Some product or marketing ideas are simply brilliant. Heineken’s interactive beer bottles, for instance, are the highlight of any party. They light up when guests chink bottles, flicker when they drink from them and flash in time to the music. “At Heineken innovations are less to do with the product itself and more centered on the brand and user experience,” says Mark van Iterson, design manager for the Dutch brewery in Amsterdam.

How do companies come up with such offbeat ideas? “We regularly choose creative talents from all over the world to develop new concepts with design thinking,” van Iterson reveals, “implementing these in eight to ten weeks and testing these immediately on select target groups” (see ’The networking bottle’).

With design thinking product developers take on a creative work form. “Using this method companies can develop extraordinary concepts for innovative products, services, sales formats, and marketing strategies,” explains Martin Beeh, professor for design management at the Ostwestfalen-Lippe University of Applied Sciences and owner of design consultants Beeh Innovation in Cologne, Germany. The process is even ideal for small businesses. Says Beeh, “It can be implemented quickly, doesn’t cost much and gets quick results.”

The user in focus

Design thinking is actually nothing particularly spectacular. “It’s a defined work process borrowed from design which releases creative energy,” states Professor Ulrich Weinberg, head of the HPI School of Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany. The core tasks of the method are: 

  • To recognize and focus on the requirements of the user when developing new concepts
  • To view and assess problems and ways of solving these from many different angles
  • To keep the development process moving until the optimum solution has been found (see ’It’s really quite simple’).

The aim is to breach entrenched patterns of thought during product development. “Design thinking helps us to identify the key problems – instead of simply further developing existing products,” confirms Monica Dalla Riva, head of the 3M European Design Lab in Milan, Italy. Many successful examples from different branches of industry prove that this procedure actually works.

“Design thinking is a defined work process borrowed from design which releases creative energy.”

Professor Ulrich Weinberg, HPI School of Design Thinking

Procter & Gamble develops a practical alternative vacuum cleaner

Not long ago Procter & Gamble launched an incredibly easy-to-use carpet cleaning device to market through the process of systematic idea management. Instead of having to battle with an often rather heavy electric vacuum cleaner, American housewives now clean their carpets with cleaning wipes which ’suck’ up particles of dirt. The product was an immediate hit; in the first year alone the US concern sold over 50 million Swiffer Carpet Flicks.

Automobile manufacturer Ford helps save on gas

American automobile manufacturer Ford has used creative technology to develop what it calls its EcoGuide. Through a system of LCD symbols installed on the left and right of the speedometer, this technology encour­ages car owners to drive more efficiently. The more effectively the driver uses gasoline, the more leaves and vines appear on the display. Ford utilizes its EcoGuide combined with an intelligent information system (SmartGauge) in its environmentally friendly Fusion Hybrid models.

SAP simplifies software design

“In the past customers who bought SAP software often had to wait months or even years before they could actually use it,” remembers Susan Galer, communications director for the world’s leading pro­vider of corporate software. “However, since SAP has begun develop­ing its software according to the principle of design thinking, this has changed. This method enables fast development of systems with a high degree of operator friendliness.” Scientists at Stanford University in the United States have suggested how companies can systematically apply the concept of design thinking. They have come up with a multistage workflow for the creative process:

  • Define the problem
  • Research it
  • Find concept ideas
  • Visualize ideas in the form of simply made prototypes.

What’s important is to repeat the individual stages in a loop until you hit on the best result. “Early prototyping and the possibility of repeatedly returning to finished phases in the process considerably improve the quality of the ideas,” explains industrial designer Beeh.

Another important point is to assemble an interdisciplinary project team. “This enables a number of different approaches to the problem to be made,” emphasizes Beeh. Companies can put individual employees from their in-house sales, development, design, production and/or marketing departments together to form a project group to develop a new product, for example. It’s also beneficial to involve external individuals (such as scientists and consumers) as well as a mediator who is familiar with the design thinking process. “The group shouldn’t include more than ten people,” Beeh adds.

The environment is also conclusive to the project’s success. “Companies shouldn’t hold the project in the usual conference room but create an environment which encourages people to work creatively while standing, sitting or even lying down,” advises Beeh. His tip is to “Reserve a special room for the sole use of the project group and carry out research outside the company as often as possible.”

How a team invented a new carpet cleaner

American design agency IDEO applied the Stanford University method to create the innovative carpet sweeper for Proctor & Gamble. The design team was comprised of employees from the cleaning appliance manufacturing company and the agency. In order to find out more about consumer behavior, requirements and requests, the team visited several dozen homemakers in their houses. They learned that those questioned wanted to remove tiny specks of dirt – such as crumbs or scraps of paper – from their carpets without having to drag out their vacuum cleaners.

With this knowledge under their belts the team began looking for ideas, applying well-known methods such as brainstorming. The group had its light-bulb moment when one of the team started playing with a mop, finding a way of removing particles from the floor without using electricity or batteries. On this basis Proctor & Gamble then designed a series of prototypes of the new cleaning device and tested its acceptance on international markets.

