Interview: Tom Hulme

Tom Hulme is a Design Director at IDEO

Avi: How do you define yourself?

Tom: An enthusiastic generalist. Lucky. Ultimately I hope it will be the stuff around me that defines me - startups, OpenIDEO, IDEO projects, family and friends...

Avi: What does Design mean to you?

Tom: It's thoughtful and passionate creation, in any medium. A considered approach to creating solutions that solve real human needs - as such I truly believe everyone has the capacity to be a designer... I guess I would say that as I have no formal design training!

Avi: How would you characterize IDEO?

Tom: IDEO is a function of its people - a diverse group united by a desire to have positive impact. We have developed various approaches to increase that impact: a truly human-centered approach (we centered on human needs even when working in business to business projects), diverse teams (we have learnt that this sparks creativity) and a increased emphasis on designing business models. I'm looking forward to seeing new approaches emerge too...

Avi: Does IDEO have a generic innovation process?

Tom: Many people, when they think of innovation companies, imagine anarchy and suppose that processes aren't important. But we find that having a process unlocks creativity for a few reasons. One the most important is it gives people a clear sense of where they are. It also gives people a common language around which they can discuss the projects. So we do have a process. What we don't necessarily have is a one-size-fits-all process. So we adapt it to the specific challenge that we're working on. So sometimes our challenges will be more strategic. That's happening more and more in which case we spend a larger portion of the project or the challenge actually figuring out the challenge question itself. Whereas other times we have work that's more tactical where we can move into the execution earlier.

So we change the process, but there are some commonalities across it. It's been always human-centered (anyone can try out the process for themselves by downloading the Human-Centered Design Toolkit). So even if we're working in business to business, we make sure that human needs lie at the heart of it. Secondly, wherever possible we prioritize making stuff. Building to learn is a really important part of our approach - it's the idea that we should prototype as quickly as possible to test ideas. Building stuff forces decisions, centers everyone on the idea at hand, enables valuable feedback from users. We're always where we can make stuff.

Avi: How can one use empathy to come up with new solutions?

Tom: It's a contentious topic because you have a lot of people that question the validity of empathy and point to examples like having focus groups, which I think is a mistake because focus groups are just one very small way of understanding human needs.

I think first and foremost we believe that you have to address real human needs to solve problems. If there isn't a need there, you certainly won't get traction. Empathy is about understanding the truths in those needs. So one of the things we often find in projects is that if you ask people about something, they give you a clear opinion. But then if you watch them, you'll find that the way that they behave actually contradicts the opinion they gave previously. Often we behave in ways that we're not cognizant of. It's subconscious and we don't want to admit it.

So we spend a lot of time really trying to understand the people that we're designing for and understand their nuanced way of living and design to that rather than just design what they might tell us in a focus group. One of the tools that we use to do that is to get extreme users because they give a wonderful insight as to the truth of the needs. For some reason we all love to fit humans into some sort of bell curve, and most big companies address the middle of a bell curve. Whereas the one thing you can be certain of is that the market's moving away from that towards one direction. We spend a lot of time looking at extremes because it gives us more of an indication of some of the needs.

I'll give you an example about the point around really deep empathy and understanding context. I met a lady probably a month ago who had done work in Africa around the difficulty of water access in rural Africa. So she went out there and they had to make some ideas around building pumps in villages and they realized the women in the villages were having to walk five miles each way in order to collect drinking water. And they thought great, the answer is obviously to build a pump. Sounds logical. The women won't have to travel five miles each way. Then they went out to the specific village and they asked the ladies, look we've got this idea if water is important to you. The women agreed and said obviously it's incredibly important to us. And they said we have an opportunity to build a pump so you don't have to travel anymore.And the ladies all looked horrified. And they said you don't seem to want this pump in your village? And the ladies said "No way! Those five miles each way to the water are the only time we get to get away from our husbands. Don't take that away from us!".

So you have to really understand people's truth skills. If you asked them superficially do you think immediate access to water is important they would have said yes, but not if it means that they can't have their escape.

Avi: Then there is a phase where you shift gears and come up with solutions nobody has thought of before?

