Ideas / Design

Ramp up your innovation strategy with design jams.

Bob Bobala, Content Designer

Many companies think innovating is a mysterious and costly endeavor. But it doesn’t have to be. Customer-driven design and innovation leverages your two best assets – customers and employees. All it takes is a mindset shift and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get to work.  

Before I joined Tangible, I was an “Innovation Catalyst” at Intuit (maker of QuickBooks and TurboTax). That’s right, it was an actual title bestowed upon me after I went through our design thinking training. Aside from my day job as a product and marketing manager, I went around the company and helped teams use our design thinking methodology to improve existing products or come up with and test ideas for new ones. 

 I also led design jams in our consumer division. That was my favorite part of the job by far. A design jam may sound like some kind of highfalutin event attended by only designers with their horn-rimmed glasses, expensive MacBooks, and fancy Adobe products. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our entire employee base was invited to attend. We actually just called them “Idea Jams,” which was apropos because we were just trying to come up with ideas for new offerings.  

A design jam can take on many shapes and sizes, but the central idea is to bring people together to solve a customer problem or a central challenge. Small teams break out, brainstorm, ideate, design, and then present their idea, usually with low-fidelity mockups or a quick pitch deck.

Now, I was very fortunate to work at Intuit, which is a software company that is really committed to design thinking. Our employees got 10% of their time to ideate. Our idea jams were epic. They were the Super Bowl of design jams, with as many as 150 people attending them. And we brought in customers to get feedback, too. We weren’t messing around – though we did have a lot of fun. 

We actually had an idea jam series that consisted of four daylong sessions spread over the course of four months – I told you it was epic. Here’s how it went:

1. Pain Storm

We brainstormed for a full day around customer pains or problems we wanted to solve. Our design thinking methodology all started with deep customer empathy – trying to walk a mile in our customers’ shoes and really understand their problems even better than they do. Ultimately, it’s solving those problems that can lead to big new innovations, new products, and new revenue. In design thinking parlance, we went “broad to go narrow.” In other words, we generated many, many ideas before choosing the ones we wanted to dive into and work on. We also developed hypotheses that we would want to prove out in future sessions. 

2. Solution Jam

Once we identified the key customer problems, we moved on to solving them. We brought in customers to listen to, view, comment on, and even iterate on prospective solutions sketched out on paper or mocked up in easy slide presentations. It slays me how many companies don’t talk to their customers. They are such a wealth of great insights. After all, they are the ones who are going to be using the new products, features, and innovations you come up with. We compensated customers who attended, but you’d be amazed at how much people will do for an Amazon gift card. Often they are passionate advocates for your product. Use them! Give them a stake in the game, and they will be loyal customers for life. 

3. Design Jam

Teams came out of the Solution Jam with just an idea of how to solve the problem they were tackling. Our Design Jam session brought the solution to life. Here, our designers, with input from their small teams of three to five people, snapped into action and made low-fidelity rapid prototypes. The goal was to cheaply design something and put it in front of customers again to see if they would use it and if it would solve their problem. Teams picked the key benefit that would make or break their solution and designed that. 

4. Code Jam

Finally, we had a Code Jam, where developers got involved and actually built something that a customer could test out. Again, this was low-fidelity. We didn’t expend a lot of resources. Things were hacked together. Nothing was pretty. Maybe someone was manually pulling levers to make things work during demos. The whole idea was to be fast and cheap. 

I should also say that not all of our teams made it to Code Jam. This was a marathon that lasted four months with pre-work in between the jams themselves. Some teams might have petered out; others might have realized their solution didn’t work or they may have discovered they were working on the wrong problem. We’d start with maybe 30 or 35 teams at our opening-day Pain Storm. Only 10-12 of them made it to Code Jam. But everybody came back for the science fair-style demos and share-outs at the end. In fact, we invited the whole company to come down to check out what had been built, and the event became a celebratory happy hour with kudos all around for the great hard work our teams had put in.

Back then, our teams worked on solutions for mobile tax preparation, tracking charitable donations by photos, getting refunds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, gift card trading, secure transfer of financial documents for loans, tracking your gambling winnings on your phone, and how couples could commingle their finances without killing each other. Those were all in our sweet spot as a financial software company, but we encouraged out-of-the-box thinking as well. I remember one team came up with a way to easily track down lost pets!

Our executive committee ultimately gave out awards and greenlit the most promising projects with funding and more resourcing. I helped shepherd them to fruition.  

Now, you don’t have to have an epic four-month design jam series to incorporate customer-driven design into your innovation strategy. Bite off something small. Have a focused idea jam for half a day or a couple of hours. The same design thinking tools apply: Brainstorm around your customer problem, develop some options for solutions, rapidly prototype them, and then get customer feedback – somehow, some way. There’s nothing wrong with doing that remotely. 

Just remember, no matter how your design thinking methodology evolves, have some fun. Order lots of food and loads of caffeine. And remember, you have to have a lot of solutions to narrow down to the right one, so no judging – at least until you’re ready to put real resources behind an idea. 

If design jams interest you, but you don’t know where to start, contact us. We can engage with you for an hour, an afternoon, or longer, depending on your needs. We also have methodologies and training available that can really help drive innovation in your company. We can create a custom program for you and help every member of your team think like a designer. We’d love to help you meet your innovation goals.