Podcasts > Strategy > Ep. 052 - Empathy is the key to successful industrial design
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Ep. 052
Empathy is the key to successful industrial design
Gordon Stannis, Director of Design and Strategy, Twisthink
Tuesday, September 17, 2019

In this episode of the IIoT Spotlight Podcast, we discuss human-centric design and change management in high uncertainty innovation processes. 

  • What is human-centric design?
  • What is empathy in an industrial environment?
  • How to manage and communicate through the process of trials and failure?

Gordon Stannis is the Director of Design and Strategy at Twisthink, A business growth accelerator / innovation firm that partners with clients to imagine, develop and launch exciting new user experiences and products that “their” customers will love! For nearly 2 decades the Twisthink team has consistently unlocked game changing opportunities for clients in a broad range of markets including home, transportation, workplace, healthcare, sports and many things in between. Because at Twisthink, they’re not tethered to industry paradigms or mired by the day to day constraints of those industries. They flow between industries and can spot consumer, design and technology trends that affect them all. They’re entirely devoted to creating the ideal user experience which allows their customers to become market leaders and grow.



Erik: Welcome to the Industrial IoT Spotlight, your number one spot for insight from industrial IoT thought leaders who are transforming businesses today with your host, Erik Walenza.

Welcome back to the Industrial IoT Spotlight podcast. I'm your host, Erik Walenza, CEO of IoT ONE. And our guest today will be Gordon Stannis, Director of Design and strategy at Twisthink. Twisthink is a business growth accelerator that partners with clients to imagine, develop and launch new user experiences and connected products. Gordon and his partners started Twisthink in 2000, and in the decades since they developed a depth of expertise in human-centered design as it applies to IoT solutions.

Together, we discussed why it is crucial to understand users and their problems in depth before investing in technology. This is all the more true and discussing connected products and related data streams that have multiple users with complex interactions. And we explored how traditional companies can overcome their fear of failure when dealing with high uncertainty in the innovation process, in particular, in situations where technology impacts the business model

I hope you found our conversation valuable. And I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Gordon, thank you for joining us today.

Gordon: My pleasure.

Erik: So Gordon, you have a very interesting background. And it's honestly a background that we typically don't feature on the podcast here. We're usually talking to people that are building specific technology and are really narrowly focused on that technology. And your job is advising these people and advising the traditional world how to use digital technologies. Before we get into what your company Twisthink does, I'd love to just understand a little bit more your background, where you're coming from personally, and then maybe we can dive into how you ended up starting this company around 20 years ago.

Gordon: So by training 100 years ago, I'm a traditional industrial designer. So I've been crafting products and experiences and things for a wide range of industries. I started my career in the automotive industry. And that was back in the early 90s when that was an extremely exciting, dynamic experimental industry. And it still is in different ways right now. I've worked in the contract furniture industry for Herman Miller, worked for BMW on staff for several years, lived in California for several years. But generally speaking, Michigan, and now specifically Western Michigan has been my home base.

And Twisthink, was founded on the notion of, there's a better way to approach problem solving. And we designed a unique team approach that I can unpack later. But we've been doing this for nearly two decades now, as the firm Twisthink. And we can do things that are unusual. Few companies can do them. And it's only because we've focused so relentlessly on it for nearly two decades.

Erik: What was the impetus to start the company? I mean, I guess you had a personal impetus. It was also an interesting time. I think this is right after the dotcom crash. Were there any particular events there? Did you just feel like there was a need for this, and this was a good path for you to take your career?

Gordon: Twisthink was born of frustration that we were seeing, we’re observing a lot of waste by the way of talent, and energy and focus. And some colleagues and I talked about starting Twisthink for over a year, and we're at different companies, and we decided to pull the trigger and do it in a different better way. This actually happened just before the dotcom crash. So I have a handful of colleagues at Herman Miller who insists that I knew something. I did not. I was just really fortunate because we watched industries change radically.

When I left Herman Miller, they eliminated 35% of the jobs in the next year that were at that company. And so, in fact, our largest client was Herman Miller, we had a million dollar project with them. And they cancelled it four months in, and that was back in the day before we even considered a cancellation fee. We just sort of took it on the chin and said, okay, you go your way and we're going to go our way. And we had to reconstruct our firm in the midst of that backdrop. They were challenging days, but they actually made us stronger.

Erik: And then tell us a little bit of what is the philosophy of the company today? And how has that evolved since you founded it 20 years ago?

Gordon: So your typical corporate campus has different departments. And oftentimes those departments have firewalls, we jokingly refer to them as, and they can be right next to each other, or that firewall can just be distance. And then you have language, and then you have culture, and all these things. And no one intentionally sets out to make it difficult for different people in different departments to collaborate. No one actually wakes up in the morning says, how can I fort highperformance collaboration? But if we aren't really careful, it actually happens on its own.

So the whole impetus behind the Twisthink is we're twisting together literally like a twisted pair of wires. We're twisting together technology-minded individuals, and human-centered design experts minded individuals, and we twist them into one team, and we colocate them. So we don't have departments here. In fact, we move all of our people every six months, and we never have departments. So industrial designers are sitting there flanked by two electronics engineers at all times and it changes every six months. And we've been doing that for two decades. And so what that does culturally is it creates the basic tenants of human centered design is empathy. Well, what if we had empathy within our own company? What if we had a better understanding of the challenges of our colleagues? We'd be naturally set up to do a better job for our customers.

