5 Things You’ll Learn In Ideo’s New Online Innovation Class

FAST COMPANY: Think you’re not creative? The innovation gurus at Ideo beg to differ. The design firm argues that anyone can unleash an inner creative genius through certain methods—the same methods that Ideo uses on its own projects. A new series of online classes calledIdeo U shares those techniques with the world.

The classes, at $399 each, are meant for anyone who wants to solve a problem, whether they’re leaders building a startup or tackling an issue like homelessness at a nonprofit. First up is a course in how to gather insights.

“We started with a course on insights because this is the very foundation of Ideo’s approach to creativity and innovation,” says Suzanne Gibbs Howard, the firm partner leading the initiative. “At Ideo, every time we design, we gather insights about what people say, do, think and feel to motivate us in fruitful directions. On top of that, after decades of sharing our approach and mindset with clients, we’ve seen that gathering insights about people is one of the best ways to start building creative confidence.”

Here are five skills the class teaches:


To better understand the people who’ll use the product or service you’re creating, you’ll want to practice becoming more observant. In part of Ideo’s lesson, you look at photos of someone’s apartment and try to guess what they care about—and then watch as an Ideo expert does the same. In another exercise, you watch as someone dumps out the content of their bag and then make guesses about their life.


Instead of focusing on the average consumer of a product or service, Ideo thinks you can learn more from looking at the extremes: For a cooking tool, that might mean working with both a four-year-old kitchen novice and a Michelin-star chef. By looking at the needs of extreme users, you might be more likely to notice a problem that everyone has—and make a radical improvement in your design


While it’s possible you might learn more about what someone needs just by watching them, interviewing is also a critical skill. Ideo’s lesson shows an interview gone awry, and asks students to pinpoint what went wrong before finding a couple of people to interview themselves. One of the keys, they say, is getting someone comfortable talking. “It’s about a lot more than asking questions,” says Howard.


When designers at Ideo can’t easily understand the experiences of someone they’re designing for, they make adjustments—on a project for people with rheumatoid arthritis, for example, designers taped their wrists, fingers, and knee in uncomfortable positions, and then walked a mile to buy coffee. To understand what it’s like to have poor vision, they wore glasses smeared with Vaseline. In part of the online lesson, students watch video from cyclists in three cities, recorded with cameras strapped on helmets, to immerse themselves in the experience of riding a bike in the city.


Brilliant insights aren’t worth much if you can’t use them to motivate others, so the last lesson in the course explains how best to organize ideas (via Post-it notes, of course) and how to craft a well-worded insight that can inspire an audience.

Of course, the class won’t instantly turn students into full-fledged designers, but it’s a useful introduction to the basics. It’s also accessible; each lesson in the class is broken into short videos, in addition to assignments that ask students to practice skills in real life.

“We’ve tried to make the learning bite-sized,” says Howard. “The videos are something you can watch while you’re on the train commuting to work, or waiting for the bus, or getting ready in the morning. They’re modular, and everything works on mobile, so you can really take this with you all over the place.”

Next up, the designers plan to offer classes in idea generation and prototyping, and in the future, they’ll build out courses that they already use within Ideo, like New Venture Designand Brand Camp.

“Our highest goal is to build these courses in a way that people can really learn these skills online,” says Howard. “So we will continually experiment with each of the courses instead of simply turning a video camera on someone presenting.”