Create an innovative product or service in 1 day

More and more companies are commendably looking to apply design thinking methodologies to ensure their products and services are desirable for their customers.

But sadly a lot of the promise that comes from understanding theoretical principals of design thinking is not executed confidently and effectively in practice at many companies we come across. Meaning that opportunities to innovate are still getting lost or stuck in a company’s stifling decision process. Product teams go round-and-round in vague discussions for month without putting something in front of users — that is frustrating and demotivating for employees.

At AJ&Smart, we aim to empower people and teams with tools and processes that can tangibly affect their everyday work for the better — as Jon Kolko says, using design less as a way of making things look a certain way, and more as a way of getting things done”fast!

By “tangibly”, I mean that you can actually see the “holy, shit we definitely need to do this exercise tomorrow” on their faces!

And by “fast”, I mean that we empower people in 1 day, not over weeks or months of a training course.

My colleagues and I give 1 day workshops on (clumsily titled) Design Thinking & Lean Product Design Exercises that Actually Work. Recently we gave the workshop to a company of 57 people. The company is one of this country’s (in Germany) major sporting organisations, and to which millions of people look to on a daily basis as the official source of information surrounding the sport.

Rather than bombard the attendees overly with theory, charts, and critic on 10-year-old case studies, we took them through some of the exercises we use on a daily basis with our clients when we are creating the products and services of the future.

Turning up in the morning to the workshop — which was arranged to be as far away from their normal offices as logistically possible — participants were probably happy to be “out of the office”, and perhaps looked forward to settling cosily in an armchair to catch some zzzz’s while a trainer stood at the front of the room and read out overused cliche’s, mis-quote some famous people, and battle with the overhead projector. When called upon to “join in”, participants may have wanted to hide behind the safety of “answering important emails” on their phones; but today the employees of this sporting organisation revolutionised the airline loyalty program!

We want to foster creative confidence in every person at our workshops — the belief in their ability to create change in the world around them.

As David and Tom Kelly put it in their book, Creative Confidence, “Companies desperately need employees’ insights from across the organisation. No individual executive or division holds a monopoly on new ideas.”

We want to foster creative confidence in every person at our workshops…

Which explains why this workshop included all members of staff at the organisation — not just the product team. We gave all the participants safe haven in sharing and drawing upon similar personal experiences; freed to express themselves and their ideas, with no prior knowledge of the product design process, and no abstract theoretical concepts to grapple with.

This kind of all-hands-on-deck approach to design gives ownership and purpose to all employees — knowing that all their ideas contribute to creating a good innovation “deal flow” for the success of the product or service.

Here’s a brief look at what we get up to in a 1 day workshop:

Opening the day: Think with your Hands.

To kick the day off, we warm up with a hands-on exercise of building an easy-to-use tool to help people with arthritis do delicate tasks.

Armed with a lean persona we presented to the whole group, teams of 7 people were given time to make prototypes of ideas with materials such as pipe cleaners, playdoh, popsticks, velcro, chopsticks, tape, felt, and elastic bands, pencils, pens, cardboard.

We gave the opportunity for each team to test their ideas with the User (played by us). And then encouraged each team set about using the insights gained from the user test to iterate on their prototypes in order present a single one idea to the whole group.

Each team builds working tools — Jon, Tim, and I wear an oven-mit to simulate an elderly person suffering from arthritis in the hand complete the delicate task of picking up one thumb-tack and pinning up a piece of paper.

Its a fun exercise that gets participants to begin thinking with their hands, a sort of return to the tinkering and experimentation we all enjoyed at kindergarten, while demonstrating how, and more importantly, why, to frame, and re-frame a design challenge (the problem), with the User as the focal point.

The rest of the day: “The CEO wants to increase revenue, while improving the customer experience”.

We spent the rest of the day tackling an over-generalised design brief that often still makes its way out of organisational meetings.

We set out the challenge to create a new loyalty program that transforms the travel experience for business travellers. We specifically chose the airline industry for the exercise because everybody can draw from their own wide-ranging personal experiences of air travel. Meaning we could develop a very quick persona for whom we would be designing the service for.

Who are we designing for? Create a Lean Persona

In a short 10–15minute discussion within their teams, participants were able to quickly call-out and swap their notions of a typical business-traveller. By collecting each participants own experiences and observations of business travellers, each team had many little habits, many problems, as well as many “hacks” that they could draw upon as they went about designing an airline loyalty program for a business traveler. Of course at this point we are working with a lot of assumptions and stereotypes, but it’s ok for now — we affirm or disaffirm these persona starting points later when we actually find and talk to our “target customer”.

A team creating a “lean persona” in order to get-to-know their customer.

