Fail Early, and Fail Often - IDEO Service Design

IDEO had won many awards for product design, often for objects that "had been bad so long you don't even really think about them". In the late 90s, the firm expanded into new fields, including the rapidly emerging service design sector. Assistant Professor of Technology and Operations Management Manuel Sosa and co-author Ritesh Bhavani consider four examples of IDEO applying its unorthodox prototyping model - described by its founder as "fail early and often to succeed sooner" - to service areas hardly known for their customer-friendly attitudes.

by Manuel Sosa and Ritesh Bhavani
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Multiple award-winning design firm IDEO has earned a reputation for taking an idiosyncratic approach to client needs. It revelled in the challenge of fundamentally reassessing objects whose design, in the words of its general manager, "had been bad so long you don't even really think about them". Its prototyping method was equally unorthodox. "Fail early and often to succeed sooner," the company's founder often urged his staff.

In the late 90s, IDEO expanded quickly into new fields, including the rapidly emerging service design sector. The case series presented by Assistant Professor of Technology and Operations Management Manuel Sosa and co-author Ritesh Bhavani considers four very different service design projects in illustrating how IDEO's famed innovation process has been successfully adapted to the specific needs and conditions pertaining to each client.

Service design is a relatively young discipline, having only recently come under more of the spotlight with the rapid and steady increase in the vital role of the service sector in developed economies around the world. While the field of service design is still evolving, IDEO has managed to develop and codify a consistent series of methods which, as the examples in the case studies indicate, offer enough flexibility to allow development teams to choose the most appropriate aspects, depending on the project.

The IDEO "Project Journey" consists of a set of five fundamental steps:

Observe > Synthesise > Generate Ideas > Refine > Implement

This deceptively simple-sounding process has allowed the company to leverage its expertise across many industries, involving highly varied products, services and environments - many of which are not often associated with "innovation" in most people's minds. Two of these examples feature much-maligned services in the USA - Amtrak, the nation-wide railway network, and an urban healthcare centre.

The projects described in the case studies illustrate IDEO's policy of examining "user experiences" as a fundamental step in providing service design solutions. "Radical collaboration", involving intense and all-encompassing contacts between the firm, its clients, and any other external partners, is also a notable feature of IDEO's standard operating procedure. Another salient feature of IDEO's innovative approach is its use of interdisciplinary teams. A project team is typically made up of people from a range of disciplines, varying from industrial design to cognitive psychology.

The cases detail how IDEO's Project Journey model was applied to an American railway, a British online bank, one of the world's largest telephone firm's GPRS services, and a health centre project in a major US city. In the latter example, IDEO was unable to employ their standard process of adopting a user perspective, due to fierce objections from the centre's medical staff. Instead, the project designers "shadowed" real users, observing their daily routines as they themselves navigated the complex's corridors in wheelchairs and on gurneys.

The health centre project was also unusually restricted in budgetary terms. Accordingly, the design team focussed less on the implementation, than on the generation and refinement of solution-based ideas - particularly ones that could be set in motion as cheaply, easily and effectively as possible.

The healthcare project reinforced the belief among many at IDEO that the right process model can be successfully applied to a variety of service design issues. If carried out correctly, solutions do not necessarily require expensive and time-consuming overhauls of existing structures. Moreover, IDEO's clients in this example, typically specialists in their narrow fields, were forced to consider the service system from the patients' perspective - definitely an eye-opening experience for many.

This, and the other projects described in these cases examine the concept of "knowledge brokering" and the ways in which the transferences of knowledge are frequently carried out across distributed organisations. They also highlight the fundamental differences between product and service design, and the more subtle differences in the respective processes.


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