Erik: Your customers, now drifting towards industrial, and the topic of empathy is interesting in this context because we have this image of the person as a cog in the factory, and they punch in and they do a job and they leave. And it's a very different perspective of the end user, who's this worker, then the consumer and the consumer then we try to understand their family life, and their emotional state, and so forth because that's directed to a buying decision. How do you view the concept of empathy applied to an industrial environment?

Gordon: First of all, we think it's critical to treat a B2B or industrial application user experience exactly the same way we would do a B2C, because they're the exact same human beings. We find it literally comical that there's this reflexive innate cultural norm where we think, hey, if we're designing a product like a car or a cell phone, or you name it, something that you would go and purchase at a store or online, that it has to rise to a certain level of sophistication because those are really sophisticated consumers. And they have really high expectations. And they're surrounded in a world of sophisticated products, services and experiences.

So if you want to lure them, and you want to keep them, and you want to build your brand, you have to live up to their expectations, you have to understand their pain points, and you have to solve their problems with a twist of surprise and delight. But then we pivot to an industrial application. But industry in general has this propensity to say, oh, you know what, it really don't need much, it doesn't have to be that sophisticated. They're not accustomed to much. They can get by with very little, and all of a sudden these same human beings don't have aspirations, hopes, dreams, they don't live in the real world.

One of the things that we do it's easy to do benchmarking, but it's more important to do adjacent benchmarking. So if we're designing any kind of a product, we look at the similar products, not companies that are literally competing against that one thing, just similar user experiences that that end user is going to have and we use that as our benchmark because that's the reality

Erik: That's interested in do you see cases where for some reason, maybe it could just be a historical competitive dynamic, but do you see cases where one adjacency is kind of stuck in the 1980s and another one somehow has made it to 2019 and is really bringing out great products across the industry? Does that happen? Or is it really fragmented across these different components, different industries?

Gordon: The most vivid example that I can think of right now is trucks. There was a day when cars were cars and cars were really sophisticated because people who drove cars were different kinds of people. But then there's a pickup truck and that's just utility. Those are just workers. They're just going to the job site. Those workers don't need much. And so, pickup trucks were actually quite primitive compared to cars.

Look at the difference. Look where we are right now. My friend just bought a raptor. That's one of the most sophisticated vehicles I've sat in in a really long time. And that's a great metaphor. Think of that as industrial IoT, those F1-50s that are basically keeping Ford Motor Company alive. Those products are not second class citizens. They are premier products. And that's where industrial IoT, and industrial user experiences are naturally heading in our opinion.

Erik: We have a client who is producing construction equipment. And one of the things that I learned working with them is that in Sweden, in the Nordic countries, people love their cranes. And so somebody they buy their crane, obviously, they're in this thing the whole day working, and they'll buy every accessory and it's a point of pride. They want to go out there to a construction site. They talk over coffee, what did you outfit your crane with? And did you get the newest this and the newest that? And I think you're right, it's made the leap in that particular category because people reference over to the automobile.

Gordon: Yeah, look at farm equipment, like really great tractors and farm equipment there, you could make the case like, oh, that stuff doesn't matter. It's just out in the field, nobody sees it. Farm equipment are some of the most sophisticated and comfortable and beautiful equipment you'll find.

In fact, one of our clients, Crownless Trucks, they win design awards every single year for tactical ergonomics, and beauty and efficiency and comfort. You don't have to choose one we're kind of our natural DNA is yes, and as opposed to either or. And oftentimes we have customers come to us and they naturally start with either or. Oh, we have to make a decision. It’s we have to choose one or the other and we kind of look at them and say, all good products, services and experiences should be viewed as a two sided coin: there's usability and desirability. Think of any company you admire, any product that you love and experience that you love, it had great usability and had great desirability that you cannot get by with just one or an imbalance of the two.

Erik: So how do you deal with a situation where there's maybe not a direct adjacency that that's a great role model and maybe there's not this ownership experience with vehicles, somebody feels like they own it, they spent a lot of time in it? But what if we're dealing with like an industrial control panel in a steel plant? Of course, there's still people engaging with this and you ideally would want to give them an intuitive and really somewhat somehow delightful experience, or at least not a very frustrating experience. But let's say nobody owns that or there's multiple users, and there's maybe not a great adjacency example that you can point to. How do you manage situations like this?

Gordon: First, full disclosure, I've never designed a control panel for a steel plant. So I'm ignorant. And one of the first things we do when we're asked to work on a project is we raise our hand and say, we're ignorant, we don't know and we can't design anything for you. Because we haven't done the hard work of discovery, which is going out into the field conducting interviews, doing ethnographic research, and so forth.

So I'd have to do that first to even understand the problem. But I have a high level response to your answer. I'm not trying to be evasive in the high level responses safety in a steel plants, probably pretty important. And we know that when we make things approachable, easy to understand, easy to use, and we understand what the potential negative unintended consequences of a wrong action are, we can design user experiences that will keep people safe. We've done that before. So we just have to understand what those things are.

And what we see way too often is this kind of cursory, quick and dirty, hey, let's throw a bunch of different colored rectangles on a screen. And not even think about how legible the font is or anything like that, and hope for the best in a safety conscious environment, that's not a smart move.

