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How to host a product/feature design party


Want to design the next great web app? Upgrade your product, but can't decide what to add or change? Add a new feature to your product, but can't decide how to implement it? Forget focus groups. Forget endless meetings and brainstorming sessions. Throw an ultra-rapid-design party, and do it in a single day. This approach exploits the wisdom-of-crowds through a process of enforced idea diversity and voting, so no consensus, committe, or even agreement is needed. And it's way more fun.

The Product Design Dinner Party takes 9 people, a pile of diverse "inputs", and has each of the 9 people voting on--and pitching--one another's ideas to continuously reconfigured groups of 3 people, letting the best ideas rise to the top. The process is a little complicated, but it's derived/modified from an existing rapid-prototyping design I'll talk about later in the post.

The basic idea looks like this, although there are a million ways to modify it:

1) Pick 9 people, ideally from different parts of your company and including some customers. (If you don't have a company yet, pick 9 friends--preferably those who don't know each other well)

2) Buy/borrow/find at least 20 "input materials" including books, magazines, a short film, graphic novels, etc. (a list of possibilities is a little lower in this post)

3) Assign (randomly) at least 2 "inputs" to each person. Do NOT let them choose (it's important they not be allowed to gravitate toward things they're already comfortable with)

4) Give the group 30 minutes to generate 4 ideas (if it's a feature/upgrade party, then 4 different features or feature sets... if it's a feature implementation party, then 4 different ways to implement the already-decided feature, etc.) These 4 ideas don't have to come directly from their input materials, although participants should be highly encouraged to describe at least one new thing they learned that inspired their idea.

5) Round One begins: split into 3 groups of 3 people (see chart below). Each person gets no more than 10 minutes to "pitch" four ideas to the other two in their group. There are 12 total ideas for this group, so allow about 30 minutes. Record (anonymously) the selections of each person, which represent a "vote" for the ideas.

6) At the end of Round One, each person must select their two favorite ideas from each of the other two members of their group. So if Group One had Fred, Mary, and Sue... then Fred must select his two favorite ideas from the four that Mary pitched, and his two favorites that Sue pitched.

7) Round Two begins: reconfigure the groups so that each person is now with different people (see chart below). Instead of pitching their own four ideas, each person pitches the four ideas they chose from their previous group members. Again, they have about 10 minutes to pitch the four ideas. Remember, the point is that each person is no longer pitching their own ideas!

8) At the end of Round Two, each person must again select their two favorite ideas from each of the other two members of this new group. Record (anonymously) the selections of each person, which represent a "vote" for the ideas.

9) Round Three begins: reconfigure the groups again. Each person in the group now pitches the four ideas (two from each of the two members of their most recent group) they chose in the previous (Round Two) round.

10) At this point, each person has pitched a total of 12 ideas:
* Round One: pitch your own four ideas
* Round Two: pitch four ideas from your Round One group to your new Round Two group -- two ideas from each of your previous group's other members.
* Round Three: pitch four ideas from your Round Two group to your new Round Three group, as before.

11) At the end of Round Three, again each person selects their top two favorite ideas from the ones pitched by the other two members. Record these as a vote.

12) You should now have a total of 108 votes. Choose the top 9 vote-getters (you'll have to be creative about tie-breaking... you could choose more than 9, for example).

13) Give each person a copy of the 9 ideas, and send them back for another round of "inputs." Again, assign each person different materials from the ones they used at the beginning.

14) Give the participants 30 minutes to use their inputs and flesh out a single idea from the nine. Their one idea can be a modified version of one of the nine, based on their "research." Their one idea could be a mashup of two or more of the nine ideas. It cannot, however, be something completely new. Participants should be prepared to explain how something they got from their inputs helped in some way (not an absolute requirement).

15) Now it's up to you what to do with the ideas. You might choose just one, or take all 9 "winners" with their pitches back to another person or group, etc.

