Tim BrownTonight I finished Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (Tim Brown is the current CEO of design giant IDEO).

In the book he discusses his way of framing a design problem, “How might we . . .” Often the problem statement also includes the verb improve, as in “how might we improve the experience of buying a car?” or “how might we improve the quality of schools in rural districts?” (these type of questions will hereafter be referred to as HMWI questions)

The value of of HMWI questions, according to Brown, is they have “enough flexibility to release the imagination of the [design] team, while providing enough specificity to ground its ideas in the lives of their intended beneficiaries” (pp. 217-218). In other words, they don’t predefine the solution the designer team should come up with, and they also keep the design team focused on the value proposition the innovation is intended to create (particularly the value proposition for real people like you and me).

The thought occurred to me that there might be a contrast between a HMWI question, and a twin question I hear a lot, Wouldn’t It Be Cool If . . . (WIBCI). “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could wear a computer in your clothing?” “Wouldn’t be cool if your eyes could change color based on your mood?”

At the risk of oversimplifying, I wonder if the type of innovation sparked by a WIBCI question more easily loses sight of the endgame the one asking the question originally had in mind, than does a HMWI question. Certainly someone asking a WIBCI question is trying to do something important, and I’m sure many useful parts of modern society started with WIBCI questions. But read the words in each of these two question very slowly. Maybe even read them aloud. Doesn’t How Might We Improve feel better to you? Doesn’t it seem that starting with Wouldn’t It Be Cool If is more likely to run afoul of innovation for its own sake, rather than innovation designed to actually help someone?

What do you think?