15.356 | Spring 2012 | Graduate

How to Develop Breakthrough Products and Services


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session for 8 weeks

Course Description

Firms must develop major innovations to prosper, but they don’t know how to. However, recent research into the innovation process has made it possible to develop breakthroughs systematically. 15.356 How to Develop Breakthrough Products and Services explores several practical idea generation development methods. To convey the art required to implement each of these methodologies, experts are invited to present real cases to the class.


Your course grade will be determined primarily on the basis of the quality of two 7-page papers that each build on one course-related topic that especially interests you. We can discuss good paper topics for each of you as the term progresses. In addition you are, of course, expected to prepare for classes by doing the assigned readings and participating in class discussions!

Class attendance and participation 30%
Two papers (7 pages each) 70%


1 The user innovation paradigm Before thinking about how to do concept development, we will explore who does this activity. Specifically, is the concept developer really a manufacturer, or is it a product or service user?
2 Going for user solutions instead of user needs—the “Lead User Method” Users innovate when it is in their interest to do so. But not all user innovations will make a good product from a product manufacturer’s standpoint. Therefore, manufacturers must identify and learn from “lead” users. Mary Sonnack has pioneered the method at 3M, and 3M and other firms have had major successes in using it for “breakthrough” product concept generation and strategy development.
3 How patents discourage innovation—and what to do about it

Lecturer: Prof. Andrew Torrance

It was once assumed that patents were obviously good for innovation. Now research is showing that the net effect of patents is often to discourage and block innovation. Professor Andrew Torrance of the University of Kansas Law School explains the situation, and considers what to do about it.

4 User innovation communities Users often innovate in communities—both on the Internet and off. Producers have to learn to create or join and work with user communities. They may create platforms to do this.
5 Exploring new combinations of customer needs

Lecturer: Prof. Glen Urban

Interactive, web-based methods are being developed to enable companies to explore new combinations of customer needs online. Prof. Glen Urban and colleagues are leading in this field. After reviewing existing market research tools for need identification, he will describe “listening in” procedures and an application to autos.

6 Determine users’ needs ethnographically and then develop solutions

Lecturer: Dr. Harry West, CEO, Design Continuum

Harry West teaches his firm to carefully and creatively study what users do. Sometimes the user behaviors studied contain user-developed prototypes of desired solutions that Design Continuum can evolve further. Sometimes the users’ activities suggest a related need to the observers—“The user is doing something really inconvenient here. There must be a better way!"—and Design Continuum then invents the new solution from scratch.

7 The MIT Media Lab approach: “Build it and they will come”

Lecturer: Joe Paradiso, MIT Media Lab

The Media Lab houses very creative people (some of them leading-edge users) who build prototypes of new ideas and potential products based upon their own interests and needs. Lab sponsor firms are then invited in to look at the prototypes and see if they can identify links to their own markets and production capabilities. Often, a creative link results.

8 Is intellectual property good or bad—how to be partially closed and partially open

Lecturer: Christiana Raasch

Firms can benefit from opening some things—but not everything—to user innovation and modification. How do they choose what to open and what to keep closed?

9 What user hacking looks like—and why people do it

Lecturer: Benjamin Mako Hill

This lecture is a sampling of recent user hacks.

10 Design and manufacture of “mass customized” products with toolkits / platforms for user innovation When needs vary from user to user, products need to be customized. In “mass-customized” design and production, users are given toolkits and platforms to customize products for themselves.
11 Crowdsourcing

Lecturer: Alph Bingham, COB, Innocentive

People have a range of “process value” incentives like fun and learning that can be tapped to induce them to join in on contests or collaborative problem-solving work that addresses a sponsor’s problems rather than their own. Innocentive is a major participant in providing crowdsourced solutions for difficult industrial and social problems. Alph will talk about general principles, and then give a case application for the pharma industry.

12 Tying it all together—when to use each idea generation method and why to expect corporate resistance to your (great) innovations! We have now reviewed several methods for systematic new product idea generation. Each is best applied under different circumstances. We consider when to use what. We also explore the reasons corporations often resist implementing even the best innovations.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2012
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments