The Trick to Inventing a Better Ice Cream Scoop

Slate’s design blog.
Nov. 1 2013 9:30 AM

The Trick to Inventing a Better Ice Cream Scoop

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The award-winning design for this "mouth-friendly" ice cream scoop came from observing that people tend to lick the utensil after use.

Image courtesy Zyliss

Tom and David Kelley of the award-winning Palo Alto-based global design firm IDEO have been helping private and public sector organizations innovate, grow and bring to market new ideas for 35 years; projects include Apple’s first computer mouse and a stand-up toothpaste dispenser for Procter & Gamble. In the Kelleys' new book, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, the brothers recount anecdotes from their work at IDEO and at Stanford's d.school (the institute of design created by David Kelley), and offer tips to help everyone build creative muscle in an era when success depends on innovation in every field. Here at the Eye, the authors share an excerpt from the book that demonstrates the power of observation as a tool for designers.

Observing people in their natural habitat can be difficult—particularly for those who think they’re experts already. If you work at a big pharmaceutical company, for example, you probably already know how people take their medicine, right? Empathy means challenging your preconceived ideas and setting aside your sense of what you think is true in order to learn what actually is true.

While working with Swiss housewares company Zyliss on a line of twenty-four handy kitchen tools, our team at IDEO conducted field observations of people using everyday items like ice-cream scoops. We could have sat at our desks imagining that people use the tools exactly the way we do. We might have designed an ergonomic handle or a smooth scooping action. But when we spent time with people in the kitchen, we saw customer behaviors that pointed to other, less obvious needs. After using the scoop, a number of people absent-mindedly licked the ice cream off the scoop before putting it in the sink. We realized that a really great ice cream scoop would not only be good at getting ice cream out of the carton, it would also lend itself to licking off that last bit of ice cream when you were done with the job. So we set out to make a “mouth-friendly” scoop. For starters, that meant ensuring no sharp edges or moving parts that a tongue could catch on.

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We could have simply asked people how they use an ice cream scoop. But they probably wouldn’t have mentioned licking the scoop, and might have even denied it. In other words, field research entails more than simply asking people what they want. And it doesn’t absolve you of the need to generate good ideas. But it does help you get at latent needs, the non-obvious ones that people aren’t conscious of. An interview won’t give you that. Sometimes you need to follow consumers into the kitchen.

Reprinted from the book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. Copyright 2013 by David Kelley and Tom Kelley. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.

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Authors David (left) and Tom Kelley

Photo by Magnolia Photo Booth Co.