Re-Discovering Creativity: A Journey In Visual Thinking & Sketchnoting

I’ve always found myself going up to dry erase boards and hashing out ideas. This usually meant boxes, arrows and simple digrams trying to tie together concepts or brain storms. Recently I had a project to complete that needed to express a lot of idea’s visually, but I felt I was running into a creative block. That’s when I came across this great TED talk by Ken Robinson on ‘schools kill creativity’.

The two big take aways I had from the presentation were:

  1. To be creative, you need to be prepared to be wrong. Unfortunately we become frightened out of being wrong through education – where making a mistake is the worst thing that you can do.
  2. We think in abstract terms and best learn things through interaction.

We are very visual learners, even more so when we can interact with a diagram to create a deeper understanding of a concept. Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value — more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”  According to Dan Roam, around  3/4 of the neurons in our brain are used to visually process information. If we are able to take concepts to the next level, we can sum up complicated idea’s and information with a few pictures that are more easy to understand.

I picked up Dan Roam’s ‘Back of the Napkin‘ book in the summer and it’s a great primer on Visual Thinking and back of the napkin sketches (hence the title). However, if you’re interested in learning how to problem solve visually, I suggest his second book ‘Unfolding the Napkin‘ since it contains sample problems to try out.

As I researched Visual Thinking more, I came upon the concept of Visual Notetaking and Sketchnoting. Nifty at notebookstories had a great definition of what they are: “In the long list of tools one could use for visual thinking, sketchnotes are one of the most exciting. Simply put, sketchnotes are visual notes that are drawn in real time. Through the use of images, text, and diagrams, these notes take advantage of the “visual thinker” mind’s penchant for make sense of—and understanding—information with pictures.”

Sketchnotes of Mike Rohde's Sketchnoting presentation

My next posts will contain some sketchnotes and visual thinking processes that I’ve worked on in the past few months. I’ve been hand drawing them so far since I cant seem to find a good android application – but that’s another story! Feel free to chime in if you have any suggestions on what you use for your notes.

Here are a few blogs/sites I recommend you check out for more info:


The Genius and Failure of Coca-Cola Freestyle

A new Innovation in the beverage market, Coca-Cola Freestyle is the most advanced soda/beverage dispenser to date. Equipped with touch-screens that allow users to mix up over 100 different flavors on the spot, the ingenius design is a mix of modern medicine (the machinery was originally developed for dialysis and cancer treatments) and technological corporate strategy. The Freestyle comes equipped with the ability to send metrics back to Coke Headquarters, informing Execs on all the nitty gritty on: what flavors are selling, how much, when, what locations – and even offers a ‘Kill Switch’ to stop any offerings ASAP. This sounds like a Product Managers dream … but is it?

Missing Consumer Needs

When I first heard of the Coca-Cola Freestyle concept, I was really excited. Now, I very rarely drink soda anymore, but I was really intrigued on how the device would work and what types of flavors I could come up with. They even invite you to Customize Your Own Drink On Facebook – what a great idea to increase engagement!

When you get to the machine, you are prompted to choose which Coca-Cola product you want to serve as your base. Ok, that’s not great from a customization standpoint, but not a bad starting point since that can help limit the ‘Paradox of Choice’ for consumers. Now, if you’re a customization buff, you will be greatly disappointed if you select Sprite Zero as the base and you see this screen next …

What started out as an amazing concept to really engage consumers, has instead turned into a marketing ploy that is built instead around control. I saw a lot of promise, but Coke HQ and Freestyle unfortunately missed the boat, and here is why:

  • Failed Customization – Missed the opportunity to learn more about consumer tastes.
  • Uninspiring – Pre-selected options will make novelty of the experience will grow stale – FAST!

I don’t agree with anti-technology or choice stance, but PracticallyEfficient brings up a few great examples of the Freestyle in practice, causing longer lines and the need of staff to be able to problem solve a tricky interface.  Mike Shaw noted similar problems in the inefficiency of having to wait for one person get a drink. These aren’t as big of an issue to me though – the biggest failure is the lack of creating a ‘brand democracy

Where Freestyle Could Have Excelled

Hint Water started out in 2005 as a mothers concern for unhealthy amounts of sugar being added to flavor water, so instead she opted for a dash of ‘natural flavoring’. In 2010, the company has racked up over $20m in sales, including big accounts such as Whole Foods. This could have easily been discovered by the big beverage manufactures, but their innovation is stifled. Here are a few possibilities that could have made the Freestyle an instant hit with plenty of successes:

  • True Customization – Allow users to mix and match drinks and flavors as they choose. Don’t limit it to only current Coke products, but also just have flavor systems.
  • Unique Drink & Flavor Combinations – Users can co-create new flavors and drinks with other enthusiasts via a facebook page or forum. These new combos can then be tied to unique User ID’s or Codes that can be scanned in at machines. Users can create, rate, and experiment … the result — plenty of new drink flavors that Coke can roll out and promote.
  • Brand Engagement – Instead of users having a weak tie to the Coke Brand, they develop strong ties to their own unique flavor brands, and to the co-creation community.