How students helped DHL further

Another visionary idea – that of a social logistics network – has been born by students at the HPI School of Design Thinking. Without giving any specifics parcel shipper DHL challenged the students to devise a promising new business area. Applying the design thinking method they came up with a surprising answer; in a world where energy is becoming more and more expensive and mobility is supposed to be eco friendly, parcels could be shipped in a completely new way. They suggested that members of a network could act like a carpooling center, delivering packages by bicycle, via the subway or on foot while on their various travels. Information on where parcel pickup and delivery points would be provided by cell phone and text message.

Design thinking can also be used to make good ideas even better, as the Heineken brewery demonstrates. In the future, it wants to attach different color LEDs to its bottles, designed to help party goers immediately recognize which of the other guests they are most likely to get along with. Simply ingenious!

Alfred Preuß

Design Thinking:
it’s really quite simple

What’s special about design thinking are its multidisciplinary teams, user orientation and clearly defined process steps. Based on practical experience and modeled on Standford University’s ’’ the Hasso Plattner Institute has split the design thinking process into six stages. Repeated looping between the separate stages optimizes the result.

The networking bottle

How does a brewery manage to reach a young target group with its products? Brewer Heineken encourages party guests to socially interact through its interactive Ignite beer bottle.

“How can an e-bike replace the car?”

A bicycle manufacturer, automobile company or city government could have asked a renowned management consultant this question – and half a year later been handed a fat and expensive expert report. Instead, in a practical exercise at a design thinking workshop staged by Cologne design consultancy Beeh Innovation, a small team presented some surprising results in just two hours.

UNDERSTAND: describe the task and define the problem.

OBSERVE: research and study users to gain knowledge and expertise.

DEFINE PERSPECTIVES: assess and compile team members’ observations. Break these down to create a prototype user in order to clearly stipulate his or her requirements.

LOOK FOR IDEAS: based on previous knowledge collate ideas to solve the problem and select the best approaches.

CREATE A PROTOTYPE: develop first simple prototypes from paper, for example, to illustrate the selected ideas.

RUN TESTS: test the product idea with the target group using the prototypes. Improve and refine the concept based on results until an optimum, user-oriented product evolves.

Source: HPI School of Design Thinking

Design thinking gave Heineken (in conjunction with the Tribal DDB advertising agency) a brilliant marketing idea: why not turn their beer bottles into interactive party goers? The containers light up when guests clink bottles, flicker when they drink from them and flash in time to the music.

Power and interactivity come from a plastic housing screwed to the base of the bottle which contains a microprocessor, an acceleration sensor, and LEDs. A WLAN receiver networked with the DJ’s sound system makes them flash in time to the music.

The experts at Heineken and the advertising team needed just ten weeks for the entire design process – from their initial research and idea concepts to consumer tests using a prototype of the hit party bottle.

DEFINE THE PROJECT. The participants first clarified which angle to tackle the problem from (answer: ’from the point of view of a medium-sized company in the bicycle industry’) and which target group the concept should address. In short, who actu­ally rides an e-bike through town? They produced a true-to-life description of a typical, ideal member of their target group (per­sona method): ’35-year-old employee, married, lives in the suburbs, works in the city, earns €40,000 per annum, technology oriented, normal level of eco awareness, easily reached through TV commercials’.

CARRY OUT RESEARCH. With this image in mind the e-bike team then went out to do some research. Walking along the main street they observed which factors would ease the use of e-bikes in the city – and which would hinder it. Their observations are also useful for marketing purposes.

The plus points of using an e-bike advertised by the TV commercials are: there are no parking fees and hardly any energy costs and you can easily negotiate traffic congestion. Possible minus points from the user’s point of view: no protection against the elements when cycling to the office, danger of theft when parked unlocked, safety risk when narrowly overtaken by passing cars, no safe storage space for laptops and briefcases. Here, the industry needs to react.

ANALYZE FORMS OF IMPLEMENTATION. On their way back to the workshop the e-bike researchers already had an image in their minds of what would be needed for the electric bike to become widely accepted as a form of inner-city transport. In their view success would only be forthcoming if local authorities, e-bike manufacturers and employers worked together. Responsibilities: local authorities must provide wide enough lanes for e-bikes and cyclists on the street and not on the sidewalk. Employers have to provide secure cycle lockups with power points for e-bikes. E-bike manufacturers must construct their vehicles so that they are safe and comfortable.

LOOK FOR IDEAS. Back at the workshop the designers in the team immediately started remodeling the e-bike according to the new specifications. Applying a number of technical solutions they ensured that the vehicle is always easily visible in the dark, that passing cars are forced to give it a wide berth and that cyclists can safely store their office equipment on their bike. 

PRESENT YOUR IDEAS. The designers in the group put their ideas down on paper as a concept. Meanwhile, the other participants researched the possible market potential for e-bikes on the Internet using their smartphones and laptops. Together they then presented the concept they had worked out in the workshop.