Concept Design, Ping-Pong Style

How business can inspire early ideas in design

Co-authored by Rosaria Mannino, now at ClassPass and illustrated by Alicia Pompei


The idea of balancing form and function often dominates conversations about design, and “business thinking” — the consideration of factors like distribution, pricing models and costs — is typically left for a separate discussion. Thinking about viability can be seen as constraining, a validation exercise to be pushed off until a team has to “make the case” for their idea.

But does it have to be that way? Could business thinking also be generative and inspirational for a design team?

IDEO’s classic Venn diagram illustrating design thinking isn’t limited to desirability and feasibility — it also includes viability, which represents the business perspective. In fact, many of us believe there’s power in addressing viability early and using it as a way to generate ideas, not just eliminate them.

But what does this mean in practice? How do you integrate business thinking and make it an enabler early in the design process? Let’s look at an example.

Earlier this year, we partnered with Green Onyx, an Israeli start-up looking to bring a new superfood to the world called khai nam, a tiny aquatic vegetable, for which they’ve developed a machine to grow it on your countertop.

Our design brief was to develop compelling value propositions and ideas on a go-to-market strategy for the US market. We used a “ping-pong” technique to integrate business thinking early on in our collaboration. Here’s how it works.

PING: Customer Needs

We started by identifying needs with potential customers. We talked to people about their overall wellness, eating habits, and attitude towards food. We also had them taste a variety of recipes we developed featuring khai nam.

What did we find? Some potential customers preferred to hide healthy ingredients in the less healthy foods they love, à la Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious. For these people, something like a khai nam bloody mary really hits the spot.

PONG: Business Needs

On the business side, Green Onyx knew that it didn’t want to be a khai nam supplier. In order to get khai nam in customer’s hands, the startup would have to convince potential retail partners — like a restaurant — to invest in a machine to produce khai nam on site.

The Game Begins

Using both the customer’s and the business’s needs as sources of inspiration, we generated a robust set of value propositions, recipes, and possible launch partners. Concepts or ideas inspired by a customer need were passed through a viability filter to see if they could be evolved to meet Green Onyx’s needs.

For the hide-the-health customers who enjoyed the khai nam bloody mary, the drink is an awesome (and tasty!) idea, but if that’s the only use case for khai nam, no restaurant is going to make the investment to grow its own supply.

So we asked ourselves: what would encourage a cafe to invest? Restaurants typically operate on pretty thin margins, so we knew cost of ingredients were a major concern. Another was labor — complicated recipes that disrupt the existing operations are less likely to be adopted.

Instead of just a killer bloody mary mix, why not offer a set of easy-to-use recipes with a cost effective ingredient? Now khai nam sounds a lot more enticing to potential restaurants.

We also did the reverse, passing concepts inspired by a business need through a desirability filter. We knew that restaurants would need to install a machine in order to serve khai nam. Putting anything new into a commercial kitchen is a major hurdle, not only in terms of money but in terms of space. And a special use device? Really difficult.

Our design team took this insight and developed an idea to put the machine front-of-house so it wouldn’t disrupt operations in the main kitchen, sort of like those fresh-squeezed orange juice machines found in some restaurants. But how would this line up with a customer need or desire?

In our customer research, we found that people really wanted to see the vegetable in its raw form. What did it look like? How did it grow? What part of the vegetable were they actually eating?

Suddenly, the idea of making the machine visible had lots of potential — it could become a unique customer experience, where you could see your portion of khai nam being harvested on-demand and put into your order.

By using this back and forth “ping-pong” between “hearts” — customer needs — and “dollars” — Green Onyx’s needs — we made sure that our final concepts and value propositions delivered on both desirability and viability.

Game Point

Being savvy about business shouldn’t be defined by eye-searing Excel spreadsheets or always saying no to good ideas. If both sides of the proverbial ping-pong table are open-minded, we can create better solutions more likely to succeed in market. Who knows, maybe we’ll even stop needing the table in the first place.

How might you use business thinking as a springboard for ideas on a challenge you’re facing?


Have a business+design topic or challenge you’d like us address? Send us a note at askBxD@ideo.com.

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