October 15

The IDEO Process: Transforming Customer Pain into Innovative New Products By Richard H. Tyson, President, CEObuilder

Business, Customer, Vision


Customer pain often creates opportunities for the introduction of innovative new products and services to the marketplace. Today there are companies devoted to bringing about such innovations. One of the foremost of these is IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that employs a three-step process to help organizations innovate and grow.


IDEO begins with any customer pain that suggests a market opportunity. IDEO calls this step Inspiration, where the motivation to create solutions begins.


Typically, a basic understanding of customer pain leads to organizing a multi-disciplinary team of designers, behavioral and social scientists, marketers, engineers, anthropologists, and other intelligent individuals whose task is to observe the behaviors of customers and non-customers.


The team decides whom to observe and how to draw useful insights from those observations. Team members consciously avoid preconceived notions regarding the problem or solution; they dedicate themselves to seeing the issue through customer eyes in functional, cognitive, and emotional terms. IDEO stresses that this observation process will invariably make unexpected discoveries along the way—and that the team needs to follow these wherever they lead.


The Inspiration phase leads to the next step: Ideation, the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas before taking them to market. This is what some have called the “trystorming” phase.


Trystorming is a combination of quick brainstorming with iterative prototyping that emphasizes failing as early and often as possible. This is done while spending the least amount of money possible. It is significantly different than traditional brainstorming where the team narrows the list down to one idea, puts together a big budget and schedule, and then introduces a product or service with the hope that everything works out.


A key ingredient to trystorming is the perspective of each individual on the team. Rather than being conservative and risk averse, they are encouraged to come up with ideas and rapidly introduce those ideas to customers. This is inherently mistake tolerant and often is an enjoyable process for team members.


Once trystorming has led to the optimal outcomes, the third and final phase of the IDEO process is Implementation. This step defines the path that leads from the project room to the market. It is where substantial investment of time and money begins. While the team is still sensitive to insights from customers, at this point they are “going to market” with a finished product.


The fact that Implementation occurs after thorough attention to Inspiration and Ideation provides a strong assurance that the customer’s pain is being handled and that there is a solid market for the product or service. The IDEO process is an example of “fast to market through a slow, deliberate process.”


In the September, 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, and author Roger Martin wrote about how IDEO’s process was used successfully to introduce a new product initiative at MassMutual.


The challenge was to find innovative ways to persuade people younger than 40 to buy life insurance. The need was apparent, but the target market seldom perceived that need. MassMutual’s employees saw little value in pursuing this market, as it had proven to be a notoriously unproductive selling opportunity.


The challenge seemed monumental: an external, largely disinterested customer base and a cynical group of internal customers, namely, its own sales personnel.


MassMutual worked with IDEO to design a completely new type of customer experience focused on educating its target customer about long-term financial planning. After following the IDEO process of Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation, MassMutual launched its “Society of Grownups” in October of 2014, described as a “master’s program for adulthood.”


The program offers external customers a multichannel delivery system that provides state-of-the-art digital budgeting and financial planning tools, brick-and-mortar facilities for financial education, and a curriculum designed to address the customer’s questions and concerns. In so doing, it also addressed the concerns of its internal customers through careful organizational redesign.


To date, both external and internal customers have embraced the program, adding a profitable new business segment for MassMutual.


The IDEO process has been used successfully by companies small and large throughout the world—and is also available to each of us as we endeavor to go to the pain and jump to the next curve.


Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

About the author 

Rich Tyson

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