Erik: I was talking to the founder of a Chinese startup a couple months ago and he was talking about how he'd raised a couple million dollars, he hired a bunch of PhDs, they went in a room, they tried to build this manufacturing software, and then nobody wanted it. And so then, he was thinking, what do we do? And he took the entire management team and they, for two months, became interns in a factory. And just morning to evening, they went there and they just worked just shoulder to shoulder with everybody else in the factory, and they came out of that feeling like, okay, there's some painful aspects of this, this communication needs to get done and there's ergonomics, and there's different things that we need we didn't have it all in our radar before. And I love this fit this imagery, it's a brilliant approach. And how many people do that?

Gordon: That level of investment is extraordinary. I've never heard of individuals doing that for more than half a day versus two months. The level of depth of intelligence, and empathy and clarity you can achieve after two months. See, that's typically what we're hired to do. Executives read something, and they hear something and they realize, you know what, you really can't understand a problem until you climb into the boots of the people who are on the ground. So hey, we're going to hire Twisthink. We're going to send their ethnographic research team in there to do that for us. And they're going to document and purify their findings. They're going to present it to us in a comfortable conference room and it's going to make sense. And then we'll say, alright, use that as the backbone for your create phase and off we go.  

But the idea of those same executives, rolling up their sleeves and putting out a fake mustache and a hardhat and climbing into that environment themselves. One of the things we say when we do this research, and we prepare this report, and we present the information, we say the stuff that we have in our head is deeper and richer than what we're able to put on the page. We're only able to capture a fraction of the content and put it on a page into report form. And that's why we don't do research as a service.

We do research as a phase because we take those same individuals who did the research, and they're on the hook to work with our clients to convert those insights into action. It's really bad practice to do research, handover report and expect other human beings to comprehend it, and be able to leverage it for greatness. They could do, okay. Now, they'll get a see if they just work from the report. But if they work with the people that did it, there's a plus potential.

Erik: So there's challenges related to designing the product, and there are other challenges that are related to determining how the product will impact the business and how to then redesign the organization. And maybe I’ll give you an example and I want to know do you deal with these situations, and what's your approach here? So you have situations where a company might be moving from a product sale to a solution sales and in that process, they need to shift their sales process.

And then there's going to be a group in the organization that see themselves as losers, because they actually, in fact, might be losing their job or their job responsibilities might be shifting significantly enough that they have to really retrain because the sales process could be dramatically changing. And then they're, of course, quite antagonistic to this change. So you need to somehow reorganize the processes. But you also have an existing culture and an existing business that is profitable, and is paying for the change. So you really need to be careful when you change that because the past is paying for the future. So you need to be careful when you disrupt the past.

How do you manage these situations when it's not just about a good product, but it's really around how this product interacts with the business model and relationships between people in the organization and between the past and the future and the transition between those elements?

Gordon: Fundamentally, people fear change. We're just so hard wired to fear change. We, we like being entertained. And so people don't usually go to see the same movie 10 times because that's boring. We'll go see new movies, which is change. Those are changes, but they're so well bounded, and they're so harmless, and they won't affect our career and they don't affect our earning potential or anything like that.

I saw a survey once that said, for average, like a 40 year old working man in North America, the most fear inducing phenomenon, you would think that like fear of getting cancer, fear of losing your home, fear of loss of a limb or fear of all these other, fears of getting married or getting divorced or whatever, that those would be the top of the list the number one thing at the top of the list. And this is in North America because we have this hyperactive work ethic culture, is losing your job.

So what you just said, hey, we need to innovate. We're not as innovative as a company as we used to be. So we need to rethink our products, services, experiences and processes. That speaks to the number one fear. Rattlesnakes are like number 50 on the bottom on the list. Fear of job change or loss is absolutely paralyzing to the average person at least in our culture. So we have to approach that subject with the appropriate amount of reverence and respect. And as we're imagining a new future state in which people thrive, including the person who might be losing that job to gain a new job, or going through difficult change, or whatever, it's really important that we spend the required time and thought and care to illustrate a more desirable future for the company, and for the people that work for the company to inspire trust and optimism.

And frankly, one of the words that we use in our company a lot and we do it more internally than externally, is hope. We view ourselves as sort of ambassadors of hope when companies who you can see when a customer walks in with genuine enthusiasm for what they're doing and where their company's going. And then you can see when a company leader walks in, and they've tried so many things, they've read so many books, they've talked to so many mentors, and they're just not sure what to do. And the hope is sort of leaked out of them.

So we take that job very, very seriously. And there's nothing more gratifying than starting a journey with an organization and then a year or two later, you can see the hope is back in their eyes, their eyes are bright again. They visualize this exciting new future in which they and their team and their families will thrive. That is one of the most gratifying dimensions of our job. It's almost like alchemy: you're turning despair into hope. So back to your fundamental question, how we deal with process change, we’re literally contextually thinking of all those things in that moment.

Erik: So you're almost thinking of it's not just the users of the product we're bringing out, but then the people that are building the product, the people that are selling and distributing and managing this product, they're also users to an extent, they also have a role to play in and they need to be taken care of?

Gordon: They're huge stakeholders. The basic tenets of human centered design is know thy stakeholders. So with any product, service or experience that we're hired to design with, and for a company, because we never do it for them. It's always with, its hyper collaborative. There's no other way to do it.

