If you’re not old enough to get the senior discount at your favorite restaurant, I’m sure you’ve probably heard the term “Man-crush” thrown about in conversation a time or two. Well, ever since I took the ICE Honors Program seminar (Innovation, Creativity and the Entrepreneurial Mindset), I’ve had a “Company-crush” on a company called IDEO. I’m pretty sure that 30 seconds after figuring out how to use LinkedIn, I started following IDEO, and one of my most exciting LinkedIn moments was having Paul Bennett accept my request to become a “connection.”
My affinity for this company stems from their ‘holistic’ approach to designing. Instead of throwing a bunch of engineers in a room and instructing them to design something to solve a problem, they throw a smattering of folks with different fortes into a room and then come up with a design idea (or 37,000). Usually their team is comprised of people from each of these disciplines:
Summarized from “The Ten Faces of Innovation” by Tom Kelley of IDEO.
With clientele like 3M, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and design success stories like the original Apple mouse, IDEO has made a powerful argument for the methodology of design.
As a robot programmer who has had to deal with robotic cell designs created by cubicle-bound engineers who have no robotic experience, I can tell you that it pays in time* and end-product-quality* to have “boots on the ground” people involved in the designing process (*And let’s be honest, as businesses, we care about time because it is money, and we care about end-product-quality because it leads to higher customer satisfaction, which leads to a good reputation, which leads to repeat business, which leads to more money). I’ll provide an example:
Theoretical conversation that should happen (but never does because Robot engineers never see the Cubicle-bound engineers):
Cubicle-bound Engineer: I want the pick position of the robot to look like this *points to robot in virtual simulation*.
Robot engineer: You can’t design the robot’s pick position with joints 4, 5, and 6 aligned like that. The robot will fault.
Cubicle-bound Engineer: What? Why?
Robot engineer: It causes an instance of kinematic singularity, which means that the robot’s motion algorithms basically find infinite solutions to move to the position where J4, J5 and J6 are aligned, causing a mathematical panic on the robot’s part, so the robot faults.
Cubicle-bound Engineer: Oh! I didn’t know that, but now that I do know that, I won’t design paths like that anymore. I’ll make sure that J5 has a bit of an angle to it at the pick position.
Robot engineer: Awesome! Now I won’t have to drastically reprogram paths nearly as often!
As a foreign language-loving robot programmer, I can assure you that the optimization of time derived from succinct communication between involved parties gets my heart all a flutter.
But more often, this is what happens instead:
Cubicle-bound Engineer sitting in cubicle: I did an awesome job on my virtual simulation and offline program generation. Look how nice the robot looks with joints 4, 5, and 6 all lined up at the pick position!
Robot engineer on shop floor: *on the shop floor, loads offline program and tries to run to the pick position*
*bashes head on nearest available surface after finding out the robot can’t move to the pick position because of singularity*
*spends the next 30 minutes trying to program the robot to complete the pick in a different pose, finds out it’s not possible based on the design restraints, reports this to their superior, who gets the nearest builder to adjust the height of the pick tooling table to accommodate the robot, and the 3 days and lots of hourly-wages later, the robot can finally pick the part off of the tooling table*
— and when the succinct communication is not there and it results in wasting my time, well, I get cranky. And instead of my heart, it’s my inner rage monster that gets set all a flutter.
The funny thing is that the plant kind of looks like that, with all the sparks flying from spot welders and such…
And then I pacify myself by pretending that one day I’ll work for IDEO– where they get that this is such a waste of time.
This one is for all you Avengers nerds out there.
It’s not that I think all Cubicle-bound engineers are incompetent. I think they can be extremely competent– the problem is that no single human can be competent in everything, which is why the titles of Design Engineer and Robot Engineer are two separate positions in the first place. The issue is that we generally don’t get enough differently-competent people in a room together to discuss how to design better from the get-go instead of fighting fires three weeks after the project is due. If we were to compile a human library of competency and reference it in our designing process by consulting a cross-competent team, we’d end up with better products faster, and less wasted time, money and other resources along the way.
Now that you understand why, and how much, I love IDEO, I can tell you in good conscience why I am recently a little disappointed with them.
As I mentioned, I follow IDEO on LinkedIn and a few weeks ago this article titled “Death, Redesigned” appeared. The luring title got me to bite, and I ended up reading the lengthy article from start to finish.
Paraphrased, my LinkedIn connection Paul Bennett wanted to take on the “design challenge” of changing the way we look at death and the preparations for it. If you want to skip to what I consider to be the “good part,” search for the phrase “The app was called After I Go.” This is when they start to explain the concept they had for what I think is one of the most useful sounding apps I have ever heard of.
Gaffney described After I Go as TurboTax for death: a straightforward app that would allow people to write wills or advance directives and, in general, preemptively smooth out the many ancillary miseries that can ripple through a family when someone dies. Bank accounts, life-insurance policy numbers, user names and passwords, what night the garbage goes out — all of it could be seamlessly passed on.
