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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.

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

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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