I have been a big fan of IDEO for a long time.  IDEO is the famous design firm, well known for its design of innovative products, ranging from Apple’s mouse to the Swiffer and beyond.  In the new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum on Innovation and Play, IDEO’s design process is featured prominently.  IDEO starts out be understanding a problem at hand, observe people in action each and every day as this problem/task arises, then they begin the process of brainstorming and prototyping possible solutions.

Great products begin with relevance.  They have to solve a problem or fill a need.  While you might get some success with offering a service or product that people want, needs are much more compelling than mere wants or “would be nice if’s”.

Let’s take an example of something simple – snacks.  Ritz Crackers has made what they call “fresh stacks” – a package of small stacks of crackers, wrapped up- perfect size for a lunch of cheese and crackers or for a family to use in soup, etc.  These short stacks stay fresh, and it’s easy to use a whole stack before they go stale, which isn’t as easy with a regular box or tall stack of crackers.  This is something simple, it makes sense, and it differentiates them from the other crackers on the shelf.  Works for me!

In contrast, Doritos keep on coming up with more and weirder flavors than ever before.  And frankly, ever since my experience with the rather digusting cheeseburger flavored ones, I am pretty darn nervous about spending $3.99 or more on a whole bag of something my kids are unlikely to eat.  Late Night Tacos and Jalepeno Popper varieties might be fantastic, but they do not solve a problem or a need.  They are merely like introducing a new color for the new season into your fashion line.  While I admire the innovation and the trying something new, and while their website is cool, the reason why I need these new chips, or why I should select them over the other perfectly good and familiar things is missing.

Now, I am not sure Doritos could come up with something that would make them more of a “must have” for me, and I’ll admit that’s a tall order for something that’s pretty much just fine, as is.  But as a result, Doritos is unlikely to   gain any more market share this way, just redivide its existing market among new flavors.  That would be my bet, anyway.

Being innovative is not easy. But IDEO’s template can be applied to most problems, and it can help you devise solutions to problems as simple as “the backpacks and coats are cluttering up the backhall and driving me crazy” or “this layout of our furniture isn’t working for me.”  If you start by understanding the problem, observing what people are doing naturally, and then work solutions that adapt to this behavior, you’ll hit more home runs than ever before.