IDEO “Shopping Cart” Video (Pt.2): The Deep Dive

In our last post, I started a series exploring the validity and applicability of IDEO’s shopping cart design video in 2022. I have been showing this video on and off since its initial production in 1999. Unfortunately, some of the content has not aged well, particularly its depiction of diversity. The last post offered a considered overview of this inadequacy.

The focus will be on the IDEO design process itself for this post. This review aims to break down the design process into each major component and review it as presented in the video.

Early in the video, Dave Kelly, one of the founders of IDEO, explains to the ABC Nightline reporter that “we are not experts at any given area… we’re kinda of experts on the process on how you design stuff”. He explains that they can apply their process in the service of innovating in any product or service area. The demonstration of the IDEO process is at the heart of the video. The video weaves back and forth from their design process as applied to the shopping cart to a guided tour of IDEO’s unique work culture (the subject of the next post).

When I think about the design thinking process, I consider framing the problem, gathering customer discovery & market data, designing & testing potential solutions, and finally, soft launching to determine how the solution works in the natural customer environment. The approach focuses on a deep understanding of a problem that our customer or stakeholder is trying to solve. The best solutions come from a deep understanding of what the customer is trying to accomplish and the frustrations experienced along the way. By diving into their everyday experience and challenges, you will begin to see ways to add value to their current situation. Sometimes, you will see the issues even when they don’t. 

The storyline takes through what may be considered three significant phases of design thinking, exploratory, idea generation, and prototyping & testing. The project team gathers information about the problem and the user or customer’s needs in the exploratory phase. During this phase, teams apply several techniques, including direct participant observation, journey mapping, and user interviews. The idea generation phase allows the team to transition from divergent thinking, generating multiple ideas, to convergent thinking, where initial ideas develop into feasible solutions. Several tools support the ideation phase, including brainstorming techniques, mind mapping, and cluster analysis. The final phase focuses on designing and building early solution prototypes to solicit feedback from all relevant stakeholders.

Exploratory Phase

The video begins the process with the core team of designers reviewing information and data that they have gleaned from what I suspect are some early secondary research sources. I surmise that they are conducting a preliminary screen of the current state of shopping cart design and use before they start what design thinking experts call the “observation” stage.

Acknowledging that these video productions are edited and condensed for clarity, the early group discussion is not in context. But I agree that there needs to be preliminary research to design a protocol that leads to unbiased observations of shopping cart users and other associate stakeholders. So what do they find out? From the video, one surmises that the team set out to review the information currently available on shopping cart design and known problem areas.

The first area they focus on is one child safety, with a team member reporting on injury and hospitalization data occurring in supermarkets associated with shopping carts, to the astonishment of the group, the data reported over 22,000 hospitalized injuries per year. What prompted the exploration of safety is not known, but the design team quickly stumbles upon a significant problem area. A problem in which we, as a society, have made little progress.

Another issue that comes to the surface during this early research phase is the theft of shopping carts. According to the Food Marketing Institute in Washington D.C., annual costs due to cart theft are around $800 million.

At some point, the team leader suggests that they create a list of any questions they want to ask during grocery store site visits. So the preliminary research helps to shape the observational and interview strategies for the planned visit. The team is then divided into groups by specific problem or need areas and sent to the site to meet with people who “use, make, and repair “shopping carts. “The trick is to find these real experts so you learn much more quickly than you could then by doing it the normal way, trying to do it by yourself.” Dave Kelly notes that the process at this stage is like a social scientist that is studying tribal culture and observing behavior to understand the problem or need best.

After a 2-hour site visit, the teams returned and shared everything they observed and experienced. Then, as becomes apparent, they identify four major user need areas, child safety, cart theft, shopping process, and locating specific food items.

One of the questions that occurs while watching the video is who is the actual customer? Of course, this challenge is part of a news piece and one where the objectives are not market-driven in the typical sense that there is a problem to be solved for an actual paying customer. This lack of customer focus leads to a lack of clarity regarding the problem definition and pain points experienced by the stakeholders involved. One of the discussions we have in class starts with the question, who is the customer for this shopping cart? About a third of the way through the video, Dave Kelley emphatically states that the team has to make sure to integrate the needs of the store manager. Is the store manager the ultimate B2B customer? Unfortunately, the video does not indicate what discussions, if any, took place with store management. In a market-driven scenario, management is part of the initial discussions and, most likely, specific product attributes outlined. For example, management may have stipulated that any new shopping cart must cost around the same as the current price. While a reasonable request, it would have placed specific constraints on the design solution.

