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CVS and Ford: Putting Designers in Customers’ Shoes – literally

Point: To design better for customers, put yourself in their shoes.

Story:  What’s it like to drive a car if you can’t turn you head easily to look over your shoulder? Or to shop, if bending over hurts and the product you want is on the bottom shelf?

That’s what older drivers feel, and every minute in the US, one person turns 66. In seven years, the US will have 55 million people over age 65 — a big market.

To better design for the needs of this market, companies like pharmacy chain CVS are putting themselves in the shoes of aging customers with AGNES. AGNES stands for “Age Gain Now Empathy System.” Developed by the MIT AgeLab, AGNES is a specially-designed jumpsuit that mimics what it feels like to be in your mid-70s. The suit can be be worn by designers, product developers, architects and planners to experience firsthand the physical challenges associated with aging. For example, bungee cords anchored to the helmet and hip restrict movement and rotation of the spine, and elastic bands from hit to wrist reduce shoulder mobility.

CVS will be making store design changes based on learnings from the suit. For example, they’ll be putting carpeting in the stores to reduce slick-floor slipping, and they’ll adjust the height of checkout counters to require less bending and lifting.

Similarly, Ford Motor’s engineers use a similar suit (they call it the “Third Age Suit”) to experience driving with restricted movement and dexterity in hands, knees, neck and even eyesight (goggles simulate cataracts).  Ford also has a bulbous weighted “empathy belt” that simulates the physical effects of pregnancy.  All of these inventions help give designers a better sense of the consumer’s experience of the company’s products and services.

The result: not only will product designers develop better products for the elderly, but their innovations — like Ford’s hands-free automatic parallel-parking system — appeal to consumers of all ages. Simplicity, ease and comfort attract customers of any age.


  • Create tools or prostheses that simulate the customer’s experience of the product or service
  • Test products and services for ergonomics for a wide range of customers (especially the growing population of those over 65)
  • Look for win-win design solutions that improve usability for everyone.



MIT AgeLab: AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System)

Future Demographics – The Silver Book:

Interview with Dr. Joseph Coughlin on AGNES and the AgeLab:

In An Aging Nation, Making Stores Senior-Friendly

In a Graying Population, Business Opportunity
A Profile of Older Americans: 2011 – Administration on Aging

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Intuit’s High-Velocity Experiments

Point: Fast-cycle experiments let companies create the best product/service offering with the least risk.

Story: At the World Innovation Forum, Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, described his company’s culture of high-velocity experimentation. Intuit uses an experiment-driven decision-making process throughout the organization. Rather than expect executives and managers to know all the answers, Intuit uses large numbers of low-cost experiments to test new product, service, and marketing ideas.

To illustrate how high-velocity experimentation works in organizations, Cook described how the concept works in Intuit’s 20-person online TurboTax unit.  In the past, this unit ran about 7 experiments during the annual three-month tax filing season.  Now they run 140 experiments.  Not only do they run more experiments, but they run each experiment on a fast cycle so that they can accumulate results and grow more knowledge during each season. Intuit created a weekly cycle for developing, testing, and analyzing experiments that lets each experiment create new information that feeds into the next set of experiments the next week.

Fast experimentation also improves employees’ sense of engagement and ownership.  In the past when the 20-person team did only seven experiments per year, the average team member might only have one of “their” experiments run once every three years.  But with new high-velocity approach, each employee creates and tests a new idea once every two weeks.

Paradoxially, running more experiments and getting more failures lowers the fear and cost of failure.  When a company runs only a few experiments — and every change or new product really is an experiment — then each experiment matters a lot more to the company and to the employees working on that experiment.  If an employee works for more than a year on a single big experiment, then the failure of that experiment surely has an impact on the employee’s career, even if the company professes to permit failure.  But if an employee works on many quick experiments that steadily improve organizational performance, then the success or failure of individual experiments matters little.

In Intuit’s case, 89% of experiments fail, and yet the online TurboTax unit increased conversions by 50% and successfully created a widely-lauded smartphone app that lets people do their entire tax preparation — from taking photos of tax documents, to automatically putting numbers in the right boxes, to electronically filing their forms — all on a smartphone.  The hundreds of tiny experiments let the TurboTax unit tweak and test many variations to come up with the best offering.


  • Trust experiments rather than experts to find the truth in a dynamic and volatile business environment.
  • Teach individuals how to perform cheap experiments by finding and testing the key assumptions behind every new idea rather than building one big new product.
  • Use large numbers of low-cost experiments to both grow knowledge and improve employee engagement.
  • Create an accelerated cycle of experiments to reduce time-to-knowledge and time-to-market.
  • Coach executives to become experiment-seekers — to use experimentation as a key decision-making tool.

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Chesbrough on Open Services Innovation #WIFNY

Point: Provide customers with toolkits to help them create new products and services.

Story: I’m looking forward to hearing Henry Chesbrough, originator of the term “open innovation,” speak at the World Innovation Forum tomorrow.

In his latest book, Open Services Innovation, Chesbrough writes about co-creating with your customers, particularly in services where it’s harder for customers to specify what they want because so much of the experience is tacit.  Whereas innovative physical products can excel on objective measurable performance, innovative services often entail a greater degree of subjective perceptions.

What’s exciting for innovators is that precisely because the information is tacit, finding ways to elicit or manage that tacit information will bring strategic advantage.  One way that customers can “tell” you this tacit information is through their behavior, which in most cases is through their purchase and usage patterns. If customers have a good subjective experience, they do it again; if the service was bad, they don’t come back.  Yet passive observation can be hard to interpret, can miss a lot, and is better at providing feedback on existing offers than for creating true innovation.

A better solution is for companies to actively encourage open feedback and ideas from customers.  As Chesbrough says, “When customers tell you – rather than everyone else — their tacit needs, you have a unique insight that can help you differentiate yourself in the market.”  Companies that can find ways to engage customers to co-create — or that can create systems that elicit such tacit knowledge — accrue benefits. LEGO, the building-brick toymaker, is one such company.

LEGO created a software toolkit and online space for customers to create and share new designs that go far beyond what’s possible with the manufactured physical product.   The components of the toolkit and space include “LEGO Digital Designer” software, “My LEGO Network” for children, and a 4.2 million-member LEGO Club.  The social media elements, design contests and customer-created galleries let LEGO fans of all ages build and share ideas.

In turn, LEGO gains tacit information into what customers really want to build, which supports LEGOs product development efforts.  For example, LEGO got the idea to sell kits of leading architectural designs from around the world, such as the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater home. Not only were many of these designs created by users, but LEGO gained entry to a new market — adults — which it had not envisioned nor would have initiated internally.

What Chesbrough is talking about is a kind of meta-innovation — an innovation in the innovation process.  Open services innovation converts innovation from an internal process into an external service.  Providing customers with a toolkit for self-expression not only satisfies customers but also creates an incoming flow of tacit knowledge about customers and about new ideas that may be more widely implementable.


  • Watch the trail of breadcrumbs left by customers to uncover tacit knowledge and subjective performance indicators
  • Actively solicit feedback to understand why customers do what they do — and what they want you to do.
  • Create a toolkit or sandbox where customers can create their own products and services
  • Make innovation an external service your company provides to customers

Special thanks to Walden University for sponsoring the May 8, 2012 webinar with Henry Chesbrough as a prequel to his presentation at the World Innovation Forum.

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