Group Configurations (just an idea to get you started):


While it might be hard to believe a process like this could lead to any useful ideas, it's actually derived from a well-desiged, heavily-field-tested rapid-prototyping/development process from one of the leading training consultants on the planet, Thiagi. Granted, that doesn't mean my modifications haven't completely messed it up, but the main goals and benefits of doing it this way are:

1) Time constraints

Constraint-fueled creativity is something we've talked about earlier, so I won't discuss it here.
Build something cool in 24 hours
Creativity on Speed
How to make something amazing right now
and a little in Don't wait for the muse

2) Forced lack of attachment
By having to pitch someone else's ideas instead of your own (after Round One), it keeps people from getting stuck/married/attached to their own idea.

3) Random, outside-your-domain inputs
By having to use pre-selected (and pre-assigned) materials from outside your domain, participants have a better chance for a diversity-driven inspiration.

The whole thing is based on the assumption that you have all the knowledge you need -- the wisdom within your own company and your customers... you just need a way to tap into it that doesn't dilute the idea (as design-by-consensus would do) or prevent innovation (as design-by-listening-to-customers would do).

Ideas for "input materials"
Books on a wide range of topics outside your domain including architecture, astronomy, pop culture, filmmaking, comic books, wedding planning, education, children's book, romance-novel-writing, crafts magazine, travel book, sports, history, environment, etc.

If it's a software product, you might assign people to look at a variety of pre-chosen sites or web apps that are way outside your domain.

I've used this in the training world -- as a tool for learners to help come up with what they ought to be learning, but I've never used it in the way I've described here. I'm looking forward to trying it...
(And yes, I took a little artistic license with the photo at the top--pizza and coke might be better than alcohol. Then again...)

I'd love to hear ideas for modifying this, or from anyone who's done anything like this!

Posted by Kathy on March 18, 2007 | Permalink


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At Raunds we are scheduling an evening to consider a new worship event. I wonder if we might test this Creating Passionate Users: How to host a product/feature design party technique to design the service. It would at least be [Read More]

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Theres a smart post over at Creating Passionate Users. It outlines a 15-step process for a design dinner party, and it definitely seems like a good process. But its worth noting that the specific process you use isnt... [Read More]

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Brainstorming on Steroids I typically dont have much use for the wisdom of crowds. I tend to think that you start with the wisdom of crowds as this romantic idea, but you end up with the stupidity of mobs. Even as I write that, though, I start t... [Read More]

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Sounds a bit like speed dating for good ideas. I like it!

Posted by: Treb Gatte | Mar 18, 2007 7:21:02 PM

Sounds like an interesting plan. I do believe that it would be limited to product/service refinement more so than creating something new from scratch.

Posted by: Thomas Frazier | Mar 18, 2007 7:27:33 PM

I could be wrong, but find it faintly reminiscent of Conjoint Analysis. Agree with Thomas Frazier above though.

Posted by: niti bhan | Mar 18, 2007 7:29:02 PM

I believe this is a fantastic idea. My only concern is that the "party" atmosphere might lend too much to an initial positive outlook, giving some bias, but I guess the opposite could be said for traditional focus groups.

Posted by: Dave C. | Mar 18, 2007 7:48:09 PM

This is a great idea - you are amazing.

Posted by: Fred Oliveira | Mar 18, 2007 10:53:19 PM

Great Idea. It looks interesting. Something new would be exciting and wonderful at the same time. Lots are complaining at those old, boring ways of handling meetins.

Posted by: John | Mar 18, 2007 10:56:42 PM

I like it, especially the idea to have someone other than the creator pitch the idea. We've had some success with time-boxed sessions, especially in environments populated by "experts" with strong opinions. Now how about menu suggestions for in between the rounds?

Posted by: Jonathan Clark | Mar 19, 2007 9:06:59 AM

Hmm, a few questions:

1. How do you choose the input materials? Is it OK for me to choose input materials that include ideas I like and think might influence the general direction of the party (even if not in any specific way?) Or should the party host go for complete non-bias?

2. Will people be tentative at first if they have to come up with the initial round if ideas by themselves? Would it work to skip to the small groups of 3?