One can’t retrospectively know how the needs-finding process would have been different if management had been more involved in the early engagement. You can say that you would have still wanted to observe and interview the direct users of the shopping cart, much like IDEO’s team. You would want to talk to parents about their concerns regarding child safety, observe regular customers shop and compete them with professional shoppers, and speak with others directly or indirectly involved with maintenance and care of the carts. There is no doubt that the concerns of store management and shoppers combined would have created a different set of needs and concerns. It would be up to the design team to tease these out and make a design that would optimize the solution for all involved parties.

I frequently ponder the sequencing of these exploratory design steps on the process itself. If you consider the first two stages in a traditional design thinking process – observe and understand, one wonders about the optimal order of these two tasks. Do you first observe cold with minimal research that might lead to biased observation? Or is there a suitable amount of preparation that helps you optimize your observations? For example, in the video, the team was quite astonished to learn of the data on child injury. What did they do with this knowledge once they started to speak with parents during the site visit? How did they formulate their questions to the parents? Did they lead parents to talk about their concerns regarding child safety? Would it have come up as a topic if it had not been explicitly referenced? On the other hand, knowing this issue may facilitate a state of awareness that increases your observations of parent and child behavior while shopping.

In the end, I tend to lean towards the benefits of preparation to make sure that you use your observation and discovery time optimally.

Another benefit of preparation is how it may influence the design team’s ability to empathize with the user’s situation. One of the core skills required for successful problem solving is the capacity for empathy. Design thinking processes are structured to develop and enhance your understanding of the customer and their experience. From the start of the design process, you are laser-focused on understanding the customers’ experience with what they are trying to accomplish and the obstacles. Like an anthropologist, you investigate the customer experience and learn what they are doing and what is going on with them emotionally. As part of this investigation, you are also hoping to learn how they currently work through the problem or task in question, including any solutions to eliminate or minimize obstacles. By probing these current solutions, you begin to gain insight into how they would like to see things work functionally and emotionally. This empathetic work leads to insight into what would make their life better in this situation.

While the research on empathy can be pretty confusing, I believe that it shows that certain types of preparation can lead to a more empathetic outcome. For example, research shows that priming a person to empathize with a specific pain point or challenge intentionally will increase the substantial degree of empathy when presented with the target person. In addition, it is common practice to build empathy through storytelling in the design thinking world. For the above reasons, I have founders create customer journey maps before their discovery interviews. The act of narrative building primes the person to listen to specific aspects of the customer’s experience. If the particular elements of the experience do not come up during an open interview, you can probe later (keeping in mind that you initiated the thought, not the customer). Look for any corresponding research on empathy and primings, etc.)

Idea Generation Phase

Once the IDEO team returns from their site visit, they start by sharing everything they have learned during the visit. This initial sharing begins the “deep dive.”, a total immersion into the problem. As you will see, the deep dive is a variation of what may be considered the traditional brainstorming process. But as Tom Kelley notes in his book, The Art of Innovation, IDEO works very hard to optimize the brainstorming process, considers it a practice, and continually experiments with ways to improve its application.

While many people give credit to Dave Kelley and his colleagues at IDEO for formalizing human-centered design or design thinking, they certainly did not invent brainstorming. The concept has been around since 1938, when Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, introduced the term and popularized it through his writings. In 1953 he published “Applied Imagination – Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking,” He outlines the steps that are now quite familiar to anyone who works in groups and solves problems.

Osborn listed four main guidelines that will sound similar to those applied by the IDEO team. The rules outlined in his book include:

  • No criticism of ideas.
  • Going for large quantities of ideas.
  • Building on each other’s ideas.
  • Encouraging wild and exaggerated statements.

Compare these tenets with IDEO’s guidelines as presented on large signs in their meeting rooms.

IDEO Deep Dive Guidelines:

  • One conversation at a time
  • Stay focused on the topic
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Defer judgment
  • Build on the ideas of others

As a technique to generate ideas to support the solution of a problem, group brainstorming has been around for quite a long time. But does it work? The research is far from clear. In a significant review of the brainstorming research, Paulus and Vincent R. Brown (Hofstra University) found that group brainstorming is not the most effective way to generate new ideas. They argue that the group process does not yield as many ideas as individual brainstorming. At times, members have to delay speaking and may lose track of their thoughts, getting distracted during the sharing process. They suggest that one way to avoid this issue is to have people write down their ideas and share them in written form, “brainwriting.” Their paper tests a few different mixing methods of sharing – writing and vocalizing. Although a small sample size, the act of writing ideas seemed to impact the number of ideas positively.

