You’ve heard of concept cars—those futuristic car models, made years in advance of production, designed to envision the future, test ideas, and generate buzz. Industries and manufacturers of all sizes can learn something from this car company playbook. Envisioning the future of your category is key to successful design and innovation. Imagining and visualizing the future of your products or services serves many purposes. To inspire innovation efforts, to paint a target for innovation teams, to shape your future, and to predict the potholes along the way. You’ll also help position your company as an innovator in your category. Here are five steps for creating your vision, with examples, from cars to computers to office furniture.
1. Consider Future Lifestyles Before Future Products
Lifestyles drive innovation. So, before you focus on the future of your product, focus on the future of your customers’ lifestyles. This includes trends in work and play, social networks, families and tribes, and technological aptitudes.
Ed Boyd, SVP of Experience Design at Dell Computer (and a BOLTGROUP alum), tells how his advanced concepts team envisions its products three generations out. With their two-year development cycles, they are looking six or more years into the future. Interestingly, the future they explore is not necessarily focused on computers. In fact, it’s computer agnostic—not a Dell, HP, Apple or any other piece of hardware or software. They focus on people, services, lifestyles, and technologies. One recent visioning was around “precision”—precision to simplify work by centralizing data, eliminating duplicate files, and fostering collaboration.
2. Gain Empathy with Today’s End User
Use research to get a deep empathy with the customer and end user of today. Understand who they are. Understand their character traits and the traits they look for in products. With that empathy of today, and knowledge of where lifestyles are headed, you can begin to estimate tomorrow.
Car companies design new models four to eight years out. The car on the designer’s tablet today may not hit the market for many years. To stay in touch with consumers of today and tomorrow, they listen for who consumers are as people. Kevin George, Design Manager of the Ford Edge SUV, describes how his team held clinics where consumers and designers worked together to sketch up ideas (at BOLTGROUP we call them “participatory design sessions”). The goal was not to actually design a car, but to get to know the consumer, and their personalities and perceptions. Ford learned consumers wanted an SUV that was both dominating and accommodating. Sounds contradictory, until you think of it in terms of the character trait we call “charismatic.” We think of charismatic people as knowing when to be dominating and when to be accommodating. The resulting vision from Kevin’s design team became the Ford Edge with a fast-paced yet nimble look that fits this consumer’s lifestyle.
3. Assess the Impact of Technology
Apply emerging technologies and creative design thinking that will both impact future lifestyles in a positive way and help avoid future barriers.
Through consumer research Kevin George’s team at Ford understood the role of technology in SUV drivers’ lives—to be a better driver, to stay connected in the car, and to enjoy the ride. Ed Boyd’s team at Dell applied technology to achieve their vision of “precision.” Some companies picture likely future scenarios based on burgeoning technologies. Years ago, I helped Herman Miller’s advanced concept team consider the implications of wireless technology in the workplace. They knew wireless was coming, but no one knew exactly what that meant to people’s work habits and lifestyles. Teams from design, marketing, engineering, anthropology, and research generated concepts based on a world without wires.
4. Tell the Story of Your Future
Visualizations of the future are unproven. Organizational land mines abound—people in the organization who’ve not been part of the process will be skeptical. So, craft a story, not just a concept. Start with the customer input, connect the dots, then tell about testing, then integrate technology. The most effective stories are crafted by a multidisciplinary team—design, strategic marketing, etc. And use visualization technologies to make your story compelling (CAD, CGI, VR, etc.).
5. Rely on the Right Team
To effectively accomplish Steps 1 through 4, establish an advanced concepts team, separate from your day-to-day new product development team (NPD). The NPD team should focus on products for introduction in one to two years. The advanced concept team works five or more years out. They visualize concepts to take advantage of future opportunities and navigate future obstacles. This gives the concept team freedom to think outside the box and explore potentially disruptive innovations. But neither team works in a vacuum—ideas and methods must be shared between teams. When the network works smoothly, the best concepts from the advanced team are brought to fruition by the NPD team. See more at https://boltgroup.com/custom-teams-for-innovation.
I suspect Ford and Dell designers now envision a world where no one needs a driver’s license or a workstation (think driverless cars and wearable computing). With the fives steps outlined here you can create your own product vision, designing your future, so your future doesn’t design you.