It's the thought that counts

The way you visualise a new product could bring it to the market quicker, says Roger Trapp

WHEN the Irish computer peripherals arm of the Japanese electronic components company ALPS set about developing a new keyboard, it relied heavily on the lateral thinking ideas associated with Edward de Bono.

The Cork-based operation started by carrying out extensive market research, which looked at the needs of users ranging from professional touch typists to casual games players.

Not only did this reveal a potentially huge market, but it also indicated that many owners of laptop and notebook computers often hooked them up to a keyboard at home or in the office to improve working conditions.

Armed with this information, the company's creative thinking team - part of an initiative by managing director John O'Sull-ivan - went to work.

Within eight weeks, the team - including representatives from administration, engineering, marketing and manufacturing - had generated more than 100 ideas. And, after only four months, it had got to the final design stage for the Humedia (a play on "human" and "multimedia") keyboard.

It then took five months, with the aid of a consultancy, to design a product, including such innovative features as pre-programmed keys that aid access to such applications as the internet, a built-in wrist rest and games button positioned in the most appropriate places.

The company has been so impressed by the success of the keyboard, launched in August 1996, that it is applying the approach to the development of colour printers.

And it is not alone. In today's fiercely competitive business climate, there is such pressure to be not just innovative but also get to market as quickly as possible that executives are exploring techniques for envisioning new products and services to aid the development process.

Cambridge Consultants, a subsidiary of US technology consulting firm Arthur D Little, which assists organisations around the world with product development, uses "structured idea management".

It claims to have used the seven-stage process to particularly good effect when helping Dutch cheesemaker Frisco International create what is said to be a unique cheese pack.

The principle behind it is to put some rigour into the creative process as it moves from "brainstorming" through evaluation and selection of ideas, with the aim of making the development cycle more efficient.

But as Lucy Rowbotham, a senior consultant at CCL and one of those responsible for developing the concept, makes clear, it is just one technique used in product development.

"Sometimes when ideas are starting to take shape, you need to think through how it might be used. It can be quite difficult if it is something that has never existed before," she says.

While expertise at such techniques can sharpen up the product development process, there has to be a high degree of trust if an organisation is to be effective in this area, says a recent report by consultants from Coopers & Lybrand and the Innovation Research Centre at Henley Management College.

But that does not mean management should shy away from an area of business seen as messy and difficult. Arthur D Little is one of many organisations stressing that innovation not only must be managed, but can be effectively managed so as to maximise growth. And that is where developing increasingly potent envisioning techniques can be of such great use.

q This article is adapted from a report prepared for the Design Council. Copies of the report are available from the Design Council. A seminar is being planned for later in the spring.

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