Interview with Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO, the design and development firm that brought us the Apple mouse, the Palm V and hundreds of other cutting edge products and services. He’s also an entertaining speaker and has written two books ‘The Art of Innovation’ and ‘The Ten Faces of Innovation’.

In an interview with Design at Work he presents you his view on design & innovation:

Which company has been able to surprise you this past year on the subject of innovation and why?

Conventional wisdom says that small start-ups are quick and nimble while big, old companies are slow and rigid. So I am always pleasantly surprised to see giant corporations flex their innovation muscles, and one compelling example from the past 18 months is General Electric. GE has launched dozens of recent innovation initiatives, but none more interesting than what CEO Jeffrey Immelt calls “reverse innovation.” In the traditional model of 20th century research & development, ideas originated at the headquarters and then got dispersed throughout the global organization. In reverse innovation however, simple cost-effective solutions created in the field—especially in the challenging environment of developing countries—get cross-pollinated back to the home office where they can be adapted for value-oriented customers in developed countries or anywhere on the planet.

GE Healthcare’s compact electrocardiogram (ECG) for the Indian market is a case study in reverse innovation: in 18 months a team in India, working on a shoestring budget, developed a unique ECG machine that was one tenth the cost and one third the weight of previous units. Having proven its success in rural India, GE’s new MAC 400 ECG is now a candidate for use in all the other healthcare markets in the world. Reverse innovation is an idea whose time has come.

In your opinion, what product should win all the design awards this year and why?

I believe the winning product for 2009 should actually be the whole new product category of smartphone applications. Sure, a handful of applications may have existed in 2008, but 2009 is the year of the app, with the number of applications for the iPhone alone headed toward a hundred thousand, and the number of downloads now over a billion. A cottage industry of designers and developers has sprung up virtually overnight, and is now creating apps so fast that no one can even keep track. In fact, a new behavior pattern has emerged in the Silicon Valley where I live—and probably among iPhone users around the world—where people frequent do “show and tell” of their favorite apps because the universe of potential apps is too overwhelming for any individual to comprehend. In other words, friends don’t let friend miss out on good apps. Of course some smartphone apps may seem frivolous, but I feel like some have changed my life. As someone who’s always lost, for example, the GPS app on my iPhone is practically indispensible, and I literally never leave home without it.

And in some ways my favorite app is Shazam (created by London-based Shazam Enterntainment), because it’s a harbinger of the kind of apps that can make me a better, smarter person. The first week I downloaded Shazam, I was at a great party, and a woman next to me on the dance floor said “Tom, what’s this song, do you know?” In the past, I’d have been clueless, but fifteen seconds later, I knew the answer for sure. Now if Shazam would just help me recognize people…


Which sector still has a lot of potential when it comes to innovation?

In spite of the great success already experienced by companies like Facebook in the U.S. and Skyrock in France, I believe we have only seen the tip of the iceberg on innovation opportunities around social networking. It will replace “expert” data with information, reviews, and advice from our personal networks or “people like you.” For example if the most famous film critic in the UK gives a film four stars, but my extensive network of friends is unanimous that it’s a dog, who am I going to believe? Humans are social animals and the power of social networking has only begun to emerge.

What evolution in the design and innovation field has been the most important one according to you?

The most important evolution in design and innovation is the transition from a narrow definition of design to the broader field of “design thinking.” “Design” still sounds a bit like aesthetics to some people, like a surface treatment added after the “real” work of creating something new is mostly done. But design thinking is an intuitive process for human-centered problem solving that engages the whole brain and opens up the possibility of new more multi-disciplinary solutions. Design can be a powerful tool for creating new products or services, but design thinking can be applied to broader social or issues and ultimately can help change the world. At IDEO and places like it around the world, design thinkers are working on new approaches to issues like environmental sustainability, childhood obesity, and access to clean drinking water in developing countries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s