One of the first things we do is we figure out who the stakeholders are: primary, secondary, tertiary, and we start to understand what their pain points are, and what their aspirations are. And we literally are impotent until that job is done. That is job one. And we have learned, unfortunately, the hard way. We had a customer once who told us don't worry about that stakeholder. They're really not that important. They don't make decisions. They don't add any value to the decision making process. And our red flags are flying off and sirens are going off, and they just refuse to invest the money to deeply understand that stakeholder. It was a disaster because that stakeholder had the power to unsell.

In the selling process, they were just a little cog on the gear. But at the right moment, when the product and service was being sold, they did this funny thing where they say, are you sure you want to buy that? We've had some problems with that. And then the person who's about to make the purchase decision gets really scared. Really? You've had problems with that? Yeah, I'm just saying I mean, if you want to buy it, we'll install it, but I wouldn't recommend it. And then that customer pivots. This was a great product. It was the right product for them. But the installation process wasn't thought through and installers hated installing it, and so they unsold it. You only have to learn that lesson once because it is just devastating, the whole house of cards fell down and we knew better, and we will never ever do that again.

Erik: So in the industrial IOT space, you often have quite a collage of end users because you're talking about data and that data, there might be a physical product than somebody who's using that physical product. But then there might be behind that 10 different stakeholders who could be internal, they could be external, they could be third parties that somehow can derive value out of that data. And certainly, one of the criteria to have a quite profitable IoT product is to try to maximize the value of the data. But then you run into certainly some technical challenges, but often a lot of security and privacy challenges as well in figuring out that.

So you have, I guess, two issues here. One is, what do people value, the primary users and the others? So who are the stakeholders and what do they value? And the second is how can you deliver what they value in a way that's legal and ethical? Have you encountered projects that are this sort where you have multiple users, maybe of a data generating solution, and you have this messy mix of user requirements, and then legal privacy ethical requirements in the backend?

Gordon: Yeah, it happens a lot. Unfortunately, people watch the news, and they read the papers, and they see a small percentage of companies and leaders as bad actors, and then they become cynical. And I can give you a specific example on a second.

It's common for us to have someone comes to us they have great intentions. They'd have no nefarious intent at all. They're literally trying to do exactly the right thing for all of their stakeholders to create this great user experience that all users will love. And then you have people raising their hand saying, hey, wait a minute, can't this be used as a time clock? And is it really the intention of my organization to clock me in and track me and see if I came back from lunch five minutes late, and so forth? And there's no simple answer to how we overcome those things. They are overcome with time.

I think the best way I could characterize that is if we continue to carefully and thoughtfully and nondefensively but consistently explain the value. This is why stakeholder mapping and understanding stakeholders is so important because if we design any product, service or experience, and we don't literally give something valuable to every single one of them, one or two or three things, best case scenario, if we ignore one, we don't give them anything, that creates distrust. Everybody has to win something from this process.

And so the example I'll use is Herman Miller, this was two or three years ago, they were trying to optimize health and wellness and ergonomics in chairs and height-adjustable tables for their customers. That was their goal. They wanted to go beyond just mechanical solutions, and go to digital solutions that would help coach people to sit properly, to not sit too long, to not stand too long. And so we created this ecosystem, and we embedded a height-adjustable tables, and perhaps later chairs with intelligence and sensors and radios and microprocessors and stuff that would literally digitally coach a person just like your Apple watch every once in a while tells you to stand up or breathe or tells you what your health metrics were for the day and so forth.

We're doing that with work tools for the purpose of improving posture, improving wellness, and so forth. Immediately, you can you can sort of just imagine what the knee jerk reaction by the average person at the beginning to hear that and understand that employees were thinking, oh, gosh, so they'll know exactly when I got to my desk and they'll know exactly when I left for lunch. Because I got out of my chair, and my chair has sensors in it. This is a time clock.

So what we did is we anonymized all the data. We made it literally impossible, kind of like Apple, they've been very careful how they protected their brand. They say there's certain data that they don't ever want to get it. And that allows them to look you in the eye and say, we're not manipulating this data. We're not playing with this data. We don't have it and we don't want it because we want you to trust us.

So we had to do the same process with Herman Miller and prove that hey, individual, you can look at your health and wellness score and you can see how long you you've been sitting this week or standing this week or changing posture this week. You can have access to that. But the organization doesn't and Herman Miller doesn't, and so forth.

And it's not linked to your name. No one to know as you you're just. You're a person. You've been anonymized for your own benefit and protection, kind of a HIPAA sort of approach. And people eventually embraced that idea because they saw that they were getting benefits. But the initial knee jerk reaction was quite the contrary.

Erik: Yeah, that's going to be an issue, the monitoring of people. So I'm here in Shanghai and China and the police came and took one of our colleagues, so five police officers came, took him away, he came back six hours later and said, okay, they took a urine sample, took a snippet of my hair, tested it, and then let me go. And basically, the story is that he does some DJ and on the side, so he goes to clubs fairly often. And they were doing a raid. It's a great IoT use case to an extent. They have cameras outside the club, so they recognized his face.

Every time you fly into China, you’re scanned when you go through security. So they mapped against his identity, and they knew who he was. They're tracking his mobile phone or all over. So they knew that he was here at the office. He's not even registered here because he's a new colleague. So there's no formal registration, but they just know this guy's in this place seven hours a day, so that's his place of work. And so they knew he was here.

