Here’s to the crazy ones: Simon Coley on design thinking

We know the value of a good idea, a big idea or an idea whose time has come, but it’s the mad ones that surprise us. 

As a designer I’ve learnt that implausible ideas offer the greatest opportunity for originality and as a marketer I’ve found the crazy ones not only differentiate, they can open entirely new categories.

In new product development the way to get from crazy to great is often contested, maligned and over-defined, but mostly it involves the process of getting from thought to realisation without going out of business. The best approach I know is to think more like a designer and less like an accountant. The challenge is that the less you think like an accountant the more likely you are to go out of business.

Design thinking endeavors to both balance and disrupt all the factors and people involved in creating new products and services by getting designers to think like accountants and vice versa and everyone from every discipline to collaborate well. It means different things depending on who you talk to: waffle, a failed experiment, an excuse to reconfigure design as marketing, or a powerful idea with the potential to redefine an industry.  

Where most people do tend to agree is that design thinking almost always follows the same sequence of steps, searching for insights that recognise unmet needs and turning them into ideas, followed by prototypes and, eventually, solutions.  

Having said that, it is unavoidably messy in practice. Part of this comes from the kind of problems design thinking is especially good at solving. Problems with no clear information or data from which to work. Or with people who can’t even agree on what the problem is, let alone the solution. 

Which is why it makes no sense to start with a great idea. If design thinking works best in an absence of certainty, it makes far more sense to start with something more challenging. 

The evidence is all around us. Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone was the prototype mobile phone, and Jules Verne’s fantasy fiction eventually inspired submarines and rocket propulsion. Closer to home, online power company Powershop, which I work for as design director, began as a crazy idea and evolved to become quite a good one. 

Our crazy idea

Back in 2007, the strategy team at Meridian Energy was kicking ideas around to improve service and they came up with a doozie. They proposed that in the future, people would want to buy electricity the same way they bought groceries. In a box. On a shelf.  At the supermarket. And they’d want to because it would help them know exactly how much they were buying and what it was worth, increasing their appreciation of an increasingly valuable commodity. 

But there was a reason no-one had already attempted to turn electricity into a consumer good: selling it in a supermarket was nuts. 

Fortunately, that didn’t stop a small team of people from taking on the challenge. Now the original germ of an idea has developed into a full-blown virus. Powershop’s 50,000 customers have consistently rated the company’s service as the most satisfying in the industry. They’ve joined Powershop and bought electricity at a pace that has earned it the title of fastest growing company in New Zealand’s history. 

Clockwise from far left: Powershop’s simple user interface made buying power fun; Simon Coley with Powershop chief executive Ari Sargent; Powershop’s mobile app; and Coley goes back to the drawing board. So what went right?

Our challenge was to get people to think differently about their power company. Electricity had long been a ‘low engagement category’, with arm’s length relationships between customers and their suppliers. The only time people paid any attention was when something went wrong, like a fault or the arrival of an unexpectedly large bill. 

The organising principle behind Powershop was the radical idea that people could actually like their power company, and that we could use technology to achieve this. Central to the design of Powershop was a deceptively simple idea: if a customer had a great experience, they’d become a fan, share their enthusiasm with others and encourage their friends to join. That’s our winning formula: a great experience = advocacy = acquisition. 

Not so crazy then, huh? 

The job we set ourselves was to do things in a way that made an intangible thing like electricity more visible to customers. Although the original task was to try and sell it in supermarkets, we quickly realised there was only one place we could help people understand how much electricity they were using, what it cost and allow them to buy more, in their own time: the internet. 

So we designed a web application. But the secret sauce in Powershop’s design wasn’t its source code. It was its genetic code. Our founding team had expertise in three areas: technology, creativity and the economics of the power industry.  We all knew the success of what we were developing lay somewhere at the intersection of these disciplines, but it needed just the right balance of each. 

Like most pioneers we had a vague idea of where we were going but no map. There were few lessons or mistakes from the past to learn from, and no benchmarks to aim for. This meant our design thinking was radically different to product development processes commonly used to solve similar problems—and far messier.  

As I’ve mentioned, traditional NPD and definitions of design thinking have a tidier, more-or-less linear process, from insight to definition through to prototype and implementation. Ours was more like natural selection, with random mutations, multiple possibilities, plenty of imperfect prototypes and some epic arguments.

