99u Conference Notes: Quirky Studio Visit with Ben Kaufman

A group of 99u attendees had a visit with Ben Kaufman, the CEO/founder of product development company Quirky, who gave us a look into how his company uses crowd-sourcing to deliver products. Here are some of my notes from that visit. More 99u notes to follow.

Kaufman got his start as an inventor in high school when he made a lanyard to hold an iPod shuffle. The company he started to ship this product later morphed into Mophie, the maker of the JuiceBox battery case. He later sold that company to start Quirky. His wanted to take all of the pain and learning he went through designing, developing and shipping a product to the masses, so that anyone with a great idea could become an inventor and let someone else handle the rest.

Their mission is to "Make invention accessible." What they do beyond helping people see if their ideas are unique and viable, is provide an infrastructure and experts for the entire process of design, development, marketing, and fulfillment.

Kaufman began his talk with a story comparing the Empire State Building, which took 410 days to complete, with a potato peeler that took 3 years to complete. His point is that having more time to deliver a product doesn't always lead to better quality. Quirky works in 11 week sprints, and ships 3 new crowd-sourced products every week. To further make his point, he talked about the difference between invention vs. tweaking, and had us look back 100 years ago to the Model T, which gave us a 17mpg automobile in 1909. Fast forward to 2009, and the most popular truck, a Ford, is giving us 16 MPG.

Quirky makes it possible for anyone to submit ideas. They're known for helping a teenager bring Pivot Power, a flexing power strip, to the world and making the inventor over a million dollars. Now their intellectual property partnership with GE has allowed them to bring someone's idea about making air conditioners smarter to save the world's energy into a reality too. He gave us a look at how the company and their extensive community selects products for manufacturing using weekly community meetings, their web site to manage the decision-making and evolution of ideas. They have an open community-driven selection process. Somehow the Hollywood pitch in my mind is product development shop meets American Idol. They even use a bit of game mechanics to drive product name selection. The profits are shared among everyone who participates in the process.

Their founder's passion and company culture feel genuine. They believe in their people, and in no-bullshit core values. I can't recall what all of their 5 core values were, but among them were impatience, agility, and getting shit done. They actually use those for evaluation. It was great to get a peek into how they take ideas that we're familiar with in software development, and push them to the limit in manufacturing. They change the status quo and what's the most interesting part is not so much their output (and their fantastic prototyping facility), but how they're running a business with so many projects constantly running and so many products shipping given the real world obstacles in manufacturing, which accounts for the slow pace at which the world usually delivers products.

In addition to the 11 week sprints, they have 3 blackout periods where they close the offices entirely and no one works. No one even answers the phones. They have a big office party the night before every blackout starts (blackout before the blackout I guess). They don't have set vacation day policies, but everyone is expected to take 3-4 weeks of time off.


  • Utilize constraints and speed to push product quality

  • Rely on the wisdom of community

  • Believe and value your people—passion is intrinsic to culture

See also these tips from Kaufman for rapid iteration.


Cloudwash: Washing machine prototype by Berg

I love Berg’s demo of their Cloudwash smart washing machine concept. The company created the prototype to demonstrate how a smart networked appliance might be better designed. The video provides an excellent walkthrough of their design process.

They simplify the face, which consisted of many controls for dedicated functions, reducing that to “high value functions” only. More functionality is accessible via a smart phone app, which also integrates the device with services such as warranty and supplies management and purchasing.

I haven’t been very interested in the current offerings of smart appliances, particularly networked refrigerators and stoves, but the value of design in this concept is communicated so well that it is compelling. The future of networked appliances is also getting interesting with Google’s acquisition of Nest, for example. The greatest concern I might have for core appliances is trust in the security and reliability of these products. Maybe I just watch too much sci-fi.


Ridley Scott Demystifies the Art of Storyboarding

Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Blade Runner, talks about the importance of fast thumbnail sketching and storyboards in helping him make movies. Scott discusses how storyboards help him capture the imagery of scenes, and how talking through storyboards prepare the creative team by establishing a direction for what they intend to create.

Read more at the article on Open Culture.

Via Ian Smile.


8 Bit Heart

Much <3. So 8bit.

Need a heart card for your significant other or kid who loves games? I made a heart for you to cut out. Here you go.

How might we...

We know that starting with why is important to product design, but what comes next? "How" would definitely come soon after. But there are many ways to propose how to begin exploring possibilities.

The 99u points to a number of questions to ask before starting a project, and how language matters. They refer to Warren Berger's article in the Harvard Business Review about one of the questions top innovators ask when confronted with a design challenge. It starts with the phrase "How Might We?" (HMW). It boils down to the selectivity and power of words, and in this case particularly with the choice of the word "might" rather than "can" or "should."

Here's why the words make a difference:

When people within companies try to innovate, they often talk about the challenges they’re facing by using language that can inhibit creativity instead of encouraging it, says the business consultant Min Basadur, who has taught the How Might We (HMW) form of questioning to companies over the past four decades. “People may start out asking, ‘How can we do this,’ or ‘How should we do that?,’” Basadur explained to me. “But as soon as you start using words like can and should, you’re implying judgment: Can we really do it? And should we?” By substituting the word might, he says, “you’re able to defer judgment, which helps people to create options more freely, and opens up more possibilities.”

Tim Brown of IDEO talks about how the words carry meaning for problem solving.

[W]ithin the phrase, each of those three words plays a role in spurring creative problem solving. "The 'how' part assumes there are solutions out there — it provides creative confidence," Brown said to me ""Might' says we can put ideas out there that might work or might not — either way, it’s OK. And the 'we' part says we're going to do it together and build on each other’s ideas."

Check out how IDEO are using the HMW phrasing at Open IDEO to get people thinking about and proposing how to solve challenges for social good.

I've been trying to do more to accentuate the positive, and keep conversations open to possibilities in my personal life and work, but it can be difficult to talk about solving problems without bias given agendas, missions, roadmaps, prior knowledge, and history.

Choosing the word "might" feels like one way to begin early problem definition and solving without the weight that comes from words like "should" or "can." It's like the freedom in the tentative and erasable nature of a pencil rather than the indelibility of a pen. "Might" leads to conversation that is open to consider different directions rather than saddling you with choices that feel cemented too early.

Min Basadur's story about discovering the concept for Coast soap at Proctor and Gamble embodies this idea of opening up the conversation. The word "might" can lead to re-asking the question, and maybe even realizing that you're asking the wrong one. What I love most about that story is that ultimately asking "How might we" led back to asking "Why?"

Along with the broader notions of starting with why, the HMW question seems a very powerful tool for facilitating design discussions and problem definition. I don't see very concrete, prescriptive techniques here, which is a good thing. The suggestion of asking the HMW question may be enough, but Brown warns that the size and types of design problem matter. HMW may not work for problems as big as "How do we solve homelessness?"

Read more about HMW in the Harvard Business Review.