On the one handed, it's a great IoT case, it was very successful. So machine vision plus device tracking and, and facial recognition, and so forth. And they found him, now there was nothing for him in that particular use case. Maybe he's happy that he's in a society that doesn't have a lot of drug abuse, but…

Gordon: And crime and safety and so forth, maybe that's the premise that this is all founded on, is if you want to live in a safe society, everyone has to give up a little bit of privacy so that we can have this. And I'm not saying it's right or wrong, that might be the premise.

Erik: When my Chinese colleagues, we were all discussing this, and they were a little bit upset. They were like this is frightening. Now, we see there are benefits, and there are costs. In Chine, it’s an extreme case. But realistically, in every workspace, there's going to be a lot of data collection in the future and the opportunity to use the data in different ways. So this is going to be a very common issue that that companies are encountering.

Gordon: You're right. It's exciting to be working in this space because there's other things like monitoring traffic flow in space. And the reason, imagine you're a contract furniture manufacturer, and you're working with a A&D community, and you're designing great collaborative spaces, and meeting rooms and cafes, and in touchdown desks, and then individual offices. And it's all based on these hypotheses that this is going to be the best work environment so that people can be really productive, really effective, be super innovative, and our company is going to grow.

And so you turn the people loose into that new space and you don't really know if it's working, and you're not really sure how to optimize it. And so, I worked with this company in New York City who put occupancy sensors in every conference room, and every collaborative space, and they had hot desking. So they knew when people were sitting and people always sat at a different desk every day. These are thousands of employees too.

The perception by the average worker was there weren't enough conference rooms, they’re always full and there weren't enough open collaborative spaces, they're always full and they had some other perceptions. The perceptions of the leadership of the company is we built too many conference rooms because they're always empty and we built too many collaborative spaces because they're always empty. I mean, they're polar opposite perceptions.

So the only way you can reconcile that is by ground truthing reality. And so they put sensors like really low resolution arc sensors, that's not facial recog. They didn't care about that kind of stuff. They just wanted to know, hey, here's a conference room. How often is it being used? Hey, would it be cool if we could? Is it being used by two people most of the time, or is it being used by eight people most of the time? That'd be really helpful to know. And they have dozens and dozens of these rooms.

And so they weren't able to get the granularity they wanted, they could just tell when there was heat and movement in the room and log that as occupancy. But frankly, that doesn't tell you if people are using that room collaboratively. There could be one person camped out there on their cell phone talking to their significant other for hiding for 45 minutes. Nobody really knows.

We started to have to dial in our sensing capabilities in our micro processing and transmission capabilities to really feel like is high performance collaboration taking place in this space with four or more people? That's really what we wanted to know. And that's what the contract furniture company wanted to know. Is that flower luring those insects into its lair to do great work? That's all they cared about. But you can imagine how the average worker might view that as oh, wow, the man's keeping an eye on us. It just takes trust. It requires trust. If you work for an organization that you just don't trust, you got to get out of there.

Erik: There's another topic that we touched on briefly at the beginning, but I'd like to go a bit deeper here because these challenges that we're talking about require, on the one hand a fairly broad range of insight. And it's often talked about the IT disconnect. So you have the IT guys who are 25 and have a certain culture in a particular domain expertise, and then you've got the 45 year old OT guys with a very different culture, and they don't work well together. But they need to build IoT solutions.

But you also have the design people and you have the marketing and sales people, you have all these other people that have different cultures and different expertise. And you then have a situation where on the one hand, you need to really to develop a good IoT solution and the right business models and user experience around that. You need this very balanced set of skill sets. But each individual is in today's economy pushed to be more and more of a specialist. How do you manage that as a team? And how do you manage that working with clients in order to make sure that you can have effective collaboration with your client teams?

Gordon: That reminds me of the innovation, Venn diagram. Are you familiar with that?

Erik: Venn diagrams, yes, I'm not sure about this particular one.

Gordon: So imagine three overlapping circles, your typical Venn, and one of them is user experience, the other one is business viability, and the other one is technical feasibility. And so, if you were to Google Innovation Venn, you would see this, and you would see 100 different permutations of it. And the problem is they're all wrong, in our humble opinion. And the reason they're wrong is they show these circles as being equally sized. And they're not. And here's how that typically works.

So, a large corporation with legacy and equipment, and channel and so forth, they have this natural gravitational tendency to approach every new business opportunity with business viability, first and foremost, that's the big thing. Like how can we make money? Oh, here's a way. Let's go make money over here. And then they say, hey, let's look at our tool belt, and see what kind of technical capabilities we have in our tool belt that will allow us to make money. And then the last thing they do is try to understand the users so that they're able to create a great user experience. That's a prescription for disaster, that puts the user last.

What we see with tech startups is they have a unique and different hierarchy. Tech fees is number one. They have this cool tech. They might have some IP associated with it. And they want to commercialize this amazing new technical capability. And then they hire an accountant and they go through a lot of spreadsheets, and they figure out how can they make money with their tech? And then once they think that they've got something, then they go looking for customers and user experiences. They did it last also. And that's a prescription for disaster.

So when you mention the IoT and OT and sales and marketing and the marketing team, and so forth and design team, what's so powerful about human-centered design and focusing on the user experience, it's all about the user. We put the user the stakeholders front and center, then we focus all of our energy on them and understanding their pain points and solving those pain points. And then we figure out okay, now we know what we need to do. We know who they are. We know what they need. We know what we need to do. What technologies do we need to bring those user experiences to life? We are literally technology agnostic. We literally don't care what technology we use. We can use anything. The world's our oyster, everything at our fingertips.

