Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

Posts tagged with “innovation”...

Brain explosions and how to have them

Cross posted from the Sidekick blog


I often ask people who come to interviews where they get their inspiration, or who inspires them.

I am always looking for answers that aren't obvious, and that say something about the quality of a persons curiosity more than the quality of their RSS collection.

If people struggle you can ask them 'which companies do you admire?', 'what products do you love?' and so on, but by then they've already got minus points.

I especially like it when people give you a real blinder like, 'so, where do you get yours?' (as long as they've had a good go at answering it first. Otherwise it's just lazy.)

Which is why I'm writing this.

If course, it's impossible to say exactly where your inspiration comes from. Its always the sum total of all your experiences.

However, I think I can pinpoint two really important types of inspiration, both of which are kind of brain explosions. When you get really good ones, its amazing.

The first type is the type that pushes whole sections of your brain forward, and gives you lots of new ideas across all the things that you do, and in my experience it always comes from sources outside your current interests. You know when you see this inspiration because you suddenly see things differently. I'm going to call this brain explosion inspiration.

The second type is the type that consolidates lots of the different things floating around in your brain already, crystallises them and helps you tell a story to yourself and others that had been lurking there for a while. You know when you see this because you suddenly start explaining things differently. I'm going to call this brain implosion inspiration.

There is a third type, which is the more mundane, everyday inspiration, that is often less about ideas and more about artefacts - wow, that's a beautiful poster. Or, I'm going to copy that interface component. These are really numerous. I'm not writing about these today.

So, what are some good brain explosion and implosions I've had? I'll list a few:

Brain Explosion #1 - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Wow. This is a killer book. Its about science, but its also deeply philosophical. Its perhaps the greatest ever treatise on the importance of having strong ideas but holding them weakly. Kuhn takes this concept up to the meta level, and shows how science is an ever evolving description of the truth behind Nature. This book makes you feel both in awe at mankind and also deeply empowered as a human to better understand yourself and nature. Amazing.

Brain Explosion #2 - Understanding Comics.

Double wow. As a kid I grew up reading and drawing comics. I also loved art, and reading stories. Still do. But reading Scott McCloud just BLEW MY MIND, as suddenly, there on the page in a beautiful meta method was a super concise explanation of how drawings and words can come together to tell the most sophisticated stories ever. This book is absolutely required reading for anyone working in any field that requires them to explain things to other people. This book pushed me forward in so many ways.

Brain Explosion #3 - The Ascent of Man.

Triple wow. Brunowski's legendary series was introduced to me on a summer camp I went on with a bunch of other designers. Its a beautiful, polymathematical explanation of what makes human beings unique in the world. he takes us on a tour of science, but also all human history. You just have to watch it. What made my brain explode was not just the content but also the amazingly daring way he connects together different ideas. The final scene of him wading into a marsh outside a concentration camp, up to his knees in water explaining how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to human affairs as much as atoms is just mind blowing.

Brain Implosion #1 - The Story of Art

This is a beast of a book. But amazing, as it connects together all artistic traditions into one super narrative. You can quibble with the method and who's in and who's out, but what is so cool about it is that it creates a shared tradition for all creative thought. It made me realise that everything I do is connected to everything that other people had done before me. Which is a profound thought, and something I'm always aware of when designing.

Brain Implosion #2 - In the shadow of the moon

This film basically makes you cry with happiness at being a human. Its amazing. Interviews with all the surviving people who have walked on the moon. Its a epic tale of what humans can achieve if they work together. Its also a fantastic look behind the scenes about how complex systems and products are designed, and what it takes to bring things together. It makes you proud to be person, and it puts every endeavour in perspective - if you believe you can do something, you probably can.

Brain Implosion #3 - Lean Startup

This is my most recent implosion. Eric Ries book and ideas have brought together so many different threads of my work over the pat few years - user centred design, innovation, startups, mixing strategy and delivery, growth, getting people with different skills working together, the power of great product and service design. Wow. Its really consolidated so much of what I was saying, and just made it all stack up. Its so good. Please read it.