Tom: Yes. I wouldn't want to say that we come up with solutions that no one has ever come up with before because I think many people have had most of the ideas that exist. What we try to do is we try to tweak those solutions and approach them holistically so that in its entirety we create something that is optimized for the human need. So we're agnostic, for example, about the way that we might address it. We're agnostic often at the start of projects about what we're going to use to address the problem. I think that's important because it keeps the playing field open so that you can create the perfect solution to address the need.

Avi: You emphasize that it's not just important to rephrase the answers, but also to reframe the question.

Tom: Historically we've lived in a world where the context wasn't changing so quickly so we could afford to come up with the question and spend a huge amount of time answering it. I think that paradigm has changed completely because now all of our circumstances are changing all the time.

So if you and I, through the course of this interview, set ourselves a big question, firstly, I think that question should be dynamic. It should change given the change in context. And secondly it should change based on our increasing knowledge. So, for example, if we ask ourselves through the course of this interview that what makes a great interview is our challenge, let's come up with a wonderful interview. Even as I start to answer questions you and I will have a slightly shifting opinion on what that means and tomorrow when we see another wonderful interview that maybe changes everyone's perception of what a good interview is. So I think the days where you could afford to draw a line around a specific question are gone.

We have to treat questions dynamically and it's because circumstances start to change, it's because answers start to change the question itself, and it's because our thoughts around what good is change as well. So when you throw those things together I think a question should be an incredibly dynamic thing.

Avi: What do you hold in mind as a baseline awareness of how to improve the quality of anything you do?

Tom: I'm motivated by positive impact. So spending time as a teacher in a school in Africa was the most formative thing I've ever done in my life, I think. It taught me that while sometimes money is an output and a result of positive impact, it doesn't need to be, so I try to hold myself accountable to that fundamental of positive impact. And I don't know that you can ever quantify it. I think it's subjective. I think it's incredibly qualitative, but I try and make decisions relatively based on whether it has a positive impact. If that sounds very flakey, I don't want it to sound flakey, but to me that's everything. I look to achieve that impact as efficiently as I can.

Avi: An impact can be changing one person's relationship to something.

Tom: Exactly. And I don't know that I'm sophisticated in making these judgment calls, but I often have a struggle whether I should have a deeper impact for an individual or a slighter impact for many and when making decisions on projects versus how to spend my time I find myself wrestling with that all the time.

I have had the most inspiring emails as a result of some of my talks. I find them unbelievably humbling. I've had them ranging from a gentleman in Kyoto in Japan who works for a Samurai armor company who are thinking of going into women's apparel ranging across to a guy who works in real estate in the US who was getting really passive in his company and it sort of triggered a change in his philosophy.

Avi: How did OpenIDEO originate?

Tom: OpenIDEO stemmed from my desire to explore extreme new approaches for IDEO. As an entrepreneur I can't help looking for disruptive approaches, a mindset which was amplified after I studied under Clayton Christensen. IDEO had taught me the importance of having diverse input to feed the creative process, this coupled with our increasing desire to participate anchored my belief that online tools could disrupt traditional innovation approaches.

In 2008 I began sketching out what was to become OpenIDEO more fully - at that time it was simply the idea of a platform to solve challenges for social good, comprising a modular process which would take the best of offline and online input and some sort of algorithm to measure and celebrate contributions. My vision for OpenIDEO was to create a platform which empowers a global community, valuing everyone's contribution. I iterated the idea over the following 12 months but the real step change in development came when we put a team behind the idea to develop it further in the Summer of 2009. I was joined by two other IDEO designers from London that had shown a real interest in the concept - Nathan Waterhouse and Haiyan Zhang. We made (and still make) a great team and launched the site in a closed Beta in the Summer of 2010.

We run OpenIDEO as a lean startup - with relatively short sprints to implement new features that are often suggested by the community. The vision we now develop together remains pretty much unchanged - we want to increase engagement to solve the challenges of our time and create positive impact - impact being the only metric that really matters.

Avi: What have you learnt from the OpenIDEO community?

Tom: We have contributors from over 200 countries on OpenIDEO. It's been great to see how supportive the community has been of one another. We designed threaded comments because we noticed the community beginning to have conversations around concepts and inspirations. An increasing number of concepts are built on others. The collaboration maps show how the concepts grow through the collision of inspirations and other concepts

Another key learning has been that those that don't participate can still be highly engaged. Traditional websites refer to those that don't contribute as 'lurkers' and see them as uninteresting and unimportant. I was reminded how engaged these people can be when we received a hand drawn Christmas Card from a user in Malaysia who had never participated - she had clearly been engaged!