I think there’s a lesson here about ‘messy’ design thinking that embraces incomplete data and ill-defined problems. By proceeding without constraints, we found we could generate more ideas and balance out inherent tensions between the creative, technical and economic. What the experience taught us is that a loose, pragmatic approach can give a more rounded result—technically, aesthetically and functionally.   

Some more great ideas

When we launched in 2009, we were predictably optimistic about the service and its growth potential.  Powershop was completely different to what was on offer, and it seemed everyone had a grudge with his or her power company.  

Almost immediately, our expectations came up against market reality. We underestimated the tendency of New Zealanders to stick with their power company, regardless of how much they griped about them in private. Our response was to continue using our own strain of design thinking to refine and reinvent ourselves.     

As part of the journey, we looked closely at thousands of successful products and services, both in New Zealand and overseas. Regardless of how downright stupid they may have seemed at the outset, they worked and appeared to have three intrinsic qualities in common: they’re attractive, they’re useful and they’re worth talking about. 

Look good

First and foremost, they attract. Not just by being nice to look at, but appealing to all senses. They arouse your interest, engage your thoughts and pull you in. I experienced such attraction first hand recently at Waiheke Island’s new boutique hotel and restaurant, The Oyster Inn. Owners Andrew Glenn and Jonathan Rutherfurd-Best had pulled off a very tasteful striptease in the months leading up to the opening, posting a small but beautiful selection of images, from early renovations to menu trials and freshly unveiled interiors. Week by week, they carefully built on the anticipation of a fantastic experience to come.  

Apart from the sheer desirability of their oyster sliders and impeccable aesthetic, the process had involved me in a way that made me feel as if I had become an intimate part of it all. As a customer, I had been perfectly and utterly seduced by the attractiveness of the experience. 

With Powershop, we knew our brand would be emblematic of our service. We began with the catch cry ‘Power To The People’, and made sure wherever people saw or heard about us we looked and behaved differently from other power companies. We set out to champion the forgotten power consumer and cause a stir in the industry. We appealed to people’s sense of what was morally and ethically right. And the result was a service people were attracted to and wanted to be a part of. 

Make yourself useful

Next, things are successful because they’re useful. In tangible ways. You want to use them as much as possible, and the more you do, the more useful they become. 

Xero stands out as an icon of homegrown usefulness. As a product it is beautiful, but its most compelling aspect is that makes people’s lives noticeably better. At the heart of Xero’s success is data delivered in real time that gives you insights you can act on. And the more you use it, the more your experience improves. 

For a small businessperson, it means you don’t have to wait until your accountant does your end of year tax return to get a profit and loss account. You can get it on your smartphone any day of the year. That brings genuinely useful changes such as being able to adjust each provisional tax payment based on your actual turnover.  

The thing we try and do at Powershop is to give people equally useful data that helps them understand what drives their power use, and then helps them take steps to act, saving power and money. Insights that customers can act on is a big part of what makes Powershop such a useful tool.  

Get talked about

Finally, successful things have talkability. It’s as if they’re designed to be shared. It’s not just easy for you to tell friends or family about them, you literally cannot stop yourself.    

Another venture I’m involved in—All Good Organics—sources and supplies Fairtrade bananas and makes the world’s only Fairtrade and organic fizzy drinks right here in New Zealand. We have a small but gossipy group of followers and they’re all brilliant advocates for our cause. One woman loves the look and taste of our new Gingerella drink so much she told us she wants to tattoo it on her boob. Like the ‘Same Power, Different Attitude’ posters we make for Powershop, provocative creative gets seen and heard.

With Powershop we designed a way for people to talk about their power use in a very social way. By breaking down consumption into a simple language of units, we’ve made it easy, if not irresistible, for people to compare themselves with friends, flatmates or other households. We all like to see how we stack up against the neighbours from time to time, but without a common vocabulary with which to share our habits and behaviour, this is very difficult.  

So what?

For my money, design thinking is the only way to cultivate a great new product or service from the germ of an idea. But we shouldn’t get hung up about what it is or isn’t. With Powershop, we started with a crazy idea, and went through the process of making it attractive, useful and worth talking about. 

I think being too prescriptive about design processes puts a lot of people off, and if you can embrace and accept that it will be messy, frustrating and unlike anything you’ve read in a text book, then you’ll see it for what it really is: a way to turn crazy ideas into great ones. Something to think about the next time you pick up your shoe phone.  

  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing


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