Competitive companies make innovation a priority. Winning companies make innovation a routine practice.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, "routine innovation"—the ability to capture the magic of innovation in a repeatable process—is the mark of the world's leading brands. These companies are admired, studied, and emulated. They hit home runs year after year by designing great new products that confound their competitors and delight their customers.

I was first introduced to the power of user-centered design as a vehicle for "routine innovation" at Stanford University as a Product Design student in the 1990s. Since then, I've had the opportunity to apply repeatable design processes at various product design companies such as IDEO and have seen them consistently fuel innovation.

More recently, I've supported the ongoing effort to deconstruct and codify the innovation process at Stanford's new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design—known as the ""—as a Consulting Associate Professor and Strategy Board Member. Students and companies alike seek new techniques for consistently sparking creativity.

Though specific methods vary among organizations, the design and innovation process can generally be categorized into three steps:

  1. Understand and observe.
  2. Generate and prototype.
  3. Test and iterate.

Figure: While specific methods vary, the design and innovation process can generally be categorized into the three steps outlined above. Marketers can employ online customer communities to provide the regular, ongoing, meaningful contact with customers that fuel this process.

This three-step innovation process has direct applicability to marketers. Product owners must understand the environment where a product will be used, and the motivations of those who will be using it. They need to rapidly generate compelling product concepts and vet the prototypes with others. And they need to test their concepts, using real-world feedback to produce iterations that move designs forward.

Similarly, outbound marketers can use the process to design and test the effectiveness of new ad concepts, logos, and messaging, ensuring that they will reach their target audience.

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John Kembel is cofounder and CEO of HiveLive ( and a consulting associate professor and strategy board member at TheHasso Platner Institute of Design (the "") at Stanford University. Reach him at