As seen in the IDEO video, facilitation helps. Research has found that the effectiveness of brainstorming in interactive groups can be significantly enhanced by having a trained facilitator. The facilitator helps to enforce various rules that support the number of ideas generated. These rules help keep people talking, stay focused, and encourage everyone to contribute. Without the proper facilitation, brainstorming efforts will be less effective. Beyond this post, much research highlights barriers to effective brainstorming outcomes, including individual apprehension to sharing ideas in groups, low productivity due to competition for speaking time, and lack of anonymity.

Beyond facilitation, other cognitive factors impact the efficacy of brainstorming. For example, individual participants’ capacity to attend and retain the ideas of others help to stimulate new associations – building on the opinions of others. One of the best practices that IDEO has developed for preparing participants for a brainstorming session is having members participate in some warmup activity. As Tom Kelley notes, sometimes it helps the team to focus during the deep dive if they participated in an earlier warmup activity. The warmup aims to stimulate a mindset to transition attention to the problem. Activities like a “show and tell” trip help establish the right frame of mind to focus attention and awareness on the brainstorming activity. For the shopping cart challenge, the site visit to the grocery store serves this purpose by creating a standard frame of reference and focus supporting the ideation session. As a facilitator of the brainstorming session, bringing the participants back to the site visit can create search cues that bring back potentially helpful images and thoughts from long-term memory in support of the ideation process.

Earlier in my career, when I was teaching engineering design, I would frequently kick start a project by taking the class on a site visit. One summer, my class was tasked to assess and provide design solutions to support ADA compliance across New York City’s Zoo system. Like the IDEO process, after conducting some preliminary research into ADA compliance and assistive technologies, the Zoo visits served as both inspiration and a framing mechanism. Upon return from the visits, students were able to share what they observed, and the class was able to see needed areas to be addressed. In this case, the need areas ranged from ride accessibility to exhibit signage. These visits enhanced the subsequent brainstorming sessions and eventual design recommendations.

The cognitive diversity of the group increases the range of ideas generated during brainstorming sessions. As the IDEO video illustrates, having participants with various experiences and knowledge facilitates creative ideation. That said, as we discussed in the last post, the diversity of the participants should go beyond cognitive experiences. As a thought experiment, think about the outcomes of the IDEO deep-dive if the participants represented a broader demographic?

After watching the IDEO video, a recent student shared a story about how local grocery stores in the area tackled the problem of the removal of shopping carts from their property. Shopping carts showed up at large multi-residential seniors’ high-rise buildings in the local area. Seniors would transport their groceries and shopping supplies to and from various grocery stores and discard them at the buildings’ front entrance or parking lot. This situation was causing a problem both for the grocery stores and the city housing authorities.

Understanding the cause of the missing shopping carts and the reasons for the behavior, the city, grocery merchants, and tenants could find solutions to reduce the behavior. One of the solutions included the provision of free transportation from the shopping locations to the residential areas. Providing alternative transportation reduced the need for shopping carts by the residents. You can imagine that if IDEO had a more representative membership with knowledge and experience of the local community dynamics, the design specifications around theft might have gone a different way. After all, the IDEO design would not have necessarily stopped the above behavior – residents would have hung the shopping bags on the provided hooks and taken the carts off-premise with their groceries in tow.

Much of the most recent research has looked at electronic brainstorming techniques, distributed virtual sessions, and metaverse sessions. In trying to avoid some of the earlier problems associated with verbal brainstorming, many researchers have turned to electronic methods to stimulate and collect ideas. Allowing participants to enter their ideas into a program and monitor the ideas of others simultaneously results in a higher quantity of ideas. Of course, this method is not without its challenges. There is no guarantee that participants can attend to what is being shared by others while thinking about their idea. That said, the literal capturing of the ideas for review later is a compelling outcome.

Most brainstorming programs support the collection, monitoring, prioritization, voting, and elaboration of ideas generated. There is no magic bullet here, and facilitation and training are still required to optimize these tools. These brainstorming tools are beneficial as you move from divergent to convergent thinking. Starting with the ability to visualize the ideas and move them into clusters, making connections using mind mapping techniques helps focus on the interconnections required to transition from concept to application. Research shows that focusing on subsets of ideas usually results in a more significant number of ideas within the category and increases the novelty.

Again, if you think about the IDEO non-electronic version, they moved from ideation to categorizing, prioritizing by voting, and then transitioned to solution design and prototyping. As with many of today’s software solutions, the IDEO process uses visualization extensively. You can see that small groups of people are sitting together, making sketches, sharing them verbally, and then pinning them to the walls around the room. While it is not clear from the video how the ideas and drawings are categorized, I surmise it is by the need area.

