Top Five Suggestions For Entrepreneurs From IDEO

The 2008 Nantucket Conference opened up with a session led by world-class design firm IDEO. The session title was Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs: Identifying New Markets and Developing the Winning Product or Service. Although they could have designed a better title, Devorah Klein (Human Factor Specialist) and Eric Saperstein (New Business Initiatives) did a great job walking people through the IDEO process. Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, sat at the back and helped with answers to some questions from the audience.

Focus on Desirability

The core of the IDEO philosophy starts with a focus on desirability. Come up with something people want then figure out how to optimize the technical and business aspects of it. Keep in mind that designing for people means designing for a journey through the product/service lifecycle.


The presenters told cautionary tales about clients who come up with a vision of something that people want but then cut so many corners to get feasibility and viability where they want them to be that the end result deviates substantially from the original vision.

The lesson here is to stay true to your vision. Apple under Steve’s inspired but at the same time occasionally ruthless leadership is probably the best recent example of a company doing everything it can to stay true to its vision. The teams building the iPod and iPhone jumped through a lot of hoops to build great products. Apple even took the risk of launching the iPhone on the relatively limited AT&T network rather than compromise their vision in dealing with larger mobile operators. Microsoft’s Vista is an example of a product that comes from a company which has lost some of its vision.

The Process

The IDEO process goes from observation to solution through intermediate three steps (a) synthesis, where observations get abstracted to a core form of knowledge and understanding about the domain, (b) the development of a generative framework based on that knowledge which in turn enables (c) the creation of many prototypes.


Get Inspiration

Getting inspiration through observation is where it all begins. IDEO’s approach here is similar to other methodologies such as Contextual Design. However, inspiration can come from other sources such as the prototypes you’ve built. Some ideas for getting inspiration:

  • Spent time with people, both current customers and people who you’d want to have as customers. Develop deep empathy.
  • Imagine what the future could be. Do not constrain your thinking.
  • Embrace failure. Failure is data.
  • Build to think. The act of creation helps you see things in a different light.
  • Build low-res prototypes. Paper is OK. Iterate quickly. Generate many options. Be passionate about your prototypes but evaluate them dispassionately.
  • Build it yourself. It’s another way to get yourself to see things from a different perspective.


The value fast prototyping is huge. I tell the entrepreneurs I work with that they must fail quickly & cheaply but that is OK to take a lot of time and a lot of money to be wildly successful. Here are some words of advice on prototyping from IDEO’s Devorah Klein.

Five things to try tomorrow

The presenters left the group with the following five suggestions:

  1. Spent time with customers. Really push yourself to think about unusual but relevant people you should talk to.
  2. Be visual and tangible. Build a prototype of something. Paper is OK.
  3. Try it yourself. This is the classing dogfooding principle.
  4. Get out of your category for inspiration. You won’t know what you don’t know until you see something that inspires you.
  5. Test-drive ideas. Do it all the time.

How does IDEO do it?

Thinking about IDEO’s process, three interesting questions came to mind:

  1. Is what they are doing unique?
  2. How do they recruit?
  3. Is their process teachable?

For the first question, I turned to my friend Jules Pieri, an entrepreneur who is an industrial designer by training.

With regards to the second question, Devorah’s comment was that IDEO likes to recruit T-shaped people, folks who are deep in one are but broad in many.

Last but not least, CEO Tim Brown mentioned that IDEO is currently involved with projects in Africa where they are packaging some of their methodology to help local entrepreneurs design better products and services. Tim’s take is that IDEO’s process is definitely teachable.

For those who’d like to know more

I have four book suggestions if you are interested in this topic.

Also, there are some neat presentations/videos on the IDEO site.

IDEO and startups

Some of you may be wondering whether it makes sense for an early-stage startup to engage IDEO. Last year I approached the Boston office of IDEO with the very same question. The short answers is “probably not”. An process iteration tends to cost in the six digit range. Also, engaging with IDEO requires a lot of human resources from the company going through the process.

As with many things in startup life, it’s best to be self-reliant–learn to apply some of the core principles of the IDEO methodology yourself.

About Simeon Simeonov

Entrepreneur. Investor. Trusted advisor.
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15 Responses to Top Five Suggestions For Entrepreneurs From IDEO

  1. Gregory Raiz says:

    While IDEO is probably out of the price range of many startups there are plenty of talented designers and design companies practicing similar methodologies. Look for user centric design, usability and user experience designers.

    Disclosure: I provide exactly this type of guidance to many companies large and small.

  2. Gregory Raiz says:

    Follow up by request of Simeon…

    Some additional resources for startups…. – a group of usability and design professionals. The member directory has tons of people. – a research community in interface design in boston. – user experience company in NH – user interaction company in MA, NY – user research company in Boston – my company focused on user experience development and design project in and around Boston. FYI… We’re also building our own photo startup. (

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  5. dharmeshs says:

    Great article. Sounds like you folks are having a great time at the Nantucket Conference.

    One topic from your article that I think would be great as a follow-up is the answer to the question:

    How do you pick the “right” customers to listen to the most? For those startups that have the luxury of lots of feedback, the challenge is often figuring out which customers are more likely to provide the right direction because they’re asking for the right things.

  6. Thanks, Greg–much appreciated.

  7. Dharmesh, great question. I will plan to write on the topic.

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  9. julespieri says:

    Some other alternatives to IDEO:

    Continuum (Boston)–similar–high–price structure but very robust strategically and serious Boston office. IDEO is stronger on West Coast.

    Altitude, Boston. Spin-out from Continuum.
    Manta Design. Same as above.

  10. Thanks, Jules.

  11. Scott Lewis says:

    To dharmeshs question on which customer, one thing IDEO was clear on was that your existing customers cannot be the sole source and may not even be the primary source for innovation. We see this in software all the time, the customer ends up in a small box of what they can imagine your product doing next. Meanwhile a much larger opportunity is grabbed by a competitor.

    As I understand it, the idea of oberservation and synthesis in the IDEO methodology are to look in places you wouldn’t normally look and try out ideas well beyond your starting point. Look for similar situations in different industries.

    Basic product management would also suggest that the best buyers to talk to are the non-customer buyers. Those that are prospects but haven’t found the solution to their problem yet in what they think you offer.

    It was a great conference and I enjoyed meeting you Sim as well as everyone else in attendance.

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  13. Alan Nevil says:

    Another resource for startups is a company situation in san francisco.

    They are heavily involved in storytelling. I worked with them on a long project two years ago, one of the main creatives is an ex-ideor. We developed online software with them. Great usability experts over there. I highly recommend them.

    Good luck.

  14. Great resource. Thanks, Alan.

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