The post of this title is a bit misleading, as I haven't explained how to have good brain explosions, but in writing this I realised that the answer is less interesting than examples. Its probably something about making sure you are always meeting new people, reading widely and trying to work on stuff that you haven't done before.

Anyway, what are your greatest brain explosion/implosion moments? How can we have more of them? Do you want to have too many? What order should they come in? Can you have a simultaneous brain explosion with someone?! All good questions, I'd love to hear your answers!
February 9th, 2012 / Tags: design, inspiration, innovation, creativity / Trackback / Comments

My friend Paul asked me to come and give a talk about Sidekick and our work at Cardiff Design Festival.

I like Paul, and I like Cardiff so I said yes. The deck below is a rapid fire, very simplified, summary of where my head is at the moment in terms of what 'startup as a process' is and can do.

The interesting bit, and the bit that needs developing a lot, is the bit about mixing the three different process styles of design-led, tech-led and business-led approaches to project leadership. For me, this is very exciting as it feels like genuine methodological innovation. Its not Design Thinking/Human-Centred Design. Its not Agile. Its not Customer Development. Its all three/four, rolled into one.

Anyway, check it out. Would love to get comments on twitter
November 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, innovation, startup / Trackback

Startup as a process for solving hard business problems

Startup startup startup. That's all I hear in the London tech and design scene at the moment. Well, the tiny bit I get to hang out with now I'm a parent.

There's a bubble going on right now, which is ace, as bubbles mean irrational exuberance (anyone ever figured out why this is always considered a BAD thing!? Irrational exuberance sounds amazing!).

Anyway, amid all the chat and so on about startups, I've come to a realisation - Startup is a process, not a thing. And to me, it seems like the closest to a new process for value creation and solving hard problems since everyone figured out how to formalise innovation. Essentially, Startup is the process of properly, genuinely figuring out the answer to the question, what is actually valuable? What product or service will people actually pay for?

This is a question that is often asked of lots of different types of business consultants in vary levels of detail and lots of different forms - from market researchers to innovation consultants to design agencies to straight up business advisory services. And all of them deliver half baked answers in powerpoint decks - the only way to really find out if they are right is to try it. By which time you've wasted lots of money and time (same thing) on fees and powerpoint decks.

The thing is, is that the process of Startup answers the question very quickly, at very low cost, away from your brand and existing customers in a 'safe space' - Startup is all about figuring out what will people use and pay for - Right now?!

Right now, it is still the case the process of startup is being tamed to make investing in traditional, entrepreneur led web/tech startups more efficient. Effectively, this is just an investment strategy - people like 500 Startups, Y Combinator, Techstars etc are getting good at investing in lots and lots of little bets.

Surrounding this is an emerging set of practices for how to make it more likely that your bet will pay off - Lean startup, the pivot, customer discovery, sales learning curve to name a few - that taken together have the smell of a new type of process for creating value.

Apart from startups just being the most totally exciting place to be a designer of the New Product (which is why at Sidekick we're doing about seven at once), the thing that I think is about to happen is the emergence of Startup as an agency offer - its something we're thinking about at Sidekick, and to me, its super interesting as a solution for established businesses looking for ways out of the cul-de-sacs that their legacy businesses, legacy customers and general inability to do stuff that compromises existing profit centres gets them stuck in.

This is not lean agency, which as far as I can see is just very iterative product development. Instead its about offering a service that helps companies take risks and explore new routes to growth outside of their existing product portfolios and development processes.

The cost of doing a web startup has now fallen well below the cost of doing a reasonable campaign. In addition, doing a startup has the potential to return a lot more to the business than just ROI from the new company - it can help them understand the future customer, the future market and the routes their competition will be taking.

The trick to selling startup as a business process is to be good at the process. That's my next post.
August 2nd, 2011 / Tags: design, innovation, sartups / Trackback / Comments

Service design is Dead. The New Product is Alive.

So, I changed my job title a few months ago. I dropped the ’service’ bit. I’m now just Sidekick’s Design Director. I’m now MASSIVELY EXCITED about a new thing – designing products.

But not your old products. No, I’m excited about designing a new type of evolving, networked product that requires a multi-disciplinary team just to keep it alive, let alone make it awesome. I’m calling this the New Product. Let me explain.

