A few weeks ago, I was asked to blog about the patent using Lean Start-up, before @EricReis wrote his first book. Thanks to @adamberk for the suggestion, and here we go-
Based on numbers publish by U.S. Patent office and Inc. Magazine, roughly 150,000 patents are issued within the United States each year. Not shockingly given the current state of women in STEM fields, only 8% of those U.S. Patents are awarded to women. This means only 12,000 U.S. women per year become patent holders, on a U.S. population of approximately 340 Million. Any woman issued a U.S. is part of an exclusive .004% club. I became a member of this exclusive .004% club in both 2010 and 2016.
This patent was not the result of expertise, but the disciplined use of Design Thinking and Lean Start-up methods.
In 2010, and twice in 2016, I was awarded patents for the design of a glucose meter. Unique as a commercial product, this glucose meter recommends custom insulin doses for individual diabetics, under the care a physician. So, I must be an MD? A medical researcher? Surely at the very least, I must know a diabetic? The answer to these usual assumptions is “No”. I had exactly zero experience with diabetes, medical devices, and had never even worked in the general area of consumer products. In fact, this wasn’t even the specialty of Menlo Innovations, the company I contracted with at the time.
If it wasn’t expertise that put me in the .004%, then what was it? This patent was the result was the disciplined use of Design Thinking and Lean Start-up methods. These methods require high levels of empathy, creativity, low ego, and collaborative capabilities. Companies are consistently winning with Design Thinking, Lean Start-up, so their use is gaining traction in the market. These approaches were creating opportunities women even before the terms were coined. Here is how it worked for me.
A client company had a vision of a world where diabetics could, under the care of a physician, get customized recommendations for insulin from a programmable glucose meter. They contracted with Menlo Innovations to design and build a product that would fulfill that vision. Along with a partner, I was given the task to figure out what we needed to do to gather the data we needed, then to use that data to design the glucose meter. With no prior knowledge, we didn’t have many assumptions about the lives of diabetics, or even what made for a good glucose meter. We decided to go to the source and start learning from diabetics.
Starting with empathy for our potential customers and the fact that all use glucose meters. We devised an experiment that would incorporate both.
Starting with empathy for our potential customers and the fact that all use glucose meters. We devised an experiment that would incorporate both. While we went to local drug stored and purchased every available glucose meter, Project Managers worked to identify diabetics who would be willing to meet us at Panera Bread for an hour to talk to us about their experience as a diabetic. Within 2 days, we had 10 diabetics and 10 glucose meters and were ready to run an experiment to determine what diabetics thought was the best existing glucose meter on the market.
First, we met our subjects at Panera Bread for a 90 minute session. For a $25.00 Panera gift card, our diabetic subjects spent the first half our simply talking about their life experience. One of us took notes, while the other asked questions and then, when appropriate, deeper questions about the challenges life as a diabetic. This helped us build a well-rounded understanding of the challenges facing diabetic patients in general, but also allowed us a deep pool of data to pull from when fleshing out a full picture for others who would eventually help build out the product.
…we asked them to think out loud about the choices they were making.
Second, we dumped all 10 glucose meters out on the table in front of our users and asked them to place them from left to right. To the left of the line were the “I hate this” glucose meters, and to right, the “I love this” meters. While these potential customers worked on their subjective placement from 1 to 10, we asked them to think out loud about the choices they were making. We were very surprised by the amount of thinking they did during the process and the passion they felt about their choices. All ten participants shared detailed feelings and personal stories about features, shapes, feel, and even colors of the meters, sometimes in far more detail than we would have ever anticipated.
Both the rational and irrational seemed to inform each person’s decision about whether they would place a meter in the 4th instead of the 5th position, or in the 9th instead of the 10th. This process looked very messy and seemed very personal, subjective, and multivariate. However, over ten such interviews and experiments, a very clear picture began to emerge about where there was agreement and triangulation, versus when there was an outlier.
The fact that many established product companies spend millions implementing new products and features without a single experiment with customers is shocking.
Third, we combined the data into findings, collaborated in a group to determine what was similar and what was unique feedback. Interesting, there was no emerging leader in glucose meters, there were only leading Features and leading placements of Features. It was from this initial experiment, with less than 3 weeks of calendar time, that the prototype design for the 2010 patent was created. We then pulled from Agile, continuing to learn and create iterations of the initial prototype, then run more experiments. All-in-all, by running experiments in iterations, I spent less than 6 months on a project that yielded 3 patents.
It’s amazing that such simple and seemingly non-scientific experimentation with potential customers can be powerful, efficient, and even patent-worthy.
It’s a little counter intuitive that such simple and seemingly non-scientific experimentation with potential customers can be that powerful, efficient, and even patent-worthy. The fact that many established product companies spend millions implementing new products and features without running even one experiment with customers is shocking. It’s worth mentioning that this patent was commercialized both domestically and internationally. This effort resulted in a commercial product as well. I thank Menlo Innovations for enabling such rewarding work – Rich Sheridan remains ahead of the market in leveraging Design Thinking and Lean Start-up.
I would love to hear from others in the .004% - I invite you to respond or comment with your story and perhaps we can find a way to increase these numbers. Do you know a .004% member? please forward this to them…I understand many have been so busy they haven’t had time to do the math!