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Napkin Labs Turns IDEO's Innovation Process Into Web Apps For All

An off-the-shelf crowdsourcing platform will let companies create "challenges" to gather insight, and guide users with a series of design-focused exercises.

Somewhere in between the work we're paid to do and the work we want to do lies what Riley Gibson calls a "creative surplus." People have a need to explore, make, photograph, draw, and collaborate on ideas that are important to them, including the products and services they're passionate about. The key for a brand, he says, is to give those people better direction to end up with insight they can actually use. His startup Napkin Labs is a customizable crowdsourcing platform that takes conventional collaboration one step further. It will offer a set of apps that guide users through the "design thinking" process — that is, the innovation process pioneered by IDEO and now used by design firms and companies the world over.

Gibson and his business partner began their careers as consultants for creative agencies, working with teams to generate new product ideas and conduct market research. As social networking evolved, they realized that even their most industrious off-line focus groups couldn't keep pace with the massive flow of ideas and feedback coming from online communities. "We realized it was easier to create a concept of prototype and get their feedback on it," Gibson tells Co.Design. "It was simpler to use your own existing community of customers."

While a Facebook page or Twitter stream provides a company plenty of opportunities to gather quick, casual feedback, Gibson quickly saw that it wasn't the right kind of insight — the kind of thoughtful ideas that lead to new products and better service. "These companies have thousands of followers on Facebook but no real interactive tool to engage them," says Gibson. Plus, they also wanted to fix some of the problems they saw with crowdsourcing, namely, the winner-takes-all mentality familiar to design contests. "We wanted to create a more collaborative community where people could work together."

Napkin Labs functions much like the crowdsourcing platforms we've covered before — think OPEN IDEO or InnoCentive — but as an off-the-shelf solution that anyone from a blogger to a large corporation can cater to their own needs. Businesses pay a rate starting at $99/month for basic options, including up to 1,000 fans and unlimited challenges. For rates starting at $499/month, Napkin Labs will create a completely custom experience for your company, which also includes the ability to make a challenge private.

As a video demonstrates, a company can create a challenge and invite customers to contribute. Responses can range from a simple question, to more nuanced feedback, to asking users (called "fans") to create videos or renderings. In addition, fans are rewarded by a game layer that awards points for giving suggestions and entering solutions. Gibson advises Napkin Labs' clients on how to incentivize their competitions, suggesting they offer money or recognition as a way to motivate fans to contribute.

(And before you light the no-spec torches, Gibson says Napkin Labs definitely isn't a substitute for hiring designers. "We're not trying to replace the role of the designer as synthesizers and curators," says Gibson. "We want people to share their ideas and become innovators, then the designers could take that as inspiration to translate into better products.")

In a private beta launch earlier this year, about 160 companies used Napkin Labs, including Sony Design Center and Google, who explored ideas around their Google TV concept. Gibson says Google was able to easily focus their research on young people to learn about the changing role of television in culture.

Napkin Labs has created a nice crowdsourcing platform with a smooth interface that could definitely be utilized by a company that can't afford to build its own community idea-generating machine. But the real game-changers are Napkin Labs' apps, a series of prompts that they're still rolling out. These will function as design thinking exercises, guiding users through deeper levels of research and brainstorming. While these apps could help a brand gain insight, the more interesting angle is that they might be training its users to be more attentive, articulate consumers. "We're giving people insight into their own behavior," says Gibson. Napkin Labs could very well be teaching consumers how to use design thinking in their everyday lives.

While the power of a design thinking app store has yet to be proven — right now they have brainstorm, discuss, refine, but look for updates in a few weeks — Gibson gave some hints for the kinds of tools they hope to make, which sound promising from a brand standpoint. "Any type of research method for how to draw out insights from people in a non-obvious way is fair game for our exploration."

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  • Josie

    It is interesting the affinity that many people have for the "parabolic effect" with new events.  IE ...they want a predictable outcome to their input... Others may prefer the variety/unpredictability of their exercises...If participants could be qualified and offered methods suited to their proclivity, their motivation to participate could be positively linked.

  • Ryan

    Really enjoyed this article. I'm curious to hear more about the distinction between getting feedback from your customer base and actually opening up your design process to anyone in your social network.  Is open-sourcing design through social media just a faster, cheaper, more robust way of doing empathetic research on your end-users or is it actually a reliable method for creating prototypes?  I think the answer to this question should probably be followed with the age old question of user-led vs. user-centered design...

  • Megan

    Excellent response, Riley.  Thank you.  I like the idea of an in person session with company leaders.  I think you're right too.  Incentives in this economy need some rethinking.  I like the idea of  the coupon in general.  LivingSocial, Groupon and local discount aggregators are helping businesses sell they products and services, but I'd like to see how that model of "discounting" can be transferred into employee incentive.  Maybe time off?  Same pay, less work?

  • Riley Gibson

    Hey  Anytime awards can be linked to personal development and recognition in some way they tend to work better.  For example, a company may create a challenge where the top 5 collaborators are flown out to an in person ideation session with company leaders.  A lot of the coolest challenges we have seen have nothing to do with money, and instead, provide a platform for contributors to build their portfolio or resume.  

    Another aspect of it is giving your community multiple ways to engage with you.  Some people are visual thinkers, some people are very analytical and all of those methods of thought are valuable.  If your tool only lets people express themselves in the form of ideas, some people will lurk, because they are intimidated by other responses and do not feel their contributions will be worthy. 

    Just some thoughts from our experience, but incentives are an arena ripe for innovation!   

  • Megan

    Great article.  Thank you.  I have a question about creating incentives for participation.  This has been one of the biggest obstacles in the organizations I've been a part of.  Even gathering responses to a "challenge" posted on a listserv was met with disappointing results.  It seems that most people lurk rather than contribute.  (I think part of that is generational, but that might be a separate issue).

    Can you think of other incentives besides monetary compensation or recognition that would generate a greater frequency of participation?


  • Riley Gibson

    Hi  Connecting global groups of people is one of the greatest advantages of Napkin Labs, I believe.  You can certainly create a lab and invite your peeps from all over the world into the system to work together in a fun environment.  Right now the system is only in english, but if everyone is English speaking, then you can use it anywhere. 


  • Sean

    Hello Riley,
    Is this only available for use in the US or can this be rolled out to my business units in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East?  Although we are only a mid-sized business, we do have business units in other areas of the world which would benefit from this concept.  

  • Riley Gibson

    Hi    thanks for your interest!  We do get that question a lot.  We are focused more on small to medium sized businesses - many of whom don't have SharePoint. 

    Also, the biggest thing for us was creating a super clean and engaging interface along with game mechanics so that companies can reach stakeholders outside their company.  We found it difficult to engage customers on anything that felt like business software.

    Thanks for the question!  Riley.

  • Matteo

    Love the concept....

    But let's say one has a SharePoint instance in their organization...couldn't one just leverage that social enterprise platform for the same purposes?  Why would I need Napkin Labs?