Your typical innovation process starts with lots of customer interviews, lots of sticky notes, lots of surveys — and a mound of data that's more often mind-numbing than insightful. "With normal research, you can see opportunities," says Rinat Aruh, co-founder of the design firm Aruliden. "But just knowing that an opportunity is there isn't going to actually inspire you." So instead, Aruliden frequently works with kids, asking them to build mock-ups of their own dream products.
The process starts with a box of foam, and from there, Aruliden simply asks kids to create their ideal object — a TV, or a phone, or a ping-pong table, depending on the client — with no constraints. Often, these might be too wacky to become real. For example, in a recent project to research the future of the cellphone, one kid proposed a phone with legs that would follow you where ever you go. But just as often, these insights can be stunning. Johan Liden, the other co-founder of Aruliden, points to a time, three years ago, when working on another cell phone project, that one kid proposed a camera on the front of the phone and on the back — an idea you might recognize, since it's now integral to iPhone 4's videoconferencing capabilities. (Apple was not Aruliden's client on that project).
Whatever the idea is, the point is to recognize the unmet needs, and Aruliden has found that kids are often the best at recognizing a need and at going wild trying to meet it. Those flights of fancy can become the inspiration for a breakthrough idea. "Kids and adults often ask for the same thing, but they'll say it in different ways," Liden says. "A kid might say, 'I want my phone to have a chocolate milk button.' Which sounds crazy, but as a designer you ask, 'What could this "chocolate milk" button really become?'"
Not that Aruliden relies solely on kids during their research. "If we just had kids in there, companies would probably be afraid," says Liden, who worked at Fuseproject, MAC cosmetics, and Converse before forming the firm with Aruh, who was previously a marketing exec for Gap and BMW's Mini line.
They augment the research with kids with interviews with thought-leaders — downtown taste-makers in creative fields, who happen to have an extra-curricular passion for whatever subject is at hand. They go through the same process, with the foam samples and the blank slate. Eventually, Aruliden then distills all those findings — which often run into 25 hours of tape — into videos that cover the more inspiring moments of insight. "Usually, people spend millions on research but they don't know what to do with it," says Aruh. "We're trying to produce something that we can actually design against."
[Top image by Randen Pederson]