Tom Hulme on technology as a design tool

The founder of OpenIDEO tells us why we have to stop being afraid of technology.

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In this presentation at Design Indaba Conference 2014, Tom Hulme gets back to basics with refreshingly simple insights into using technology as a design tool. The British entrepreneur, who is now general partner at Google Ventures, shares the story of how he established OpenIDEO, global design firm IDEO’s open innovation platform.

Hulme starts with some founding principles that have steered him on his trajectory as an innovative thinker and builder of successful enterprises. 

We are all designers

“Everybody has the capacity to design,” he says. “It is not the privilege of just a few people who have studied it at school X or Y.”

We achieve more through collaboration

“We push each other on, we combine ideas, we work together to create more,” he notes.

Tech is just a design tool

“Let’s stop being scared of technology,” he says. “Let’s stop saying online versus offline. Let’s stop structuring businesses with separate digital teams. To all of us, digital technology online and offline is just life. Let’s incorporate that and really understand that.”

Hulme debunks the common belief that technology makes us anti-social. “I guarantee that for the past 500 years, people have been saying the same thing,” he says, pointing to a faded photograph of a crowded train carriage carrying commuters, all with their noses buried in newspapers. “Our job is to harness technology and design with it.”

Addressing a real human need

It may seem self-explanatory but Hulme points out that new technological gadgets and applications will only be effective if they meet real human needs.

“We often think technology addresses new human needs,” he notes. “But most of the time it’s just tools evolving” to meet the same needs in a better way.

During the industrial revolution, he points out, the precursor to the alarm clock was a long wooden stick that people called “knocker-uppers” in east London used to bang on factory workers’ windows to wake them up. An entrepreneurial lady designed a pea-shooter so she wouldn’t have to carry around the unwieldy stick. This ultimately led to the alarm clock – an arc of tools evolving to meet the same human need.

Low friction

Designers of new technology need to ask how they can meet a need better. This is the determining factor in whether their products will hold their own in a crowded marketplace. “People forget that you are only as good or as bad as your competition,” Hulme says. The Revere 33 Stereo camera, which was invented in the 1950s, failed spectacularly because although it’s point of difference was that it took 3D pictures, you could only view the images on the device itself. So people had to carry the camera everywhere. This is an example of a high-friction design.

“We have to design to deliver services in lower friction ways. That’s our job as designers,” he points out.

This is one of the reasons that Hulme believes Facebook is not popular with teenagers. “Communicating in the classroom is a lower friction way of doing many of the things that Facebook promises to do, so Whatsapp and WeChat and Snapchat meet their needs more efficiently and faster than Facebook can.”

As designers, it is going to be more important to meet human needs better because, as Hulme points out, making stuff is getting easier. “There are 300 apps uploaded to iTunes per day. […] It’s no different to what happened with hand tools. They evolved. They specialised. We had to design better versions of them.”

Human needs have not changed

In his own work, Hulme keeps coming back to the most famous triangular framework of human needs: Maslow’s hierarchy that posits physiological needs as the most basic, followed by safety, love, esteem and finally self-realisation. “Technology is changing rapidly but human needs have not changed,” he says. So, before the advent of mobile technology, for example, people literally shouted “help!” to raise the alarm, and now we have mobile phones in emergencies. Similarly, to find love in days gone by we looked for a mate in our village, but now we seek out partners on social media.

Knowing what need you are meeting as a designer is crucial to driving the solutions we find. Hulme has a regular discipline of self-analysis in his work: “I try to set time aside each week to ask why the hell I am doing what I’m doing, what the human need is that it addresses. If you cannot start a project by describing a benefit it will create for someone, then don’t start.”

Facilitating open design

During his time as design director at IDEO, Hulme looked at how to use technology to improve the way social challenges are solved.

The traditional ‘town hall’ model of the community coming together to generate ideas is a high-friction solution, involving large groups of people physically meeting in person. The model of suggestion boxes – both real and online – is low friction but it doesn’t foster collaboration. “The best-case scenario is that you get lots of suggestions posted, but no discussion or exchange. It’s opaque – you can’t learn from what others are doing.”

So IDEO busted open the suggestion box model and made it transparent, so that similar ideas could be grouped together. “Then people with different skillsets could work together to come up with solutions. This was the basic observation that led to OpenIDEO,” he says.

The emergent platform is a global community that draws on optimism, inspiration, ideas and opinions to solve problems together for the collective social good.

OpenIDEO issues online calls for solutions to specific challenges. Each challenge starts with a question focussing on a particular problem, followed by a research phase where users post things they have seen that inspire them and that may help solve the big question. Next, the ideas phase is where users post possible solutions and collaborations start to form. Some of the ideas make it into a subsequent refinement stage of prototyping and experimentation with real users. Fully formed ideas are then put through the evaluation phase where users rate the ideas. The ideas are all open-source so anyone is free to take any of the ideas forward.

“It’s about open innovation and social impact,” says Hulme. Some of OpenIDEO’s successes so far include helping build a bone marrow database of over 100 000 people and developing an app for Amnesty International to reduce the risk of kidnapping when working in dangerous areas.

The final component is that regular users earn a design quotient, or DQ, based on their participation in each phase plus their collaboration with others. “The DQ Offers feedback and recognition. The idea is that it becomes a badge of honour for community members over time,” he says.

OpenIDEO and IDEO.org have launched Amplify, aprogramme committed to run 10 international aid challenges over five years. One of their first challenges has looked at how to improve women’s and girls’ safety in low-income urban areas.

“We fundamentally believe that instead of us just designing, [are there ways] can we shine a light on examples that are happening on the ground right now?” he asks. So while in South Africa, Hulme got input from local experts on safety in Cape Town’s informal settlements. He interviewed Ntutu Mtwana, a safety and volunteer coordinator with the Violence Prevention and Urban Upgrade project, to learn from her experience. Her interview was added to the OpenIDEO platform and shared with users across the world, creating dialogue with people who would never have previously met.

Says Hulme: “Creating a platform that takes the friction out of these people collaborating to me is the ultimate leverage."