Tim Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO, ranked as one of the most innovative companies in the world by Fast Company and by business leaders surveyed by the Boston Consulting Group. Over more than 20 years, IDEO has helped design the products, services, spaces, and interactive experiences that have brought many new companies and brands to life.

At the core of IDEO’s approach to innovation is what is known as “design thinking,” an approach from the world of industrial design that non-designers can use to address many kinds of challenges. Organizations that embrace this approach-which  combines what is desirable from a  human  point  of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable-can transform how they develop products, services, processes, and strategy.

Tim BrownAn industrial designer by training, Brown has earned numerous design awards and has exhibited work at the Axis Gallery, in Tokyo; the Design Museum, in London; and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. He takes special interest in the convergence of technology and the arts, and in the use of design to promote the well-being of people in emerging economies. His book on how design thinking transforms organizations, Change by Design, was published by HarperBusiness in September 2009. He has written for publications such as Harvard Business Review and the Economist, and he frequently speaks about the value of design thinking and innovation to businesspeople and designers around the world.

The following is an edited transcript of Brown’s recent phone conversation with CTO Straight Talk Editor-in-Chief Paul Hemp and Managing Editor Gil Press.

What’s the best way to explain design thinking to non-designers like us?

Design thinking is the set of tools and methodologies that designers use to tackle problems. The question design thinking asks is, “How do you take a people-focused approach to problem solving, particularly around the role of technology and  the tools and the environment we create for ourselves?” The approach depends on a pretty deep understanding of what people really do and what they really want. It includes being able to take a disparate set of needs and results and synthesize those into solutions that are often dramatically different from the solutions that might emerge from a traditional product development process. The tools and methodologies of design thinking, which have evolved over  decades, include live prototyping, exploration, and improving ideas through iteration in the real world. Design thinking is a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human- centered design ethos.

What is the downside of approaching problems with a more traditional approach?

Very often you end up with too much complexity. You get a focus on features and functions rather than on benefits.   We’ve all experienced   it,   haven’t   we?   We’ve seen technologies that aren’t based on an understanding of people’s modes of behavior, how they use things, and what confounds them. A classic example is the VCR. Theoretically, the device was useful, but it was developed from a technological perspective rather than from a design perspective. And so a lot of people had trouble using it.

How might the principles of design thinking be applied to the Internet of Things?

In a number of ways. One aspect of the Internet of Things is connecting the physical elements of our world much more directly to the digital elements. Essentially, we are augmenting experiences that we already have today. In that situation, the challenges have to do with pulling that off without making life more complex for users, allowing them to gain the benefits without too great a cost. If you have to pull your phone out every time you need to walk into a room, that could be great or it could be really annoying. Instead of grabbing for a door handle and opening it, now I have to pull my phone out and program a code so that the door will open? Is that easier or more difficult? If we aren’t careful, we could make things less great for people, rather than more great.

The Internet of Things is also about connecting the physical and the digital worlds to create experiences we’ve never had before. There, the challenge is conceiving of what those might be and understanding, again, the real needs, the real potential  benefits. The role of design in this instance is an exploratory one. How can we quickly make prototypes, explore, iterate, and make sure these new experiences will have an impact? I think these two categories--improving existing experiences and conceiving completely new experiences--are both places where the principles of design thinking will play an important role.

Have you gotten the chance, in your own work or at IDEO, to engage in the Internet of Things?

Most of the work we do in this space is still fairly “out there,” and we’re still exploring it with our clients. Certainly we’ve looked at its role in the workplace and how it will affect the way we collaborate. A lot of collaboration is still face-to-face and physical; it’s still about being together. It’s surprising how often you walk into a room where people are physically collaborating and all you see are Post-it Notes and flip charts, not a lot of digital enablement. That, potentially, prevents some things from happening.

We’re quite interested in urban environments and how the Internet of Things might allow us to make our cities more livable and more efficient. We’re also observing the potential of the Internet of Things in health care. The Quantified Self movement – the idea that we can know more about ourselves because we can track ourselves, physically and ultimately mentally – is a subset of the Internet of Things that’s getting a lot of attention right now. I must say, I’m a little skeptical about how valuable it is to track how many steps we take every day and how long we sleep every night. I think we’re going to have to go a little deeper than that, like, “What happens when you pop a pill that has an RFID antenna on it so that we know what’s happening when it gets into your body?”

We just launched a piece of work called “Made in the Future” (MadeInTheFuture. co). It looks at the future of making and manufacturing, a lot of which is predicated on the concepts of the Internet of Things, of organizations and information moving back and forth between the digital world and the physical world. It’s clear that manufacturing and making things, and the way we think about the relationship between where things are made and where they’re used, could change quite fundamentally through some of these technologies; they could have large implications for economies and jobs and so on.

 Could you compare the design thinking approach to the traditional approach in the context of the Internet of Things?

