Hoogendoorn's Umbrella

Storytelling is central to design. Stories bring context to otherwise disconnected facts and help us empathize with users. They provide insight and understanding. They transport us to the decisive moments when choices are made. Throughout my experiences studying design thinking, I have encountered many stories that shaped my understanding. One such story, is that of the Senz.

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In a single week in March 2004, Gerwin Hoogendoorn lost three umbrellas to the elements. Frustrated by the experience, the Industrial Design student at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) set out to improve a product that had been essentially unchanged for 3,400 years. The ultimate result was Senz, a storm-proof umbrella designed to withstand whatever nature could throw at the hapless Dutch pedestrian.

Hoogendoorn explored everything about umbrellas: their tendency to flip inside out, to block visibility, to poke people in the eye. Umbrellas were a boring utilitarian product that didn’t fulfill their function well.  So boring, in fact, that Hoogendoorn had to endure the ridicule of his fellow design students, Gerard Kool and Philip Hess, for even working on such a product.

His early ideas included a magnetic field to repel the rain and a helicopter-like device attached to the user’s head. Eventually, however, he focused on the aerodynamics of umbrellas; with no background in aerodynamics, he sought out the help of university contacts with expertise in the field. To build prototypes, he bought a couple of umbrellas, tore them apart and rebuilt them. He tested his ideas through computer simulation, wind tunnels and ‘in-use’ tests (taking them out in the Dutch rain).

With Kool and Hess – who, by now, had begun to come around to the idea – Hoogendoorn founded Senz in 2005. The first Senz umbrella was launched in November 2006; its original, quirky design captured the public imagination and the initial stock of 10,000 units sold out in nine days. In its first year, Senz won almost every major design award and went global in 2007.

A few years ago, I spent a sabbatical Hoogendoorn’s design school. TU Delft, is a venerated institution in the design world. During my time there, I experienced the Dutch rain on more than one occasion and my Senz Umbrella has proved equally effective home on the wet and windy coast of British Columbia. But I came back with more than just an umbrella.

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Design thinkers are consummate storytellers, and throughout my journey they told me fascinating stories of the challenges they had faced, their wins and their losses. Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards, and hindsight is needed to interpret experience. Working backwards, prototyping and user experiences are all concepts that work not only for designers and people like Hoogendoorn, but also for large organizations that seek to rebuild from within. Design thinking can be a way for people to look back at their own purpose and role within the organization, and their strategies for thriving in what was frequently a hostile environment.

Although through hindsight we can interpret our experiences, we must also look forwards. Look at the critical strategic decisions needed to get a program going, and operational decisions that could have long-term implications. Design Thinking at Work unpacks stories like this and what makes certain design operations successful.


The Threat of Uberization

With grave concern, Captain Kirk holds the wrist of the unconscious crewmember. ‘His pulse is almost gone’, he says breathlessly to Spock. From his belt, Spock produces a small device and waves it over the listless body. He studies the coloured lights on the device. ‘Severe heart damage; signs of congestion in both lungs; evidence of massive circulatory collapse’, he pronounces in a dispassionate monotone.

On September 7, 2016, Star Trek turned 50. Boldly going where no others had gone before, it was escapist fantasy replete with heroes, villains, sexy body suits and romance. It offered a vision of an enlightened, peaceful future (at least among humans; Klingons were another matter). Like so many, I was a fan.

Part of the fantasy was technology. Spock’s magic device was a Tricorder, a piece of technology that became a staple of the multiple generations of Star Trek on TV and in movies. Of course, it was too good to be true in the 1960’s. It still is. But in the world of Fitbit and iWatch, it doesn’t seem quite such a stretch.

A Star Trek-Style Tricorder

A Star Trek-Style Tricorder

At least that’s what XPrize thinks. XPrize, an organization that sponsors competitions for radical innovation, launched the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize for a real-life wireless device that can detect a range of diseases.

Coupled with social media, Tricorder technology could allow healthy individuals to team up with other healthy individuals and crowdsource discounts on health insurance. For insurance companies, this undermines the very foundation of their business, where risks are pooled and premiums paid by lower-risk customers effectively subsidize the claims of higher-risk individuals.

In tech and innovation circles, this kind seismic change is often called ‘uberization’. Just as Uber’s new business model is undermining the taxi industry, insurance may face an existential crisis before too long.

If you think that uberization only applies to tradition-bound industries, think again. Your toothbrush can now talk to your smartphone, telling it whether you’re brushing too hard, to lightly, or missing areas. Your fridge can tell you to buy milk on the way home from work and coordinate your busy family’s calendars; not far away are recipe suggestions and a shopping list for that dinner party with the Smiths on Saturday night that you forgot about – but your fridge remembered.

Small wonder that many organizations worry about suddenly losing everything through uberization. Because design thinking offers a fresh way of looking at problems, many are turning to it in the hope that it will help them anticipate change and respond to it before it happens. Uberization affects much more than taxis and health insurance: it is pervasive throughout the economy, and very real to detergent companies and tax authorities alike. Yet while they are dealing with uberization, organizations also need shorter-term, incremental innovation to keep improving their existing products and services.

Tweaking and improving these products and services also demand reframing and a user-centred approach. It is not easy to be both an incremental innovator and a disruptive one. While uberization threatens traditional businesses, it creates a new playing field for players who operate according to a completely different rule book. This is the Tension of Disruption: how do you stay ahead of mega-shocks while staying contemporary and competitive?