Now that I’m legally an adult and have a husband, some money in the bank, and a few belongings of enough worth that they would be worth including in a will, I feel like I really should get to writing a will. And specifically because I have a husband, I really REALLY feel like I should get to writing a living will, so should I be rendered comatose and unlikely to recover as a result of a catastrophic accident no one has to have the “to pull the plug, or not to pull the plug, that is the question” argument. The main reasons I haven’t yet are because, A) I don’t have the time to sit down with a lawyer and draft all of this up, and B) I don’t have the money to pay a lawyer to sit down with me and draft all of this up. So the idea of an app that can be used whenever you have the free time, and would assumingly cost less than an hour with a lawyer, seemed like a fantastic idea! Do all of the research, document searching, and drafting whenever you have time, and then when you’ve got a finalized draft, schedule a 1 hour appointment with a lawyer to make sure everything is legal. I was SO ready to hit the “buy” button on that app.
Then a few lines later the article read,
Gaffney assumed there’d be a big market for an app that eliminated that risk… But he was spectacularly wrong. Bouncing his ideas off potential investors, he quickly understood that no one welcomed a chance to prepare for death. It’s thankless drudgery — plus, it reminds you you’re going to die.
Really? Investors didn’t think this would be highly utilized? My heart sank a little bit, but because I knew about IDEO and how they work before reading the article, a bit of hope continued to excitedly jump up and down in the back of my mind while I read on.
“They won’t give up that easily on such a great idea!” I said to myself.
The minds at IDEO contrived alternatives to make a death-reliant service more appealing. The article continued (square brackets mine):
Someone proposed sending Sherry [the newly-widowed] a “condolence kit”: a courier could bring all of Bob[the newly deceased]’s passwords and information along with a nice bottle of wine…. Why not deliver the information to Sherry in a letter, handwritten in advance by Bob?
Instantly, the circle felt electric. Bennett was vibrating; he loved it.
And I did too! How neat would that be (in both senses of the word)?!? A tidy package of all the nitty-gritty data, and the comfort of a lovely letter from the hand of your recently lost loved one– on a very small scale, that’s everything a person needs in the wake of grief.
They had theoretically solved their product desirability problem by changing the focus of the product to be:
“Selling a service → Delivering a Message → Executing A Wish → Providing Comfort.”
That was the emotional payoff, the only way to entice people into filling out all those tedious, frightening forms. Bennett tapped at the word comfort. Then he circled it. “That’s our big idea,” he said. “Comfort is the product. That’s the genius of it. You sell that.”
I had been excited to buy the first so-called emotionless, purely practical app. Now I could barely contain myself for this comforting “Condolence Kit” “upgrade.”
It was at this point that I googled “After I Go app” and came up with no matching results.
Disheartened yet again, I continued reading, hoping that perhaps they changed the name during the process and a link to purchase the app was at the end of the article.
But the next paragraph explained why I didn’t find any results when searching for the “After I Go App,” and that was because shit got weird.
The team’s most mind-bending innovation was something it called After-Gifting, whereby a person could arrange to dispense preselected birthday gifts to family members for years after his or her death. Baby booties made from your favorite jacket could be delivered to a newborn child you’d never meet. The dead might also send time-delayed text messages on special occasions, or just to say hi.
They even went so far as to imagine a Pinterest-esque webpage where you can make suggestions for your funeral party.
The even weirder part was that this was the stuff that seemed to turn the investors on (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that maybe this is because the financially-savvy investors already have all of the nitty-gritty data of their death perfectly planned out. I don’t know.) What I did know was that I went from:
And honestly, by the time I had finished reading through all of the other incarnations that the app had spun through, I wasn’t surprised to read the line,
BY THE END of the summer, After I Go was effectively dead.
And as unsurprising as it was, I was upset. I was sad. As ironic as it would seem, in a sense I was mourning the death of an app designed to lessen the mourning involved in death.
I understand that brainstorming can result in a creative euphoria, and it’s easy to get swept away by your wildest imagination being spoken aloud– especially if it’s met with the accepting environment that is ingrained as part of IDEO’s corporate culture– but that doesn’t always mean we should follow each of the mythical creatures born of our brainstorming sessions all the way to the totally outlandish. It’s okay to say, “Those are all great ideas. Let’s sort through them for ones that stick a little closer to our original goal, and we can pursue the other ideas as separate projects.”
And I wish to goodness that IDEO had made that call on this project.
I wish they would have made the decision to reel the creativity back in, just a little bit, and stick with the iteration of “After I Go” that didn’t cross the line between comforting and creepy. The part that kills me is that there was a distinctly notable moment where everyone stood in the room in awe, a specific moment just before it crossed into the creepy pursuit of the ‘transcending death’ ideas. After this bridge was crossed, IDEO took a step back to evaluate what they had accomplished in the drafting process. And instead of just hitting the figurative “ctrl+z” to revert back to the last promising iteration of their draft, it’s like they hit “ctrl+alt+delete” and then restarted from scratch with an entirely different thesis because they didn’t like the last few sentences of the draft.
*and so is the creator of this meme’s lack of apostrophes.
I’m sure there were other hardships in the design process of the “After I Go” app that were not mentioned in this article– input from investors or the man who came to IDEO with this idea in the first place, instances of the people in charge putting their foot down and putting the kibosh on different elements due to lack of funding or interest or available test subjects. I don’t know.
I’m just bouncing through the five stages of grief, and this blog entry is the embodiment of my bargaining stage (in case you missed it, Denial was the part when I hoped the app just had a different name, and Anger/Depression were just successfully conveyed through Grumpy Cat).
In all seriousness though, I really wish that IDEO would resuscitate this idea. Until then I’ll likely be ignoring my mortality and the documents associated with it.