a deeper conversation. Lay them all out and ask your participants to read through each one and talk to you about what comes to mind. Which concepts resonate with them and why? How would each product impact them? What’s unattractive, what’s questionable, and why? Use each conversation as an opportunity to learn more about your customer, their world, and their needs, so that you can strengthen the concepts that resonate with them. You may even identify new concepts that you had not previously considered
Finally, share what you learned
Once you’ve spoken to potential customers and collected their feedback, you’ll want to share everything you’ve learned with your company’s leadership team. At this point in the process, you will have taken a one- to three-sentence description of an idea and turned it into a fully formed product vision that has been evaluated by customers. Seeing how a product will be marketed and sold, as well as how customers have responded to it, makes it much easier for your company’s leadership team to determine which ideas are worth investing in.
If you believe this process would work well in your company, then you’ll probably need to get buy-in from your team. Here is what we believe you and your company stand to gain from working this way:
Avoid prematurely killing ideas with potential value just because the details haven’t been fully thought through yet
Avoid pursuing opportunities that don’t have a strong value proposition and that likely won’t be adopted
Standardize the way opportunities are represented so they can be honestly compared and evaluated
Build a culture that supports experimentation and a learn-fast mentality that is customer-centric
Drive alignment across your organization and facilitate funding and development conversations
We’ve helped many companies, large and small, integrate this process into the way they work. It’s been used to help auto manufacturers identify and develop new service offerings in a repeatable way. More recently we used this process to help a nonprofit begin developing a large-scale online platform for low-income first-time homeowners. It’s a tried-and-true process that has worked for them, and it can work for you and your company, too. You’ve got this!