On IDEO’s early days and the importance of prototypes, a conversation with Dennis Boyle

Dennis Boyle, Founding Member and Partner at IDEO, and Origami Innovations Advisory Board Member (photo courtesy Dennis Boyle/Stanford Medicine X)

In September 1975, Dennis Boyle went for an appointment to the office of Professor Robert McKim, head of Stanford’s Product Design group. He found another student waiting. The Professor had “either on purpose or accidentally double booked” the meeting time, and in this way, Dennis met his first student acquaintance on campus, David Kelley. They showed one another their portfolios, admiring each other’s work like “wow, I don’t know if I can keep up with that.”

Fast forward several years later, David Kelly decided to start a company and have all his friends join him. “I was one of the first to come,” recalls Dennis. As a startup team, they admired the “Bill Hewlett and David Packard philosophy” of a company that is “not very rigid,” but a “friendly atmosphere of family and friends.”

One of IDEO’s early milestones was designing Apple’s first commercial mouse. “I was around the company” when Steve Jobs came in and “asked if we could design a $10 mouse.” “Everybody looked around and was like ‘well yeah, we certainly can,’ but nobody really knew what a mouse was.” Steve Jobs was about in his early twenties and “already had a lot of this impatient sort of slight unpredictability.”

“We kept designing prototypes and testing them.” Dennis remembers building a prototype of a computer mouse duct-taped to a record turntable. They turned on the turntable and dropped “dirt, eraser bits and such” on the mouse to see if they could clog it up. Eventually the mouse worked well enough for Apple’s internal manufacturing engineers to take it in-house and prep for mass production. The mouse came out at around $15 dollars, “close enough to make it commercially viable.”

Prototypes are an important part of the design process and Dennis is known for never attending a meeting without one. “When you are trying to review ideas, if you have prototypes that are visual, functional, that show the story, and sometimes show a few choices, people can really rally around them and make decisions on the spot.” Just talking and showing sketches does not give the audience “much to go on and so decisions don’t get made.” Whether the prototype looks great or is “just a crude thing,” it sparks people’s imagination on the future and “what’s really possible.”

Dennis finds that when users interact with the prototype, there’s always an element of surprise for the prototype’s creator. “As a designer you think you know what’s going on. You’ve lived with a project for months or more, and so by the time you make things that are functional, you think you’ve got it.” But users might have a hard time understanding how the prototype works or what it’s for. Sometimes you offer them several versions of a prototype to discover which one they find easiest to use.

Feeling stuck as a designer is not quite like getting writer’s block. The “more design prototypes you build, the more likely you are to find a path forward even in a difficult design problem.” And ultimately prototypes speed up the process in a deadline-driven environment. “Nobody ever comes into an office like IDEO and says ‘Here. Here’s all the money you need and all the time you want.’”