Category Archives: Blog

Human Centred Design

On Insights For Innovation

Over the past 8 years, Propellerfish teams have found that innovation projects need more context and closeness than traditional research is designed to deliver. As a result, a Propellerfish project might involve more time spent in field, the involvement of street photographers and film makers, and a core belief that solving problems in the real world means doing research in the real world. This article is a glimpse into how and why our teams work the way they do.

First, a story.

On a project aimed at inventing mobile technology for emerging markets, consumers talked to us often about space. People in the lower and even middle classes in places like India, China, Philippines and Thailand shared most (if not all) of their living space with their family. As a result, they had little physical space to themselves. They believed that personal space was an important ingredient to nurturing an individual identity. In the absence of space, their mobile phones became their last respite for nurturing a private self.


 A consumer in Thailand shares her secret dream of becoming a pop star after we found this photo of her Idol audition while looking through her phone.


It’s one of those insights that shines a spotlight on an opportunity, but we needed more. Our team was designing devices that would be used in the context of a whole host of human and environmental factors. They would be sold in street side mobile shops, stowed in cluttered handbags, used to text one-handed from the back of a motorcycle, survive heat and dusty air, compensate for spotty data connections, hide inappropriate photos and video from parents and juggle 2–3 SIM cards. Designing the right device meant designing with a user insight in mind but also designing around a constellation of factors that influence a product’s success in the real world.


A home made cash control solution sheds light on the challenges of managing home finances in larger multi-generational households during a project aimed at designing mobile financial services for the rural poor.


These types of projects result in rich imagery and video which teams find inspiring, but beyond inspiration this approach to research is rooted in necessity: innovation projects need more context than traditional market research is designed to deliver.


Market research is a verbal art.

Market research was born in the newspapers of the 1820s, championed by ad agencies in the 1940s, and has evolved as a primarily verbal discipline. The primary stimulus is a question that is asked, data points are usually verbal responses and most qualitative research reports share recommendations supported by quotes. Words are great at bringing opportunities into focus, but creating products and services for the real world calls for both insight and context.


Great insight work should both show and tell: Photographer Tavepong Pratoomwong helps Propellerfish put real world context around an insight into the social side of personal devices in Bangkok.

Spotting an opportunity is a great start

Defining an opportunity for a product or a service calls for a deep human insight into the values and mental models that drive how people think and behave. Those insights are valuable and give projects important direction, but those insights alone are not enough to develop successful products and services.


Context helps teams go from opportunity to solution

The transition from an opportunity to a product or service requires a more granular understanding of the human and environmental factors that influence a solution’s performance in the real world. A detailed picture helps innovation teams understand the points of interaction between a user, a solution and the environment to create products and services that are a better fit.


A Propellerfish team organises the key factors around an insight during a consumer electronics innovation project.


At the end of the day, innovation is a contextual practice and the key role of innovation research is to bring that context into focus. That rich picture makes for inspiring presentations, but it is a necessary part of designing solutions with the real world in full focus. This is the only way innovation teams can deliver products and services that add real value to people’s lives in the real world.


Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.

There’s Meaning In The Making

Want employees to find more fulfilment at work? Get them closer to the things you make and the people you make them for.


I recently watched the CEO of a packaged goods giant talk about the challenge of competing with the Silicon Valley for the best young talent in the US. After the talk, people in the audience were chatting about the coolness of startup culture, the lure of huge exits and replaying the excuse that only small businesses can really offer these things. I’d say there’s a third factor that matters more: these smaller businesses put employees closer to the process of creating value (the making real things for real people) which makes working for them more fulfilling.

The closer people are to the value businesses create, the more fulfilled they are, but as businesses grow, they put distance between the creation of value and most people’s day job.

On one of my favourite projects, a Fortune 500 company wanted a new product created from scratch in 8 weeks. In this instance, that wasn’t a lot of time, so they asked us what it would take to speed things up. We suggested relocating their New York-based team to a pop up studio in Bangkok for the duration of the project, putting them in the middle of the region they were designing for.

Over 8 weeks, we travelled across the region, spent time in the homes and lives of the real people we intended this solution to serve, engaged monks and traditional medicine experts for inspiration and insight, experienced the complexity of traditional retail up close, worked through 29 iterations of a solution and ended with an awesome product that’s now a real thing in market.

We’d solved a business problem, but we’d also watched a senior team come alive with a sense of purpose rooted in how their organization delivers value to the world.



Businesses create value by making useful things for real people. People in business derive value from their proximity to that process.

Smaller businesses have always kept people closer to the process of creating value. The first businesses made things in actual workshops, knew their customers because they sold to them directly, and responded to their needs intuitively. It’s no surprise to find that the introduction of job satisfaction surveys corresponds to the rise of the assembly line. Work that disconnects us from the bigger picture of how businesses create value for real people just isn’t satisfying.

When I watched the CEO on stage talk about competing with the Silicon Valley, it seemed to me that this competition is really about proximity to value creation. Smaller companies (even those with billion dollar valuations) have a habit of keeping employees closer to the making of products and the people that use them. That closeness benefits everyone: being closer to the process of creating useful things for real people leaves employees more fulfilled and results in products that are better designed to suit the needs of everyone.

Big businesses approach the creation of meaningful products and the creation meaning for employees as separate functions. The reality is that the former feeds the latter.

Maintaining that connection gets tricky as businesses get bigger, but it’s not impossible. We regularly work with companies that are creating innovation labs dedicated to eliminating distance between their employees, their consumers and the process of creating new products.

After years of putting distance between their people and what they do, businesses are re-connecting the dots. The result is more meaning for people at work and a learning that the closer we are to the things we make and the people we make them for, the more fulfilling work becomes.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.