The Freestyle machine could have been the perfect needfinding and co-creation device … unfortunately it has fallen short of the mark. The good news is that Coke has realized this, and is hoping to add 2D scanners retro-fitted to test on a limited number of machines for 2012. With the current limited roll-out, they can delight consumers before they face that initial disappoint of a locked down machine. On the down side – the damage might have already been done – moving too late in innovation is a great way to make it stagnant and kill progress.

A Key To Customer Happiness – Do The Unexpected

Mail vs. Email

How often do we find that ‘business as usual’ tactics desensitize the customer and takes away from their over-all experience? A novel idea that seemed great at first blush, soon wears out its welcome and becomes a negative experience. With the amount of competition increasing, practices like this need to be changed. Consumers are expecting more – not only in their products, but in their experiences.

Increasing Customer Experience

Below are some examples from my own observations, and how they win – or fail.

  • Reminder Cards: Creating personalized reminder cards for  important events. Mailing these out are great, because as illustrated above – no one gets good mail anymore, just bills and flyers. On the flip-side, while email is still impersonal and lazy, it can still be used effectively. Out of the possibly hundreds of companies that have my personal information only FIVE sent me a birthday email with a special offer. You can bet I remembered which five they were, and while I haven’t used their services in a while, that added touch has me swayed to try their services/products again.
  • Customer Service Professionals: Almost everyone has heard the story of Zappo’s, or at least the rave reviews on Tony Hsieh’s book ‘Delivering Happiness‘. Yet in spite of success stories like this, companies are still outsourcing customer service to save money, or routinely hire people who are disengaged. If customer satisfaction is really that important to companies, then why do they keep showing us that they dont care by providing horrendous automated services, mind numbing phone tree’s, and employees who read off a sheet or generally dont care? You’ll be amazed at how simple acts can create brand advocates. Don’t believe me? Check out this Harvard Business Review blogpost on exactly that.
  • Lip Service: Last but not least is lip service. Nothing is worse than a company that uses boring business speak, saying what they think customers want to hear – and then even worse … not living up to it. The local movie theatre near me was bought out by a bigger chain a few years back. I’m giving it away with this, but the new slogan is ‘Movie Going How It Used To Be – Only Better’. This brings up visions of an ushers wearing a bellhop type outfit with that little hat, showing you to a seat, walking around with flashlight to keep the peace, and just an overall high quality customer experience. Here is the problem – nothing has changed since this theatre was bought. In return, I have zero loyalty to the theatre. With rising ticket prices my theatre going has continued to drop because there is no added-bonus to make me want to go back. If you promise a great experience, you better deliver upon it.
These are just a few examples, but there are countless others out there. What business practices do you run into that detract from your experience – and how can they be made better?

Milkshakes & Product Failures: A Lesson on Segmentation

I came across an article called ‘Milkshake Marketing’ by Clay Christensen – and a startling statistic jumped out at me. According to Christensen:

“Each year 30,000 new consumer products are launched—and 95 percent of them fail.”

That’s astounding! 28,500 failures and 1,500 successes every year. At 5%, you would have better rate of return by investing in stocks you randomly select – that average being 12%.


Blind Ideation

Christensen goes on to say that the major problem is ineffective market segmentation, a causation/correlation bias. For example, just because a consumer is the 18-35, caucasian male, college educated bracket, it doesn’t mean that consumer will buy the product. There may be a correlation in the demographic that does purchase the product, but being in that demographic alone doesn’t cause it.

What makes a successful startup is one that looks to solve a problem, therefore meeting the needs of a market. In Fact, part of the Lean Startup philosophy is to beta test your product, and if the idea doesn’t work then you need to tweak the business model, or pivot and find a market that matches it. The same is true in regards to launching a new product. What problem is the product trying to solve, and who is it trying to solve it for?

In Milkshake Marketing – Christensen describes the story of a fast food chain that is looking to improve its milkshake sales. The company did all the right things with segmentation. They segmented by:

  • Product: Milkshakes
  • Demographics: Typical milkshake drinkers profile
  • Characteristics: Surveyed demographic; describing characteristics of the ‘Ideal Milkshake’ (thick, thin, chunky, smooth, fruity, chocolaty, etc.)

The company responded to what their key demographic wanted – yet milkshake sales failed to increase. What the company failed to do was to understand what problem their milkshake was solving for their customers. What ‘job’ were the customers ‘hiring’  the milkshake to do?

Christensen’s team was hired on to help solve this problem. They spent a full day in one restaurant chain documenting:

  • Who bought the milkshakes
  • When they bought the milkshakes
  • Where they drank the milkshakes

His team discovered that 40% of the milkshakes were purchased first thing in the morning, by commuters who ordered them to go. The following day his team returned to the same store and interviewed customers who ordered milkshakes to go, asking “what job they had hired he milkshake to do.”

The results of his study were that most commuters bought the milkshakes for similar reasons. They were in a hurry, wearing work clothes, and had (at most) one free hand. They ‘hired’ the milkshake because they:

  • Staved boredom (drinking a thick milkshake through a thin straw)
  • Something to keep their one free hand busy
  • Not hungry, but could satisfy appetite for later
  • Tidy (no crumbs or grease)

In a TED presentation, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist who is famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce by realizing earlier in his career “There is no perfect Pepsi, but perfect Pepsi’s” – or simply that there is no single product for everyone, but there are multiple variations of products depending on wants/needs.

In the case of milkshakes: a regular milkshake can satisfy everyone, a thicker fruit shake can satisfy commuters, and a thinner non-fruit shake can satisfy children (or more likely, the child’s parent).

… there is also the rich oil tycoon demographic who will drink your milkshake …

Daniel Day Lewis in 'There Will Be Blood'

Take Home Message:

While it is important to know your demographics, it is more important to know what need you’re fulfilling. Most markets already have a product for everyone, what is needed are products for the sub groups.

The easiest way to know ‘what job your product was hired for’ – is ask yourself the 5 W’s & H for each product you have, or for any product you’re about to launch. From here look to see if there are any clusters of demographics. If you dont know what need you’re fulfilling, then you’ll probably have a better ROI by launching a random product than one without a clear direction.

Is Your Strategy A Recipe For Disaster?

The other night I came across a show on CNBC titled “Ford: Rebuilding An American Icon.”  As you can tell from some of my other posts, Ford is a company that I’m really excited about because of their complete company turn around. I know a bit about some of the strategies but wanted to know more, so this title completely drew me in. It was interesting to get a bit of insight into the company, especially since it has stumbled multiple times – and it’s that stumbling that inspired me to write this post.

The segment in question was called ‘Ford Family’s Boom and Bust‘ – it’s a short segment and I’ve attached the video, but here is a quick rundown if you prefer to read:

  • For every Model T, Thunderbird or Mustang; there has been a Pinto, Edsel or some other disaster
  • Great ideas become stagnant
  • Record Profits —-> Record Losses

Journalist Phil LeBeau interviewed Bill Ford, great grandson of Henry Ford, and asked if it was a fair criticism to say that ‘… when Ford is on a roll, things are going well, the (leadership) takes it’s eye off the ball.’

Bill responded: ” I think that’s fair … I’ve seen the booms and the busts, and one of reasons why I think we don’t sustain our prosperity is that we stop changing – we think we have the recipe for success.”

Bill completely nailed it.

They stop changing because they believed that they figured it out – that they found the secret recipe for success and all they needed to do was just to keep repeating it.

It’s easy to over-estimate our abilities to adapt, and to under-estimate the abilities of the competition. Ford isn’t the only one guilty of this, it happens at numerous of companies – mostly large, but also small. Business strategies need to be adaptive – if they change with the times, you’re already late! There is also no overarching strategy that works for everyone, no cookie cutter formula. Ford realizes this, and some of their strategies going forward will change the marketplace. Here are three in particular that really excited me:

  • Ford Sync – I wrote about this before, but it needs to be mentioned again. In a world that is becoming more digital and connected, Ford is trying to find a way to adapt new technologies and make it easier and safer by syncing to cell phones, mp3’s, and digital devices thru voice command.

