Tag Archives: design strategy

Lessons from South Park

On Wednesday, I attended a talk at the Innovation Lab by IDEO’s Life Sciences Chief Strategist, Rodrigo Martinez. The talk was put on by a group called ‘Design+’ which hopes to bring more design thinking to the business school through talks and events, something I’m clearly interested in as well.

While much of Rodrigo’s talk was familiar to me (he went over things like how folks at IDEO get inspired, the power of in-depth research over huge quantitative studies, the design process, and the value of cross-disciplinary teams), he and some of the other folks there mentioned a few things in the health space that I definitely want to check out, like the talks from TEDMed last week. But one non-healthcare mention peaked my interest – a student asked if Rodrigo had seen the documentary on the making of a South Park episode called ‘6 Days to Air‘ (he hadn’t). The student wondered if there were similarities between episode-making process of South Park and the project cycle of a design strategy firm. Having watched the documentary, I can tell you there are.

I should caveat by saying that I’m not really a big fan of South Park. I find its jokes crude, usually offensive, and not my style of humor. But I have great respect for creative teams in general, so I put my feelings about the content aside and looked at their creative process. The premise of the documentary, which aired on Comedy Central in October, is that the creators of South Park have just come off a long hiatus working on their Broadway musical, ‘The Book of Mormon’, and now have just six days to create the season-opening episode for South Park. As I watched the team, I was surprised to see that their methodologies and structures are almost identical to those of a design strategy firm.

1.) Create a safe space for ideation

On South Park, the writer’s room is a writers-only conference room where the team gathers to come up with episode ideas. The room’s exclusivity creates a safe space where folks feel comfortable throwing out stupid ideas without being criticized. Moreover, censorship for the sake of network politics is not allowed. Co-creator Matt Stone notes that “for every good idea, there had to be 100 bad ones” so having this space to air them is key to their success.

At most design strategy firms, a similar effort is made to create safe spaces for ideation. Some, like Jump, even create ‘rules for brainstorming’ which include things like: defer judgement, encourage wild ideas, and build on each other. To have a good ideation experience, you don’t need to be invite-only, but you to need to get everyone bought into creating a safe ideation space.

2.) Find inspiration in personal experiences and the world around you

As you watch Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the other writers brainstorm, you hear them pull in ideas from current events. “What is it with those stupid iTunes terms and conditions, where they want you to scroll through 10 pages of text before you agree? Does anyone actually read that? No? Well, what have we all agreed to exactly?” Just like that, from an annoying moment in one person’s day, a whole episode arc gets created.

Design strategists know that you can get project-defining inspiration from the most unexpected sources. That’s why folks at creative strategy firms are constantly feeding their heads by reading magazines, watching films, talking with people, trying out new technologies, and going on field trips to local stores and museums. One key is to make sure you feed your head with stuff beyond the area your project is focused on. You’re working on a new mobile technology? Why not explore what’s going on in fashion for a day? It’s the unlikely connections that can lead you to the most interesting ideas.

3.) Be versed in prototyping mediums so you can try it as you go

The documentary shows that the entire South Park staff is able to prototype the episode as they create it. Writers hop up to the whiteboard to draw rough sketches of scenes, and animators slip into the characters’ voices to suss out sequences. Whether it’s in a medium core to their background or not, the team members have learned how to prototype in just the right level of fidelity to push their ideas forward.

As a design strategist, you’re encouraged to develop prototyping skills in the same way. Even if you consider yourself more of a strategist than a designer, you should know how to do a quick sketch of an idea to explain it to others. Conversely, your design chops will only get so far if you can’t do some back-of-the-napkin rapid estimation for a ballpark number to value your idea. As a member of a cross-disciplinary team, you need to be able to prototype in all the different disciplines in order to fully realize an idea.

4.) Success depends on how much fun you’re having

As the writing team brainstorms, the rest of the South Park staff casually strolls by the writing room door to check on laughter level. Why? Because the amount of laughter coming from the room is a clear metric for how late the staff can expect to stay. If there’s a lot of laughing, things are on track and they might make it home for bed. When everyone is starting blankly at the wall, you can expect to be there until 5am.