Posted by: Reed | Mar 19, 2007 10:17:55 AM

Eerie... I used a very similar process at a brainstorm I ran in December. 9 people, all engineers in this case, working to create out-of-the-box alternatives for a next generation vertical search project. Each submitted some websites from other domains that "do search well" in advance, and then chose 2 of the submissions that they weren't familiar with to research in detail.

We started with a 30 minute individual "create 2 ideas" session, (people thought it was too short). We captured ideas on the big easel-sized sticky pads. In groups of threes, each person presented their two ideas. The trio chose 2 ideas (of 6) to report back to the full group. [60 mins] The full group listened to 6 ideas and selected 3 to be the "seeds" of another rev [30 minutes]. People chose the top 2 ideas they were interested in, and I assigned people so there were 3 per idea. In the small groups, they revised and came up with a "pitch" for the idea. [30 minutes] To cap off the day, we brought in the product managers and executive team. We'd planned a 30 minute presentation, but when I wrapped it up at the alloted time, the audience wanted more! Having the ideas on big sheets of paper made it easy to pull out others, and we kept going for another 45 minutes.

So all in, we had 10 people (moderator should NOT try to participate) for 3 hours, plus the full group & exec team for another 1.25 hours. I closed with a quick eval from both participants and the people who attended the presentation. Across the board people felt it was a good use of their time. None of the ideas that came out got rated as a "home run", but there were "doubles" and "triples" and I'd say it was also a good morale booster and team building activity.

Food was important: we started with an optional lunch (Chinese rather than pizza: more selection and mu shu lets you "play with your food" to get the creative juices flowing!), plus a combination of healthy, savory and sweet snacks in each sub-group room, replenished throughout the day.

I did "stack the deck" a bit with choosing teams to ensure that each group of 3 had at least 1 person who was an artist: someone who could show the ideas in their best light, but not get bogged down in the details.

Posted by: Steve Ketchpel | Mar 19, 2007 12:33:42 PM

I love the idea. This could spice things up a bit. Probably bringing the interest back at work which most of us is loosing.

Posted by: Nancy | Mar 19, 2007 8:36:59 PM

You can find other variations of this type of activity at the website of one of the best advocates for interactive learning design, http://www.thiagi.com.

Posted by: Jeffrey Cufaude | Mar 20, 2007 3:43:55 AM

Jeffrey: OK, you're a skimmer, now I know... (actually, I assume and hope that most people don't actually read through my full long-winded posts). Good spot on Thiagi, though, since this is exactly who inspired me on this one... and I actually said that and provided a link in the post. I don't really think there's anyone better out there than Thiagi for interactive learning... learning of any kind!

Thanks for commenting, though -- because if you missed it in the post, I'm sure others did as well.

Steve Keptchel: Wow -- THANKS so much for this write-up! I completely left out any mention of moderator -- great point there on having the moderator NOT be a participant.

Everything was helpful, but I especially like this:
"(Chinese rather than pizza: more selection and mu shu lets you "play with your food" to get the creative juices flowing!), plus a combination of healthy, savory and sweet snacks in each sub-group room, replenished throughout the day.

I did "stack the deck" a bit with choosing teams to ensure that each group of 3 had at least 1 person who was an artist: someone who could show the ideas in their best light, but not get bogged down in the details."

Thanks again.

Thomas and Niti: I suspect you're right -- that it's far more practical for things other than "from scratch", but I guess it depends on the circumstances and what you're trying to create. And even if you don't come out *with* that killer new idea, you might have enough pieces of ideas that eventually you can synthesize with other things into something real.

You could have a stock-options party -- a bunch of friends, including three principals of the new start-up -- and see what you come up with. I've seen Web 2.0 startups get funding and then dump the original idea (for which they were funded) and end up -- after a weekend of brainstorming with others -- with something entirely different and new.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 20, 2007 1:00:57 PM

Kathy - Thanks for presenting this concept. I am a pastor in a local church and am considering what it would look like to use this for a long range worship planning process. Thanks!

Posted by: Andrew C | Mar 22, 2007 6:06:34 AM

Get the FUN back in FUNctional specs...

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