So we use the right technology that's most efficient to bring that user experience to life. And then you get to the business viability part. Once you've created a great user experience, not a sufficient user experience, but a great one, and you've brought it to life the best way and then you understand what it costs you to produce this thing, you set your price. And I've heard executives at Apple parrot that exact same thing. That's how they work. And they're puzzled why every organization on Earth doesn't approach problem solving the exact same way, because it's extremely fruitful.

So what we do when we're working with all those different stakeholders internal to an organization that you had mentioned, on your question is we set that mental framework. It doesn't happen in five minutes. It could take a couple or few meetings, to get everyone in the room to realize like, you know what, that is the right way. We should have known that that's the right way to approach solving problems, okay. And we galvanize the team around that approach. It's like we just created a superhighway. It's beautifully paved. It's nice and smooth. And we're all driving on it together.

Erik: You've mentioned Apple as inspiration a couple of times, do you see out there any companies in the industrial space that you also look to as inspiration for companies that just really have it, really consistently build excellent connected products?

Gordon: Yeah, I mentioned this earlier, Crownless Trucks, they're an impressive company, because they make great physical four ton objects. And they've been making great four ton objects four many decades. But they're not resting on their laurels. They know they can't. And maybe that's a hint to all companies. It's not enough to make great physical product. You have to glean new value from it with other means.

And I can tell you a quick story about Crown asking us to help them solve a safety problem. So we spent a year and a half or two years figuring out a really clever way to solve the safety problem. And maybe I should preface this by saying, I view IoT as kind of like a doorway. Once a company decides to create an IoT platform to solve a specific problem or too, basically, you created this threshold, this doorway, and you can now walk through that doorway, and you're in a new room, and in that new room are hundreds of new doors that you couldn't see before. But now that you have this IoT platform, you can see these other doors and you can walk through those doors too. And there are doors beyond them.

So here's my point with Crown, we had to solve a safety problem. We solved it. We eliminated the problem. It's gone. You can say A+, you did exactly what we asked you to do. Well, we were so myopically fixated on solving that problem. We didn't realize that we had inadvertently solved another problem. They have an ageing workforce. The drivers of this particular vehicle, they were out after three years. It's a very physically demanding job. By solving the safety problem, we literally helped eliminate 70% of footsteps every single day for that worker.

So ageing workforce, bodies are falling apart, can't recruit, low unemployment, it's a real big problem. And we just took away 70% of the steps that that person takes each and every day. By the way, we're talking magnitude of they're walking 10 miles a day. We just took 70% of that walking away from them. And in fact, we were embarrassed that we didn't see that door beforehand, but we didn't because we were focused on solving one problem.

So here's my point. If you got a problem, and you can't solve it with physical, mechanical, traditional solutions, then you have to solve it with intelligence and electronics and IoT. Solve that problem and fully expect to uncover new value that you can't even imagine at the onset of the project, but you're going to find it. And it's going to put a smile on your face that's going to put a smile on your customers face and you can continue to do that moving forward. The analogy I use is working out the gym isn't hard, is driving to the gym that's hard.

Erik: I look at the traditional world kind of as a map with five known opportunities on it, you have a relatively manageable number of relatively well understood opportunities. You make some bets, you say, we'll put 10 million into each of these and we think two of them will mature, and that'll drive our growth for the next five years. You're pretty satisfied with that. The IoT map is much more like a map with 1,000 opportunities on it, maybe 90% of them are dead ends.

But there's still 100 great opportunities on that map and things that are invisible to you today, somehow, you need to place bets to discover those. And that's for a traditional organization, very different landscape to be navigating in and a very challenging one, because it means you're going to fail a lot of the time.

Like you just mentioned a great example of a hidden opportunity, so there's a lot of hidden opportunities out there. But there's a lot of things that are also going to be dead ends or ideas that just don't work out, which is fine. But you have to work your way through that. How do you work with clients in environments where you might know from the get go, hey, we're going to fail a lot before we succeed in this project? How do you make that acceptable? And then how do you do that in a way where the failure is as painless as it can be and as impactful with learning as it can be?

Gordon: So two things: one is you can't fail at your primary task. So, as I mentioned with Crown, we had one primary goal, and that was to eliminate the safety problem. So we tried many ways to solve the problem and we failed fast and furiously at the front end trying methods to achieve that goal. And we knew we would. And so those are low costs. They're low visibility. They're happening very quickly. And every time we fail, of course, failure is like a trade secret. Now, you know something that your competitor doesn't know, and you know what not to do and you know why not to do it. Henry Ford said failures, a great way to start again more intelligently.

So failure isn't a bad word here. We view, design and innovation and product development is sort of a river. And there's headwaters and then there's the ocean that it dumps into. And the headwaters is way up front and discovery and dumping into the ocean as you're shipping products. And so, you don't want to be failing at sort of midstream. That's catastrophic. That makes leaders very upset. It can tarnish our brand. And it can sour someone's impression of human-centered design and technology and all those things.