Service design is dead

Ok, it’s not that I think service design is dead, its just that its pretty much used up its interest for me, and I think for Sidekick. There’s two reasons for this I think. One interesting, the other less so.

First, the uninteresting bit. The problem with service design is not the practice as such, but more the way its practised. I’ve basically become a bit bored with the way in which the service design community is constantly trying to legitimise and define the central-vital-most-important-ultimate-more-strategic-than-whatever-you-do role of design in innovating and managing services. I’ve been guilty of doing this a bit in the past. Sorry about that.

Its quite an isolating view, and not very helpful for actually making change happen, and creating new cool stuff.

Second, the interesting bit. The flipside to this is that I’ve become really interested in the actual role of design in bringing new stuff to market, and creating useful things that people want (in particular digital services that solve social problems, which is what we do at Sidekick). Really importantly, I’m getting a good sense of how design fits in the mix with other disciplines in doing this, in particular technical skills, marketing skills and financial skills.

Probably this is just me getting older and more experienced, but I think its also a bit that I’m reaping the rewards of moving away from strategic consulting, and towards making and inventing new things.

As part of this shift I’ve come to the conclusion that organising the invention and making process around products is a really good way to get focused on creating good work – and ironically can help solve strategic questions along the way. Let me explain.

The New Product is alive

Everywhere I look, but basically on the web, the people I am inspired by are talking about products – product incubation, product design, product management. But this is a New type of Product, born and growing up on the web. When people talk about the New Product they’re generally describing businesses that provide a mix of content, service and experience. But the way they make that tangible is by focusing on product.

The UKs most important online property, the BBC, recently reorganised its entire online strategy around the idea of products. Writing about the change, Eric Huggers, the digital boss, says:

“The product management role [is] ‘a multi-disciplined person who operates at the intersection of technology, design and editorial and is able to bring all of these elements together’ to deliver products whose lifecycle is managed. We’ll no longer build websites which are published and which sit unattended and slowly degrade; products will be managed.”

Jack Dorsey, probably my biggest crush on the internet, and wearer of great suits, head of product for Twitter and Square (and CEO to boot) says (in an awesome video) “So, my point here is, this company is not going to be known by one person or by five people or by multiple people. It’s going to be known by the product that we put out… Support and feedback is what our customers are telling us. Product is what we are telling our customers.”

Finally, Denis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, says “I’ve always looked up to the people who went from being unemployed to doing interesting things with product.” Doing things with product. I love the active sense of this sentence. Doing things. Sounds like designing and making to me!

The New Product design is the new rave

When big, established and admired properties like the BBC, and small, ambitious, and equally admired startups like Square are talking about the same thing, its worth listening. Essentially, these businesses are using the idea of ‘product’ as a way to coordinate their digital service development activities across engineering, design, marketing and even organisational management.

The interesting thing here is that the role that sits at the heart of all of this, the product manager/designer, really sounds a lot like the stuff I’m interested in, some of which I was calling service design. In this world good product managers/designers focus relentlessly on user experiences, have a clear vision for where they want that experience to evolve to, they get that from close liaison with customers and users, they are able to translate this into briefs for technical, marketing and interface design teams – and they can wrap all of it up and sell it in to management.

Above all, they know where their product begins and ends – at the point of use. They are the ‘bring it all together’ people, but in a real, hands-on way. Because what they bring it all together into is a real, live product you can experience and use right now, just by connecting to the web. Right now. Go to, and

At Sidekick we’re embracing the new product design and management wholeheartedly. And since we’ve done that (and ditched service design!), our business has really taken off. All our current projects (bar one small research piece) have the idea of creating a ‘product’ at their heart. And once we’ve created product, we’re starting to get really good at managing it. Watch this space for big news on Buddy, our most developed product. We’ll be launching a client product in September, and there’s lots more to come over the next six months.

We’re doing a lot more at Sidekick – not least we’re really starting to nail a lot of the process stuff behind the business aspects of social innovation (but that’s another post/book) – but the thing I am getting most excited about is our products. They are the place where it all comes together. The place where you can touch, use and experience everything we’re learning about how design, technology and business can change the way social innovation happens.

