Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Collaboratory: Innovation through participation

"Alone, our tools offer an improved means to an unimproved end"- Henry David Thoreau

Information access is what much of the popular web has been built around...people seeking access to prices, product features and benefits, maps, photos, etc. But at it's roots, the web was built for collaboration. That's what a physicist at CERN had in mind anyway...

As the ubiquitous mobile network has enabled us all to be always on, at the place of our choosing, the digital space is returning to its collaborative roots...where contribution and participation--the watchwords of community--become the more powerful reasons to use the network. Browsing transforms into purposeful searching which elevates to active creation...which drives innovation. 

So What?

Businesses have, forever it seems,  sent product designers and market researchers into the field to capture input and data.  Ostensibly, this is done to inform the design and creation process. Of necessity, this approach requries a fair amount of abstraction. By design, it often suffers from the inherent confirmation bias of researchers who may be blinded by their pre-existing vision of the product or service they are designing. If you are a marketer, when's the last time you saw a double blind test approach used to inform the creation process?

The ubiquitous network and a user community increasingly trained for participation present a different opportunity for innovation: participatory design. Participatory design brings the customer or end user into the product/service development world. It doesn't treat the customer as a subject to be studied, but as a collaborator to be engaged. It's an open system for innovation rather than the more traditional, company-centric, closed system.

"The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer" - Peter Drucker

But why would a company elect to bring customers into the process of innovation rather than taking innovation to them? If you find any wisdom in the Drucker quote above, then you might agree that one way to create and keep a customer is by making a customer mean something more to the business, where more isn't solely defined around short-term economic decisions.  

How can it work?

Create a Collaboratory. Treatises have been written on collective innovation (Eric Von Hipple's most famous one is here). If you don't have time for that, here's three thoughts on engaging collaborators in participatory product, process or service design in the Collaboratory:

1. Engage lead users first: These are the user scientists who have a need for something other than a homogenous service/product offering. They are recognizable because they already have adopted or modified a product/service to fit their needs. Most importantly, they have a bias for collaboration, experimentation and persistence...and they are already your customers.

2. Structure the participatory process: Participatory design requires much or how little will depend on the expectations of the output and the size of the community. But in general the structure should focus on four stages...
  • Identifying issues/opportunitities (in other words, the questions to explore)
  • Prioritizing the issues/opportunities against criteria (what comes first--or last--based on what success criteria might look like. The hypotheses if you like)
  • Ideation/Solution building (the actual design/create activities)
  • Test-Modify-Retest (validating innovation against the outcome criteria)
3. Reward participation: The reward can be monetary--or it can be the emotional notion of ownership and contribution to community. The expectations should be honest, transparent and upfront...which is to say, you'll have to work with a lawyer on issues of ownership and licensing, but tread lightly lest you trample the trust inherent in effective collaboration.

Using tools like online forums, surveys, contests, and feedback databases are simple means of facilitating participation.  Unlike the tools used for participation, the Collaboratory results in meaningful innovation when it remains focussed on the power of participation.  

A few examples of Collaboratories: Dell computer product and service design. Nokia mobile devices and application design. Bubblewrap product use competition. Tshirt company where the customers ARE the company. Citizen science project.

A Simpson's episode showing what can go wrong with participatory design...when your customer is Homer Simpson.

1 comment:

  1. The netflix prize is another example of a company crowdsourcing its research and development efforts to any and all comers.