Guided Brainstorming, with the User at the centre

Once we know a little bit about who we are designing for, we lead the groups through our relatable, supremely lo-fi, and extremely practical technique with which to brainstorm —Adapted User Story Mapping. Here the focus of the exercise is on generating 10x the amount of ideas rather than discussing whether one idea is better compared to another.

Each team creates their own Adapted User Story Map to generate as many ideas as possible.

You could say that Adapted User Story Mapping is a lean-version of fully fledged Experience Mapping. It by no means should be thought of as a replacement of experience mapping, but rather it is a “kick-starter” for beginning to experiment with what a new product of feature could be. It is a great group exercise that draws on the knowledge and experiences of each team member, and gives ownership of each idea to everybody in the team.

This means that the teams are able to objectively vote up which ideas they like the most — ending up with a heat map of starting points to experiment with.

Learn more about Adapted User Story Mapping

Jonathan (founding partner at AJ&Smart), gives a step-by-step guide to Adapted User Story Mapping here

Make it Visual: Collaborative Sketching

By now participants are nicely warmed up, secure in their teams, and are excited about ideas they have all come up with. So asking for everyone to now sketch their interpretation of an idea is no longer a daunting, scary task. Taking an A5 sheet of paper and folding it in half, or quarters — and then using a thick sharpie — to purposely not allow too detailed drawings — participants come up with 4–8 possible ways a UI could look, or even a simple box-to-box style flow map of a customer using the new product or feature idea.

Again, by keeping the session short, not focussing on detail, or on participants’ drawing skills, everybody gets to exposed to many possible ways our new product/service could work and look like. Each member of each team again votes up the ideas they like, and everyone in each team has a clearer picture of what they are creating.

Each member of the teams sketches out their version of ideas, either as UI screens, or flow diagrams, that are then voted on.

Getting Face-to-Face with your Users

Not ones to let the group get too comfy, we take to the streets! We role play with the team to show how to conduct short user interviews — using their assumed persona, voted up ideas, and sketches.

You’ll be surprised at how many people you can interview in an hour or so when you split up!

This “guerilla style” user interview focusses only on the few ideas that each team thinks will be most helpful and appreciated by their Users. Getting feedback this early from real users is the gold we’ve been hunting for all day!

We take teams outside to busy streets, shopping areas, and banking districts — offering coffee to people gets a lot of people eager to chat with us.

What did we learn ? How can we improve our idea?

Because the day is tightly packed, we only get an hour on the streets Inno— but even with as little as 6 interviews per team, patterns and trends can be seen in the reaction to their ideas. Proving and disproving rough concepts now gave each team the ammunition to iterate or pivot on their ideas before the end of the day — giving teams better chances of making a desirable service for the User, and ultimately meeting the CEO’s briefing.

Clustering Insights: Logging patterns and trends in User interviews & tests gives clear indicators on what to iterate on

Tell the concept story: Storyboarding

Now that each group has had a chance to review their persona and iterate on their service ideas, we ask each group to draw a simple storyboard to simply illustrate how and when Users will interact with the new loyalty program. Again not focussing on drawing skills, it gives each team the opportunity the chance to present their concept as a short story of a User using the freshly created services in specific situations based on their existing behaviour.

Each team presented their concept for the new Loyalty Program (yes, for Brosnan Airlines) as a storyboard.

In summary

Coming up with innovative ideas and bringing them to market is something that has to be practiced. And in this one day, we took participants through at least 3 cycles of the design process. The participants solved problems through a series of experiments, rather than hoping for a “flash of brilliance”. They learnt how to able to identify business opportunities, and package concepts for service innovations very simply and in a way that could be presented in 5 minutes to the whole group.

That’s extremely valuable for everyone in your company to be able to do.

I don’t claim that in one day everyone in an organisation will learn all there is to know about product and service design. But each team member now knows tools and exercises they can repeat immediately in their own workplaces to very quickly go from blank canvas — to exploring a number of ideas. Immediate next steps become extremely clear to everyone involved in projects; keeping the team motivated and dedicated to produce better results.

We think that learning Tangible Innovation processes in 1 day is a fast-track way to get buy-in for either:

  1. kickstarting a long-term cultural shift in the way a risk-adversed, stodgy and out-dated company, comes up with new products or services,


2) giving your start-up team clear and practical processes that bake design thinking in to your team, product, and/or service, right from the get go.

An interesting side observation

An interesting outcome of the workshop day with the german sports organisation, was that the group that won the 1st challenge, and were runner up in the 2nd challenge, was a team was made up from 1 person from each department in the organisation. We didn’t set this up on purpose, everybody was free to choose their seats at the start of the day. That team effectively had the perspective of an accountant, a developer, a designer, an editor, a lawyer, a manager, and a marketer, all contributing and building upon the ideas of each other.