So we have frank conversations at the start of a project about what the definition of failure is, and we raise our hand and say that we're expecting it's absolutely essential that we fail a lot upfront. It is the path to success. And that inspires a lot of interesting conversation as you can imagine. By the way, that river that I mentioned, you know that metaphor of a river, if you’re looking down on the earth and you look at rivers, they're never like laser beams, are they? They are usually these meandering organic shapes. And oftentimes, executives visualize this like straight laser beam. You got headwaters over here. You got ocean over there, just we're just going to cut a channel straight from the headwaters to the ocean and fast track this baby. It doesn't work that way.

So a lot of it is level setting up front with expectations. And one suggestion we make with senior leaders and new companies that we're working with is, can we please try to use fast early failures as trade secrets and by the way, share them with the rest of your organization? Because if you don't, what’s likely to happen, they're going to fail the same thing and that's inefficient. That's not a good lean process. You wouldn't want to do that on the factory floor. So don't do that in the front office. So share your failures, embrace them and use them like tribal knowledge and trade secrets.

Erik: So they become an asset almost.

Gordon: Yes. Not almost, they literally become an asset. I want to emphasize that.

Erik: You've given a couple examples so far, but is there one or two case studies that you can walk us through from start to end and maybe through a couple of the challenges you encounter to give us a better understanding of how human centered design applies to the IoT innovation process?

Gordon: I can't give any company names or anything like that. But we're actively engaged in the back end, like the final product development phases of a project. Imagine your industrial application happens in extremely remote places, you're doing something all over the world, in every continent of the world, and you're running this large equipment, and when something breaks, is absolutely catastrophic. It's catastrophic because it stops all of the work, and then you have to get parts quickly to those locations to get the work started again, and so forth.

So traditionally, you would use human beings to do this repetitive inspection activity. And a lot of times, that works great; a lot of times, it doesn't work so great. Sometimes it's too expensive. Sometimes the people don't actually do what they're saying they're going to do, and so forth. So this was the impetus for our clients to say, you know what, we want to take this to a whole new place. We want to have sensors deployed all over the world on this equipment. We want to receive the data. And if we see something going sideways, we want to offer a new service to our customer. We want to call them and say that thing in that place is likely to fail in three days if you keep using the same cadence you're using it right now.

So our recommendation is that we get a part to you, and we intervene a day before it fails. That's the big idea of IoT is that we can do things better and more efficiently. And oftentimes, this particular example I'm talking about is like extremely hot, extremely wet, extremely dirty, sometimes underground environments. So the devices that we're creating which are cellularly-enabled, so they have powerful radios and sensors, and micro-processing capability, and they're being beaten up all day, every day by vibrations and stuff like that, in designing at that point, the physical product itself, the enclosure and how it attaches becomes extremely difficult challenge. We're designing IP67, and so forth products all the time.

Erik: Do you do all of the hardware design work yourself? Or do you work with partners on certain aspects?

Gordon: We do it all ourselves. And that's kind of like what makes Twisthink really unique, is that we, we design things that have to live at the bottom of a pool for three days to pass their tests so that Olympic athletes can swim with them and become better athletes. We know how to do all that stuff.

Erik:  Sounds like you have a fun job, a very interesting job.

Gordon: It's hard and challenging and rewarding and frustrating all at the same time.

Erik: Gordon, I want to be respectful of your time, but I have a few wrap up questions. Before that, is there anything that we haven't covered that you think is really crucial that we cover today?

Gordon: It's not that we haven't covered, I just want to emphasize something. And that is when we started our firm nearly two decades ago, we were also guilty of throwing technology at poorly understood problems, and poorly understood opportunities. We would see a problem and rush to the bench and build breadboards and glue different technologies together to solve the problems prove to ourselves that we can physically solve the problem.

We don't do that anymore because we wasted so much time and energy doing that. There's nothing worse than doing a great job solving the wrong problem. Our engineers have learned to really slow down and make sure that we understand the users and understand that the stakeholders, we deeply understand their problems. So we have a clear path of what the desired user experience looks like before we develop any technology.

Because we know, we believe in our heart and our gut in our head, and every other metaphor you can think of, we can solve technology problems. That is not the issue. Solving technology problems, we've never been stumped in two decades. So we're maybe a little bit cocky about that. But we're just generally confident that there's a way to solve all mechanical and technological problems. But it's just so excruciatingly painful to solve the wrong problem or the one that people don't care that much about or a lagging problem, and you miss the emerging problem. So it's so critical to slow down and understand what we really should be working on.

Erik: That's a great ending point. Unfortunately, the first wrap up question I'm going to ask is exactly about technology. Despite the fact that you really focus on the human, I know that you also have your finger on the pulse of what technologies are out there. So feel free to answer this question as succinctly as you want or to expound a little bit. But what technology do you see on the horizon that you think most people are missing today, that might really have an impact 5 or 10 years in the future, but is not Blockchain is very hyped up. What technology do you see that's really somewhat under the radar today, but that you feel will be very impactful?

Gordon: I don't think it's all that under the radar. I think it's AI. And I think it's a poorly understood idea. There was a day, 12 years ago when we said, we're going to become experts in IoT. It didn't have a name, by the way, 12 years ago, 13 years ago. It didn't get us name for three years later. But we said we're going to resolve to become experts in IoT and build these digital ecosystems.

Last year, we said that we are going to develop expertise in AI for our clients. And that's a journey. We're in the beginning stages of a journey, our team is going to school, they're taking classes, we're going to seminars, we're paying attention, we realize that we've actually been doing it in some ways for the past decade. We just didn't even fully appreciate that a lot of the algorithmic work that we're doing was literally artificial intelligence. I think that's the number one technology.

