How to Envision the Future To Create Innovative Products

Lessons from IDEO’s work designing the future of mobility and transportation

An IDEO project team designed a prototype of an airline layout to help clients experience tradeoffs in design.


What will cars, airplanes, and space travel look like in the future? That’s a question IDEO has been in love with for many years, working with some of the largest transportation companies in the world to imagine and build the next generation of mobility solutions.

IDEO’s Steve Schwall and Jan Rod joined us on the Creative Confidence Podcast to share stories of projects in the transportation and mobility world, techniques they rely on to create future-forward products and experiences, and how low-fidelity prototyping unlocks new ideas in highly complex industries. Listen to the podcast for the full conversation.



1. Consider challenges specific to long development timelines.

“Some physical products take years and years to develop, but they also have digital interfaces that can be updated instantly.” — Steve Schwall

When designing products with long production timelines, like automobiles and airplanes, you’re trying to look 5, 10, even 20 years into the future. A lot of things can change over that amount of time—customer needs and behaviors, regulations, technology, physical spaces—and you have to accommodate existing infrastructure.

The production process typically involves different rates of change as well. Physical aspects of the product might be harder to change, but digital elements could be updated quickly. You have to take on a systems mindset to think beyond the product and understand what else in the broader system might change in that time. Plus, products with long production timelines often require large capital investments, making stakeholders more wary of taking risks.


2. Talk to your customers of the future today.

“How do we get perspectives from people who are going to be like our customers in 10 years?” — Steve Schwall

Teens who just got their driver's license may not be your target market for the new vehicle you’re designing, but when that product launches in 10 years those are the people who could be your buyers. The mindsets and preferences they have now can provide insight into what they value. Instead of talking to people who are in your target market now, how might you talk to the people who will become your customers later?


3. Find future behaviors that are already happening.

“Find important things that are happening in other places or other spaces around the world that might be really relevant in the transportation industry 10 years out.” — Steve Schwall

Steve recalls doing research for an automaker in countries where they didn’t sell cars. While it might seem counterintuitive, behaviors emerging in those countries signaled broader trends that would spread to the automaker’s target markets in the future.

In IDEO’s work with a Japanese automaker, Jan says a valuable insight about how people were using car shares caused them to reimagine the design of car interiors. In crowded urban spaces, especially in cities like Tokyo, people would rent car shares but not actually drive anywhere. The cars were being used to hold private meetings, eat lunch, or even take a quick nap. This led the team to think about designing cars that were functional beyond when they were being driven, as a way to make them useful to consumers as population growth fuels urban development across the globe.


A gif showing an IDEO team building a low fidelity prototyping of a car using foam core, aluminum extrusion, couches, chairs and post it notes.An IDEO team builds a low-fidelity prototype of an automobile using couches, chairs, and foam core board. 


4. Prototype the future so you can experience it.

“Prototype for exploration rather than for validation.” — Jan Rod

When designing products with long development timelines, you’re often making decisions about tradeoffs long before you can experience the product or service. During a recent project with a high-speed jet company, Steve recalls the leadership team struggling to decide on design choices for their new luxury aircraft. So the IDEO team built a scrappy prototype of the plane by marking out the space with foam core and chairs, and then had the team conduct their next meeting inside the prototype plane. The next meeting was measurably more productive, with executives being able to envision the tradeoffs they were debating.

In another project, IDEO Designers prototyped the inside of an Airbus A380 complete with passengers to better understand potential service improvements executed by thousands of flight attendants and daily flights.


5. Create empathy for future experiences.

“Focus on the human experience. Create a connection between ourselves in the present and people in the future.” — Jan Rod

While we’re nearing the reality of public space travel, we’re not there yet. In IDEO’s work with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, we asked, “How might skies be used in the future?” The team interviewed current astronauts and discovered how much discomfort is at the center of space travel. They went camping with all the gear the astronauts would need to recreate the consumer experience of going to space. Then, the team made a provocative video where future space travelers highlighted the pains of their journey. It helped to create empathy and unlock new ideas about the space travel experience.


6. Give people permission to engage through low-fidelity prototypes.

“Lower the fidelity to the point that it allows more space for imagination and creates permission for people to change things and really make them part of the process.” — Jan Rod

Low-fidelity prototyping allows us to move fast and also bring in users for input. People often feel more comfortable sharing feedback when the prototype is not so formal. When you’re working on very complex projects, it also helps you focus peoples’ attention on the questions that you're trying to answer. Try using materials like foam core, plywood, chairs, couches and cardboard.

Don’t worry about getting the tech exactly right. In fact, remove the tech at first. In a project on autonomous vehicles, Steve recalls the IDEO team using a van with a driver to prototype different types of delivery experiences. The driver never interacted with customers, so it felt like an autonomous delivery to them.

The IDEO team found that customer needs varied depending on what was in the box. If it was food delivery, speed was important. But if the delivery was for something valuable, people might want it stored in a secure location before collecting it. “By building this future and letting people experience it, we were able to learn a lot about their needs,” Steve says. “And that helped inform the technology side as well—what the capabilities of these future vehicles should be.”


About the Speakers

Steve Schwall, Executive Director of Mobility & Partner, IDEO

Steve Schwall
Executive Director of Mobility & Partner, IDEO

Steve works with creative leaders and executives to design new offerings, drive business growth, and transform their culture in a rapidly changing mobility environment. After more than 15 years of working with clients like Ford, John Deere, Arity, and Samsung, Steve believes that successful change doesn’t come from a “big idea,” but rather teams looking at problems from new perspectives, challenging deeply held assumptions, and working together in new ways. Prior to joining IDEO, Steve played with little red wagons as a product design engineer at Radio Flyer. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a B.A. in Industrial Design from the University of Notre Dame. In his free time, he’s a cyclist, juggler, percussionist, and proud father of two.


Jan Rod, Senior Design Lead, IDEO Tokyo

Jan Rod
Senior Design Lead, IDEO Tokyo

Jan is an Interaction Designer with a background in Human-Computer Interaction and a passion for prototyping. Prior to IDEO Jan designed innovative products and services, including an award-winning wearable payment device for UK startup McLear, and an integrated control system for tele-operated humanoid robots for Japanese startup Telexistence. Throughout his academic career, he authored numerous scientific papers and holds several patents in the U.S. and Japan. Jan holds a BA in philosophy and MA in semiotics from Charles University in Prague and a PhD in Media Design from Keio University Graduate School of Media Design. When not working in the studio, Jan can be found practicing Japanese martial art Kendo or raising his baby daughter to be a kind and amazing human being.

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