It's all a good reminder that OpenIDEO is creating impact through creation of concepts that will have impact in the world (the destination) but also through the journey (building engagement around some of the challenges of our time). OpenIDEO is being used in a variety of ways we hadn't necessarily envisaged, one of the most inspiring has been seeing teachers globally ask their students to contribute to the process, from Ghana to the US. I love the fact that the site is meritocratic - it doesn't matter if you went to college or what you studied - your contributions alone define you.

Avi: But you still need people in the field to take a leap and get things done - A lot of stuff gets caught up in bureaucracy.

Tom: We're not naive to how difficult execution is. But I think there's some interesting examples out there where through the process of learning you can build demand. So Kickstarter is a phenomenally interesting version of this, where Kickstarter takes the risk out of launching a business because you get people to commit to purchase. So like we saw with American Idol as an emergent model, they're kind of de-risking an industry because instead of investing money and making a big launch, it gives the opportunity to test the market, to understand people's true needs, and therefore you have demand built into the process.

I hope that could be a facet of OpenIDEO ongoing. So we may not have the scale for that to be true as of yet, but you could imagine circumstances where you might come up with a lovely idea to solve one of the challenges and the encouragement you get from the community gives you the confidence to act and then you've got momentum on day one.

So this is one of the areas we are focusing on most at the moment, in fact right now we're designing how the 'realization phase' might look on the site. We like the idea of enabling teams to coalesce to implement ideas and to give the implementers a voice on the platform so that they can share learnings.

Avi: One thing is like money will spoil it.

Tom: I strongly agree with you. When initially thinking about it I looked at a 108 similar platforms and the one thing that became clear in all of them is as soon as you make money the motivator, kind of the ultimate extrinsic motivator, everything else collapses in the system. Then you bring in real gaming. Then you actually collapse the collaboration, the mutual support and things. So if there's one thing I can say with a level of certainty is that we won't sort of risk that by having prize based systems.

Avi: The Ghanasan urban sanitation project is a perfect study in how to facilitate realization. They did a lot of fieldwork, and they really were with the families. Then they came up with a holistic solution, including prototyping the toilet in actual use.

Tom: The team in that case spent a huge amount of time on the ground in Accra to understand the needs. One of the exciting things about OpenIDEO is it actually gives a voice to those people that we occasionally interviewed on an ongoing basis at the site. I'm excited that the people we would traditionally just have interviewed and then we'd have to fly back and find solutions can have an ongoing voice in the process and provide feedback.

So it's important to meet often physically to understand the context, but if we can keep a regular drumbeat around content and involve people more, that would be wonderful. I was approached by someone at Firefox, and he pointed me to the fact that a design university in Accra was actually inviting people to contribute to OpenIDEO as part of the course. To me it was a real eye-opener. It was wonderful the way it's a level playing field, and no matter what university you go to, you can contribute. So I hope it will be a bit more democratic in design as well.

Avi: The OpenIDEO design quotient could also be used by design schools as their screening technique.

Tom: We used it when we invited people that wanted to apply for fellowships to submit their OpenIDEO contributions together with their applications, so it was really exciting.

Avi: What advice would you give to a smart kid who's now in high school?

Tom: Learn inside and outside high of school, learn online and offline and combine all this learning with doing. I'm a huge fan of studying - I think we all need to build knowledge, it also stops you closing doors and acts as an indicator of willingness to learn. However, I think that education often lags the requirements of the workplace in terms of the skills that it builds. It's therefore important to develop additional skills outside of school - for example working in networks and communicating by and leveraging social media.

Most importantly, get inspired. I think that probably needs to happen outside school. I can think of a couple of events that shaped my course more than any other:

• One Summer I saw that an apple tree in our garden had a bumper crop of apples. We wouldn't have been able to eat them all so I wondered what we could do with them - my solution was sitting my sister at the end of our drive to sell them, I'm embarassed to say that she was only 4. My poor mum still is known locally as the lady whose daughter was made to sell apples - I hope it was worth it though as it gave me the entrepreneurial bug.