I know that’s a broad idea. AI is everything from movies to scary scenarios. This idea has been around for a really, really long time. But how we can make it serve us and make our lives better, and basically have human beings do less redundant, repetitive work so we can all use our God-given creativity and capacity for complex problem solving and let intelligent robotic vacuum cleaners that are scanning space and doing it quickly and going right to where the spill occurred. Those things are really valuable. We're tired of dumb products bouncing off walls, randomly tripping over dirt and sucking it up. We expect more, and we're going to see more real soon.

Erik: Skynet, the AI in Terminator, in China, so China has about 400 million connected cameras. And this is really a very sophisticated machine vision; they say in about 10 minutes, they can find anybody in the country, they can locate them. And it's called Skynet, which is brilliant branding.

Gordon: That is amazing.

Erik: So, second question. Is there an industrial IoT company, a startup out there on the market that you're keeping an eye on, somebody that's a startup, not a widely known company but that's doing something very interesting?

Gordon: I'm sorry, but you're asking the wrong guy. I have two business partners that are technology leads, and they will give you a laundry list and I can't because that's not what I focus on. I'm focusing on stakeholders and user experiences.

Erik: This last one, let's see what you come up with here. This one I think could be some people have strong opinions, some people, not. But you started your business right before the dotcom burst and you saw a lot of incumbent leaders really fall by the wayside and a new group of leaders emerge in a wide range of industries. In industrial, we haven't really seen that happen yet. Do you think if we look forward 30, 40 years, we're going to see some companies that have been born maybe either in the past 10 years, or maybe in the next 10 years mature into really 100 billion dollar companies? Or do you think that industrial is somehow different? And the current incumbents are going to figure this out and they're going to maintain their market share?

Gordon: When we started our firm, which was a year prior to the dotcom bubble burst, I remember vividly that Apple was not what it is now, it was on the ropes. And in fact, Michael Dell said, the only responsible thing that Apple could do is sell office assets and return couple of nickels to its stakeholders. Anyway, we've watched what's happened with Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook, and the list goes on and on.

So I don't know who those industrial leaders could be. I mean, in some ways, Amazon could be one. We just had a gigantic warehouse pop up in our backyard in Western Michigan. This is an extraordinarily vast space filled with stuff and the stuff is being harvested at lightning speed, because that's the user experience that we all want. Who knows? They could become the big dog in the industrial IOT space.

Erik: Might not be new companies, or, let's say, startups, it might be some companies expanding from other territory. Gordon, this has been for me a very interesting and really enlightening conversation because I don't get to think about this the human in the center that often. So I appreciate you taking the time and walking us through your philosophy and sharing some of your case studies with me. I'm sure a lot of our listeners are also interested in learning more about what you do and the approach that you take care. What's the best way for somebody to either learn about your company or get in touch with you personally?

Gordon: Our website is twisthink.com. And there's one T in the middle of the word Twisthink. And on our website, there are links to lots of articles. One was just published recently by Forbes. And the title has “The IoT boom created a product development problem?” And it's speaks specifically to minimum viable product, which we haven't talked about yet. And it's probably a little late to do that.

I hate the word minimum viable product, I can't stand it. It sounds so dumb because it's so like depressing. Who whoever wants to go through life and say, hey, Honey, let's get married, you're the minimum viable candidate for a spouse? It's so uninspiring. But the big idea is understand your stakeholders, understand the problem, decide to solve the problem. What is the first product that you should launch? It doesn't need to be a Swiss army knife that has 100 attachments. It has to have the right three. And then you have a product development portfolio path and you realize that this is not a one-time race, this is a journey, and you're going to continue to roll out new capabilities because you plan for it, you future-proofed your platform so that you can add to it over time. So that's what this article speaks to.

And there's plenty of other blog posts where we've become pretty active at sharing our philosophy. Because it's a great way for us to connect with current customers, and hopefully, inspire hope with future customers. So I'd encourage people to check out our website. And then, on the heels of that, one of the best things to do is come and visit us. I know you're kind of far away, so it's not the easiest thing for you.

It's one thing to go to a website, it's another thing to have a half hour 45 minute GoTo Meeting with us. But when you walk in our space, and you see our team and you see how we work, that’s the secret sauce. It's literally twisting these two teams together, this design team and this technology team and co-locating them and making them love and respect each other and want to work with each other. That's pretty key. That's not easy to do. We don't see that happening in a lot of corporate campuses.

Our team has deep trust and respect and it's born of co-laboring and projects. It’s born of monthly mountain bike rides that we all do together as a team. It's born of barbecues and birthdays. That's what allows us to serve our customers in such a unique way.

Erik: Well, we will put the website in the show notes. And again, just thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

Gordon: It was fun for me too, Erik. I really appreciate it and wish you a good day.

Thanks for tuning in to another edition of the industrial IoT spotlight. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter at IoT one HQ and to check out our database of case studies on IoT one.com If you have unique insight, or a project deployment story to share, we'd love to feature you on a future edition. Write us at Eric dot valenza at IoT one.com

Erik: Thanks for tuning in to another edition of the industrial IoT spotlight. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter at IotoneHQ, and to check out our database of case studies on IoTONE.com. If you have unique insight or a project deployment story to share, we'd love to feature you on a future edition. Write us at erik.walenza@IoTone.com.

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