  • Ford Figo – India is one of the fastest growing auto markets. Even though Ford has been there for over a decade, they had a dismal 1.8% market share. The reason – Ford didn’t offer a pint sized compact, which is what 70% of Indian consumers want. Instead of pushing a global strategy, Ford adapted to the local environment and introduced the Ford Figo. The big innovation though isn’t in the compact, but in the doors. Crowded Indian streets = a lot of accidents. To make repairs cost effective, harnesses have been taken off the door panel, allowing for the panels to come off completely, with new ones attached, form fitted and color matched and ready to go within 24 hours. Since it’s introduction, Ford sales have increased 300%

  • Ford EcoBoost Engines – Fuel efficiency is all the rage – not only for the environment, but also your pocket (and government mandates). Ford’s innovative new designs are turbocharged with direct fuel injection, resulting in 20% better fuel efficiency and 15% decrease in greenhouse emissions. The Mustang went from 15/23 MPG in 2009 – the 2011 model gets 19/31 while maintain 305 HP and a 1/4 mile of 13.6 seconds. In fact, in one recent test, a stock 2011 V6 Mustang went 776.5 miles on 1 tank of gas while averaging 43.9 MPH, resulting in 48.5 MPG!!!!! That’s absolutely insane!!!


It’s never too late to have some humble pie and learn from your mistakes. Ford came to the realization that there is no set formula for success, and this is an important lessons for all companies to learn. As cliche as the saying is, it was created for a reason – Innovate or Die.

A Better Choosing Experience

When it comes to product choice, the world is drastically different today than it was in the 1950’s. The number of options available from the variety of ice creams, intensity of hot sauces, even to style and cut of jeans practically ensures that there is something for everyone. This is a great time for consumers – no longer are they chained down by old Ford idiom of having ‘any color you like, as long as its black’ – now you have a spectrum of colors to choose from for you car (in fact the new Ford Fiesta has 9 exterior and 4 interior color options). It easy to assume that with all of this choice consumers must be really happy – but are they?

Barry Schwartz talks about a concept called ‘The Paradox of Choice‘ – that having more options actually makes us less happy. When people are left with fewer options they are content because they are ignorant of other possibilites. Once more choice is brought into the picture, expectations change, as well as future enjoyment. Consumers get overwhelmed and are left dissatisfied when they cant find the absolute best match for themselves. Outlooks change from a ‘this will do’ attitude, to ‘i want the best’. The problem is that ‘the best’ is highly subjective, and most consumers do not truly understand their needs or wants.

To get an idea on the amount of options consumers face, there are:

With this many choices, people can sometimes suffer from paralysis-analysis (over analyzing choices), and some can feel overwhelmed and discontent with their decisions (ultimately – buyer remorse). Creating something new and different isn’t enough anymore – what is needed instead is a better choosing experience.

In a perfect world every consumer would be an informed one, but the truth of the matter is that time is too limited and the choices are too many. Unfortunately I have run out of space and time to discuss this more, but I see this concept – helping consumers choice (not manipulating, but helping) as the next big medium. The idea is still in the ‘innovator’ stage, but here are two interesting websites to give you food for thought:

  • Aardvark – a new kind of tool that lets you tap into the knowledge and experience of friends and friends-of-friends.
  • Hunch – personalizes the internet by making recommendations based on your tastes.

The Pulse of Startups

As some of you might know, one of my biggest passions is knowing what is happening in the world of startups. I place part of the blame on my early adopter personality, but I am even more intrigued by possibilities – and staying up to date with the startup world is to have your finger on the pulse of the future.

Startup Advantage

One thing SME’s have over large corporations is agility. Large companies are slow moving and slow to change, while small companies are more adaptive. This is even more true for startups, and to understand why, you need to understand the nature of why startups are created.

Most entrepreneurs will tell you that they started their business to solve their own problems. The money (which they hope to make) is important, but secondary. There were some issues or complications that they ran into, yet there were no easy solution, so they had to create their own. Right there, startups are telling us something extremely important – that there are needs currently being unmet, and that gaps exist within the market place.

Another important lesson we learn from startups are what customers are looking for. The more successful the startup, the more their product or service resonates with the customer. This gives us valid assumptions on what can be successful in the near future.

The world of startups is changing, especially with more entrepreneurs adapting the ‘Lean Startup‘ philosophy. This means rapid prototyping, testing market assumptions, and using customer feedback to make continuous adjustments. Think about that for a moment – ideas are rapidly tested in the market place, and feedback is gathered. If it doesn’t fit the market, then pivot and change something in your business model.

How many companies or products can you think of that could have benefited from this advice? First one that pops to mind is an old example, but how about ‘New Coke‘ – which was spectacular disaster.

Lastly, startups can help us gaze into the future. Foursquare was launched in March of  2009, and not even 2 years later we’re seeing the craze of geolocation services, and multiple spinoff ‘check-in’ services. Even Facebook is hopping in on that action. Some future trends that I am seeing are:

  • Data Mining
  • Travel industry
  • Customization

I will get into these more in future blogposts since I will be dedicating the 1st week of every month to discussing the latest in the startup community.