What's the difference between IDEO and Cheskin?

06 Jul 2004|Darrel Rhea

This is a question that both of our firms get asked often. We collaborate, we compete, we have overlapping offerings, and our marketing materials and the language we use to describe our value has much in common. How do I think about the differences?

While IDEO and Cheskin share a commitment to the importance of understanding the customer in design, we are substantially different in our approach to design research. IDEO’s focus on research is directed at improving their creativity and effectiveness in generating product-based solutions. The deliverable that they get rewarded for is industrial design. Research is the means to discover and produce a design solution as efficiently as possible. IDEO research is focused on observational and experiential methods. It is fast and when done with this narrow focus, it can be done by designers or less experienced researchers. This approach fits into IDEO’s highly-margined prepackaged process where the industrial design or product solution is the hero.

Cheskin’s use of customer-based insights is much broader and more developed (which makes sense as we’ve been doing design research for 40 more years than IDEO.) We get rewarded for the quality and depth of the insights we generate, and for their relevance and our ability to create value to the entire enterprise we serve.

Cheskin needs to produce world-class contextual research that provides the foundation for understanding the company’s markets, product categories and customers. This strategic information must represent worthy intellectual property to base a business on. It must guide acquisition strategy, cultural change, organizational design, channel decisions, etc.

Like IDEO, we produce generative research that leads to new product concepts, but we do so with more rigor and depth because our insights must have value beyond the narrow scope of the next product — they must shape the next 50 products. We create research that meets the standards of the most demanding market research departments in the world — not just the design managers, engineers or marketers who often can not discriminate between levels of insight or quality of research.

Cheskin stays with the development process throughout commercialization. We do evaluative research to refine the product design and verify that the product connects with the market. We need to be versed in classical research in brand positioning, naming, packaging, advertising and the highly competitive domain of traditional marketing research.

To provide this breadth requires the best team of researchers in the world. Industrial Designers would tell you they have the lock on people who are fun, passionate, cool — and that researchers are boring, overly analytical, inflexible nerds. I’d agree that some traditional market researchers might fit that stereotypical description, but our design research culture is as hip, passionate and cool as any id firm — and more worldly than most too. To support the broad range services, we must have a diverse set of high-level professionals in business strategy, marketing, design strategy, anthropology, design management, cultural trends, market research, market communications, brand strategy, information design, etc.

IDEO’s story is much easier to tell and often has tangible, visible products that can be photographed. Cheskin’s story is more about intellectual property, business and marketing strategy, and brand and product development process. We create the rationale for hiring IDEO and provide the direction to focus their creativity.

IDEO has great people who do great work. We have been collaborating with them for many years and count many of them among our personal friends. (I met Dave Kelly when he had 4 employees, and worked with his team for several years to shift their culture to value customer insights.)

Cheskin is different in its mission and culture. Both companies represent best-of-class consulting organizations and are pushing the boundaries of contemporary design practice.

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