• I worked as a teacher in a school in Tanzania, East Africa for a year. Although poor, the people there were happy - it still serves as a reminder that material things are less important than family, friends and community.


  1. so what exactly does IDEO do?

    btw: that story he tells about village women in Africa walking to a well etc was used as an example/case study for my university degree … over 10 years ago. it’s like an urban-myth-case-study for anyone studying development.

  2. What’s with capitalizing the D in “Design”? I’ve seen that other places. Nothing against design, but if we don’t capitalize “medicine” or “philosophy”, why do we treat design like some kind of high priesthood?

    It’s annoying. Stop it.

  3. I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but I’m getting a little tired of the fetishization (that a word?) of the “design” world. In fact, the “design” world is a corporate services world ( Yes, sure, occasionally IDEO, Frog, whomever, does something swell for poor people, but let’s be honest, they are retained 99% of the time to help a corporation make money for its shareholders.

  4. @Raul, you might be right, but what’s wrong with making money if you are a business? The distinctive factor is that through initiatives like OpenIDEO they actually also use their skills to create change. If you’ve been on that platform, and participated, you actually see how much time is invested in it. It’s always easy to bash companies that go and do something to create a better world by saying that they are mainly focused on making money. But that is actually why they are a business. The questions would be: what are you doing to change the world? One thing you could do is join the OpenIDEO platform. It’s great to have some more smart and critical minds participating there.

    I was rather sceptical about the design focus as well, but being an active OpenIDEO user for a while now, I’ve found out that this has much to do with my lack of understanding of it. I’m not a design fetishist, and might even want to use different terminology, but the approach of trying to design solutions that work for humans is very effective. The process Tom mentions is similar to the things I’ve learned working for a consulting company. And this actually works. Using that to create change for social good is super.

    Avi, nice interview, was a joy to read it.

    1. Arjan, I agree with most of what you’re saying. I’m not bashing IDEO. Well, maybe a little. I don’t like that they (design firms) cultivate this image, at least in the US, of excruciating hipness. Follow the twitter feed of Frog, one would wonder if they actually ever do produce those better toasters.

      It’s much like the ad world here in NYC. You’d think they were collectives of underground avant artistes. And, I understand that those of an artistic, altruistic, bent struggle to find their places in the world (especially from a financial perspective–god knows I did). When they do find a place where their talents are rewarded, they strive to hold on to what their ideal image of themselves was/is. It just gets a bit sad.

      Oh, and I’m not skeptical at all about applying design methodologies to a variety of issues (hell, I do it for a living).

      Oh oh, and OpenIDEO is cool/good/worthy.

  5. Avi, I like how you structured your questions and led the interview with Tom. I enjoyed the read! See you on the OpenIDEO platform

  6. as a caveat: I’m not a product or graphic designer by profession, but i love design and design thinking. there are several reasons for this. (1) ive work in international development and academia and now international security etc and the way people think of programs, interventions, and projects is really suffering from a lack of proper Design (yup, I capitalized design, and I’ll explain in a bit why). The *principles* used by IDEO and discuss by Tom here are not solely applicable to the commercial sector, but rather they drive at a theoretical and technical foundation of the human experience. How we interact with objects is not a superficial enterprise, but rather a very important part of what defines and is defined by our values, beliefs, and physiological evolution. Sure, Frog and IDEO are out to make a buck, but we all need a buck to make things happen–it’s however more than buying something for 1$ and selling it for 2$ (i.e. profiteering).

    Design, particularly human centered design–and especially graphic and industrial design ideas are lacking in traditionally non-design industries, like government, like development, like health care, etc. I think OpenIDEO is a good case study of this very point. They are cultivating a community around the principles that IDEO proper uses for their commercial enterprise. In this case Design becomes a concept, and not just a craft or profession. That’s why in proper academic literature you can have a State and state, or Capitalism and capitalism–often distinguished by function and identity/concept/theory.

    So while, I think this backlash is probably grounded in the commercial side of things, I think we are doing a disservice to other industries potential use of Design by suppressing its role to that of superficial aesthetics and marketing appeal. Having said that, I like well design stuff that just looks cool too.

    The interview got me thinking, and as always reflects why Open IDEO *IS* a cool community to be part of and to explore innovative approaches to helping the world get a little more awesome.

Comments are closed.