Well, take what used to be called “home automation.” It has been around for quite a long time-the idea that you could plug into washing machines and light switches and TVs and you could talk to them and they could be smart about things. There are a bunch of organizations that have been working at this for a couple of decades, and yet there is hardly any take-up at all. You can certainly argue that the technology wasn’t robust enough and maybe not inexpensive enough,  but  I think a lot of it was because it was technology for technology’s sake. It was lots of little gadgets that did things that didn’t really have a lot of meaning. Why should we use this? How can it help us?

Then along comes Nest, a start-up with a beautifully elegant concept for a thermostat. It’s a beautiful little piece of home automation, although they don’t use this term. It’s also a beautiful example of the Internet of Things, but they don’t call it that, either. They just call it a simple way to manage the heating and cooling in your home. Then they come out with another product that is an elegant alternative to smoke alarms, and suddenly they’re selling themselves to Google for $3 billion. They’re completely design-led. There is almost no new technology in those products, but they’re very elegant assemblages of the right technology, very much focused on, “What will make   this a wonderful, new, elegant experience for the user?”

The Nest thermostat looks great, and it’s very easy to use, but what are the benefits to the user of a smart thermostat?

You want it to do a good job of making sure the house is at the right temperature at the right time. You want the technology to become invisible. You want it to drop out of your consciousness. I think that’s an important way of making things that could be valuable to us. They’re not things that we use. In other words, they take care of things that we used to have to apply our energy and our attention to. I think that’s a pretty interesting strategy, actually, for how you might conceive of developing applications and devices. What are the things that people have to apply attention to today but could happen invisibly if we designed them elegantly enough by connecting the physical to the digital? I think that could end up being one of the most interesting benefits of the Internet of Things.

What recent changes in the way people think about design and product development made a device like Nest possible?

I think it’s a combination of three things. One, we have a deeper understanding of what design does, when it’s working well, and what it can do. We’ve proliferated that across businesses and in the start-up world over the past five to ten years-quite successfully, I think. I think that organizations, whether they are large corporations or start-ups, are understanding more how design can make a difference. That is very closely related to the second trend. We now have a series of very good examples of products and new businesses that have design at their very core, from the iPod and the iPhone from Apple to start-ups that have designers on the founding team, like YouTube and Airbnb. The third trend, which I think is most important and, in many ways, most fundamental, is that the technology world has done a very good job of building out the stack so that most of the places where you make a difference today are at the level of user experience. Our computation capacity is so high that we can do what we like most of the time. In many, many cases, it’s possible to create meaningful and useful new products, new services, and new experiences just by changing the user experience. That’s a design problem, right?

I find it somewhat amusing when people talk about how important engineering is for many start-ups in Silicon Valley. That’s true, but what most of these engineers are doing is not very innovative stuff; it’s mostly cranking out code to deliver on the ideas. Most of the really serious engineering that has already been done. We see it here in our organization. In the past, we would conceive of a new design and have a long and painful process of working with the technical community to try to figure out how to make things work. Now I know any number of designers who are able to code and build their own stuff. That just wasn’t possible a few years ago. I think the success we’ve had in the past five or ten years in building out an infrastructure that allows design to fit on top of it has really changed, fundamentally, what can be done.

Would you go so far as to say that we’ve had a quantum leap in technology advancement, that we’re now on a plateau, a period of consolidation, in which we’re primarily taking advantage of this advancement to enable a design approach?

I would suggest that that has always happened and will always happen, depending on what technology you’re talking about. As an example, if you take the technological S-curve of the automobile, the speed part of that S-curve happened in the first 20 or 30 years of the last century. While there were certainly continued technological advancements, the core of what automobiles do today they could do 70 years ago. The vast majority of the growth of that industry, from then on, was design-led. It was, “How are vehicles going to appeal to different needs in different parts of the world?”

That’s always happened with technologies. I think there are certain technologies now where that’s happening, including the Internet. We’re just beginning to get involved, here at IDEO, in the design of some of the biological technologies that allow us to build using biological materials. That space is going to experience rapid acceleration, I expect, over the next few decades. There is always a new technology to get excited about, but there are always ones that are getting to the top of that S-curve.

Can you apply what you’ve been talking about to any recent experiences you’ve had with a network of devices? communicating with one another?

I am more and more pleasantly surprised when some system or even some piece of software anticipates my needs. It is a very prosaic example, and everybody uses it, but one of the applications I love – which is an Internet of Things application – is Uber [a mobile app that connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, enables online payment, and allows users to track the movement of the car they have been assigned]. I think Uber has done a great job connecting the real world to the digital world -that is, the real world of streets and cabs and human beings and drivers to the digital world of maps and timing and mobility. They’ve done that really well, and it makes getting around town hugely easier than it used to be.  I think it’s a very simple example, but I love it. I love the fact that I can be somewhere and call up a car and I’ll know, within a few moments, how many minutes it’s going to be before it gets there and how much it’s going to cost. I don’t have to worry about my credit cards or tipping. It’s the perfect example of bringing the physical world and the digital world together in a simple and effective way. That is the promise of the Internet of Things.

Originally published in CTO Straight Talk, No. 1 (August 2014)