All we have to do now is ship. Which we will, because we have to.
July 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, servicedesign, designthinking, innovation, productdesign / Trackback / Comments

Models for financing social innovation. #1 – Community lotteries

I posted this on the Sidekick blog a few days ago.


In order to create genuinely sustainable social change it isn’t enough to have a clear need, a really great idea and lots of enthusiasm (although that’s a great start!). In order to make sure solutions really stick, and the people involved in delivering them stick around, organisations must be on a genuinely sustainable financial footing.

From the local level of the community right up to the international, highly networked level of the internets, financing social innovations, be they new services and programmes, new facilities (or both), in a sustainable fashion, is hard work. At Sidekick we know this because we’re trying to do it ourselves. In this occasional series we’re going to explore some clever models for financing good ideas that social innovators looking to make change happen might find useful.

From a commercial perspective this series is essentially profiling innovative business models. It’s true that there are quite a few people doing that already (and many also saying don’t bother). What makes this different is that we’re going to focus on models that are specifically designed to maximise the social return on in investment, because, well, frankly that’s much more interesting than models that just maximise return on capital.

For this first instalment we’re looking at a model that already finances positive socially progressive projects at a national level – a lottery.

Lotteries are a very simple idea that appeal to people’s desire to get rich quick, and their belief that they’re luckier/more deserving than everyone else. It’s a simple formula; Pay into a communal money pot, buy a ticket, and then hope your ticket gets picked at a random draw. If it does, you get the pot.

The good thing about the national lottery (and why the government monopolises it nationally) is that a chunk of the pot is not given away as prize money, but instead diverted into supporting more useful things than creating instant millionaires. Stuff like art galleries, tennis courts, the Olympics – that sort of stuff.

The weird thing about the national lottery though is that it actually acts kind of like a regressive culture tax – it’s generally played by poorer people, and the stuff it funds are generally the kinds of things that richer people like to use. Not exclusively, sure, but it’s probably fair to say that giving £78million to the National Opera isn’t front of mind when you’re buying your tickets for the mega-euro-millions-roll-over draw. The allure is in the big prize, not the big society.

However, in community lotteries the connection between the people paying (playing) and the cause that the lottery supports is much more important. In a community lottery the whole point is that its a way of financing good, useful stuff for your community, like trips to the zoo for people who can't afford it, community centres and bowling clubs. Anyone can set one up (you have to get a lottery license) and then you can then start getting the cash together to start paying for that social innovation itch you have to scratch.

Essentially, a community lottery is a way of investing in your community, with the chance that you might get much more than your investment back. Kind of like tiny, local premium bonds. The combination of very local philanthropy, and the idea that you might win, creates a powerful incentive.

Beyond the local financing of local projects, another core benefit of community lotteries is that a lot the tickets are sold door to door, which means that ticket sellers get to explain the benefits face to face, and at the same time start making real, personal connections between themselves, the players and the wider community. Ace.

Harnessing playing and winning as engines of social innovation is something we’re fascinated by at Sidekick (and that we use in a lot of our work), and here we see it in action locally, and nationally. Another thing we really like is the internet, and its intriguing to think of the potential of small online lotteries to support specific community projects. That’s probably another blog post (or maybe we should just get on with making the App).

So, in summary, community lotteries use the same basic mechanisms and psychological motivators to help people part with their cash as larger national lotteries, but they do so in a way that directly improves communities and networks within them. If you’re using a community lottery to finance your local social innovation we’d love to hear about it in the comments or via our typewriter!

Next time: Community Development Trusts (basically ways for communities to own the stuff that matters to them)
July 9th, 2010 / Tags: socialinnovation, finance, businessmodel, innovation / Trackback / Comments

Where will design be in 2020?

I went to a workshop today with Aviv on behalf of Engine to help explore the future of the British design industry. Met lots of inter-esting people, and had some interesting conversations, although the general conclusion seemed to be 'more of the same only better.' Quite reassuring really - check the BDI website for the resulting publication in June (this workshop was a small part of a larger future/foresight programme) - I'll post a link when its up.
April 8th, 2008 / Tags: event, innovation, designindustry / Trackback / Comments