Once generated, ideas are displayed on the walls around the room. From here, the team narrows down the ideas by voting. Design team members walked around the room voting via colored-coded post-it notes. An essential element of the voting process is meeting specific product design criteria. For example, the team leader reminds everyone not to vote for an idea that cannot be built within the challenge’s time frame. After idea generation, teams evaluate the shared ideas and prioritize ideas for further development. You may assess ideas on several dimensions: novelty, feasibility, utility, and impact. 

One of my colleagues asked the class during a recent video showing, does voting work? Well, the research seems limited on that subject. However, one can surmise from the decision-making research that you train team members to evaluate ideas against the criteria; a certain amount of calibration occurs, making the voting more valid. Without training, the judgment behind the poll can be inconsistent and lack validity. A clear understanding of the voting criteria will help alleviate the common biases found during divergent thinking, favoring feasible over novel ideas.

Finally, does diversity support convergent thinking? From a research perspective, there is little work on multiple perspectives’ impact on building on ideas, prioritizing, and early development. Intuitively, it should help as it does with generating ideas. But, again, training may be an essential element in this phase. As noted in the diversity research on innovation, one possible barrier can be the challenge of reaching a consensus when the team members represent a wide range of perspectives.

While the video does not convey all the nuances of the process, it is clear that IDEO takes the approach seriously and treats it as a practice, one where everyone gets better over time.

Prototyping & Feedback Phase

The team begins to build physical prototypes from the deep dive ideation and prioritization sessions. I believe how they structure this prototyping phase is the most compelling for students and founders to observe.

Its starts with a transition point, where a “self-appointed” leadership team discusses the best way to proceed and refocus the various groups’ efforts. Something that I will come back to in a later post, but this brief period of “autocratic” decision making is an essential structural procedure that helps innovation happen. In this case, the IDEO design participants are restructured into four need areas to build mockups – shopping, safety, checkout, and item location. At this point of the process, it is common to refocus the targeted need areas.

The most important lesson from the video, in my perspective, is IDEO’s decision to split the design teams into the four need areas, each team focusing their design efforts on a potential solution to the specific problem area. For example, one design team worked on designing the child seat to improve its safety. The prioritization of the four need areas and then further limiting the scope of each design effort is an excellent example of minimal viable product development. In the IDEO case, they work on four need areas separately but concurrently. For many startups, this would be too broad of an effort. But with the right capabilities and, in this case, an extreme time constraint, the process makes sense.

It mimics the classic MVP design process. You take priority need areas, build features in a short amount of time and at minimal expense, and then get it into the hands of the customer for feedback. IDEO prototyping process is iterative as the MVP approach. You build in small incremental steps, checking for progress towards meeting the functional and emotional needs of the customer. At each design interval, the fidelity of the solution increases, providing the design team and the customer with a clear view of the solution experience.

In the shopping cart design, the teams develop four mockups, each cart illustrating how to solve one of the four need areas. Then, each team shares its design to solicit input from the group. After the review, the leadership team meets with the four teams and suggests additional modifications before integrating the four designs into the final design. This next iteration aims to look at each mockup and see what it will take to ready it for integration. As Dave Kelley says, “You take a piece of each of these ideas, back it off a little bit, and then put in the [final] design.”

“Fail often to succeed.” By the time we get to this stage, the teams have deviated from the initially defined need areas. I hypothesize that there was some loss of focus, possibly due to the time pressure. The goal of this project was to demonstrate the IDEO design process. I think they have achieved this objective. The challenge results show both successful design outcomes and some ideas that are not quite feasible in the current 1999 environment. For example, having a scanning device on the cart has only recently come to fruition, thanks to Amazon (and even this innovation is in limited use).

The final portion of the video shows the cart being demonstrated in the store environment by the team. As an audience, we watch a short walk-through of the cart’s functionality and a sound bite with comments solicited from store employees. The video ends as the feedback loop is closed for this iteration.

Final Thoughts

This 1999 Ideo video showed the world what design thinking is and, I believe, created the spark resulting in the design thinking movement and a significant step forward in the product innovation process. There are many vital lessons from the highlighted design process throughout the video. After reviewing much of the research on brainstorming up until recent times, it is clear that IDEO was way ahead in their understanding and practice of these techniques. Many of the practices shown in the video are now considered best practices in implementing brainstorming and other aspects of the design process.

The third part of this series will look at IDEO’s culture and its impact on an organization’s capacity for sustained innovation.

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