At design strategy firms, the amount of fun team members are having is a key metric to how well the team is working together, and how successful their outputs will be. At Jump, we liked to take breaks throughout the day to play four square on the patio or doodle mutant product ideas. Being silly energized us and allowed our minds to wander, helping us bring fresh perspectives when we got back to work.

5.) Set deadlines to force decisions

After the team has sent the final edit off to the network, co-creator Matt is not happy, and laments that they could have used another day to perfect the episode. He admits, however, that the feeling of not being done is one he has for every episode, and that deadlines are the saving grace of making a show. With an extra week or two, you can second-guess and re-write, but you’re only going to make the show 5% better.

I firmly believe that deadlines are key to the creative process. Whether its setting a deadline for how long you’ll brainstorm (hint: quit while the energy is still high) to when you’ll present in front of an executive team, working towards a time goal creates team energy that is hard to build otherwise. The key is to make the expectations reasonable for the time left (I would argue that South Park fails here, given that the entire team spends the Easter holiday sleeping at the office) by backwards-planning up front and being realistic about how long things take.

South Park may not be for everyone, but their creative team has developed a process that works. These five lessons are ones that any business that’s trying to be more creative can and should follow as it strives to develop new-to-the-world ideas and solutions.

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Eric Ries on The Lean Startup

Harvard’s new Innovation Lab has been hosting a lot of great events this fall, and one of them was a talk given by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup. To me, the thesis of his talk was that in order to run a lean startup, you need to test your ideas early and often. He told a story about working as the Chief Technology Officer of IMVU, a software company that was making an avatar-based instant messaging system. They had spent a year developing the technology, fixing bugs, and getting it perfect, but when it came to launch, they had a major problem. In order to sign up for the software, customers would need to click on a pop-up screen within their normal instant messaging window that said something to the effect of, “click to download a new avatar service.” But when it went live, no one downloaded it! After a year of burning the midnight oil to get the product up and running, it all came down to a single pop-up box that couldn’t get the job done. Eric’s point was that they probably could have saved themselves a year of trouble, and learned that customers were not interested in avatar-based instant messaging by testing that pop-up box on day 1.

For his audience of Harvard Business School students and start-up folks, he made the case for testing early as (“How can we figure out what we’re trying to learn with minimum effort?”) and described a feedback loop of Build – Measure – Learn. To me, this struck me as similar to the Express, Test Cycle that I was taught in Product Design classes. There, the point was: express your idea (either by actually building it, or explaining it through a storyboard, video, or demo), test it with your audience, get their feedback, and get back to work.

While it was an effective way to perfect a product or service concept, I came to understand that the Express, Test Cycle only worked if your idea was good in the first place. In other words, with the Express, Test Cycle you could still get pretty far down the rabbit hole of changing form factors or button colors before a consumer might admit to you that actually, they didn’t need/want this product at all.

When I worked at Jump, we commonly talked about the design process as a (not always linear) cycle between four stages.

First, observe how customers live, and find out what issues keep them up at night. For example, for a food client*, you might study busy parents and see how they deal with feeding their kids and negotiating healthy choices vs. convenience. Then, analyze your data to uncover insights about the customers. Maybe parents told you about secret rituals they used to manage food prep, or maybe they were really concerned about how their snacks appeared to others over how it made them feel. Next, translate these insights into directions – if food rituals are really important, what could our food company do strategically to better meet them? Should they shift from making only food products to making products that support these rituals? Finally, come up with actual solutions that the company could use. What would those products actually be – maybe a specialized kitchen tool, an iPhone app that celebrates the ritual, or a system for setting up space in your home to perform that ritual?

Now, as you might imagine, this process of observing, analyzing, and creating a strategy and ideas takes time – we would usually take 4-6 months to do a project like this – and most startups feel they do not have that kind of time to spare. But even a startup can find one busy parent to talk to before they get caught up in design details.  Overall, while I’m hopeful that the success of Eric Ries’ book will help startups and entrepreneurs gain empathy for their consumers earlier in their building process, I worry that getting empathy at that stage is often too little, too late. As I interact more with the startup scene in Boston and the Innovation Lab, I’m hoping to convince them that they can truly differentiate their ideas with customer research that happens before the coding even begins.

*The example I use to explain the cycle is created based on typical Jump projects, but contains no confidential information.

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