Innovation 1-on-1: Brooks Protzmann, Dell

This installment of thoughts on innovation comes from Brooks Protzmann. Brooks is the Manager of Visual Identity and the Brand Experience team as part of the Experience Design Group at Dell Inc. in Austin, Texas. He is responsible for the product-focused

Adam Richardson
Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.
Adam Richardson
4 min read
Brooks Protzmann Dell

This installment of thoughts on innovation comes from Brooks Protzmann. Brooks is the Manager of Visual Identity and the Brand Experience team as part of the Experience Design Group at Dell Inc. in Austin, Texas. He is responsible for the product-focused touch points of the customer's experience when engaging with the Dell brand, products, and services. His functional responsibilities include design strategy, visual identity, packaging, user interfaces, and information design. The Experience Design Group covers the entire Dell customer journey with integrated Industrial Design, Usability & Human Factors, and Customer Experience.

Prior to joining Dell Inc., Brooks was Director of User Experience for Barkley Evergreen & Partners in Kansas City, and prior to that founded Media Tank, Inc., an interaction design consultancy. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Industrial Design and Master of Arts in Interaction Design, both from the University of Kansas.

Q. How do you define "innovation"?

A: Innovation happens when business models change to meet customer values. It is not a new product or brand, but a change in the way you approach solving customer needs. With that perspective, innovation will always be relevant.

Q. What was your most important idea and how did you "find" it?

A: The idea that everything is connected. In graduate school, I took some communication studies classes at the same time I took human factors. I was amazed how similar the constructs were, they just used different names. Applying the concept self-organizing systems to designing an interface for teens, wow.

There is a great book called "It's Alive: The Coming Convergence of Information, Biology, and Business" by Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis. Another great example of convergence.

Q. What is the best innovation you've ever had and haven't yet executed?

A: The best are yet to come. I have been thinking a lot lately about what happens when the hardware disappears. How can we use customer insights to design interaction without keyboards and monitors? To be successful, you will not think about the physical interaction, but on the content you are interacting with.

Q. Which innovation "failure" did you learn the most from, and why?

A: I like to think of them as missed opportunities more than failures. There are projects that could have been much more relevant if we had taken the time to understand the customer/market. In fast moving, consumer products business, it is not always possible. Being able to decide which projects are the most valuable to business and which don't matter is something that takes time to develop.

Q. What lessons can you pass on to others from how your organization has changed to make itself more innovation driven?

A: Talk to your customers and listen. Too often companies use focus group and don't participate in the research. Also, they rely too heavily on a third party moderator. Designers need to participate in the research to really understand what motivates customers. The research needs to ask laddering questions that "peel the onion" and expose insights that are there, you just have to keep asking.

Also, go to where your customers go and observe everything; environment, music, smells, gender, behavior patterns, etc. Have several people from different disciplines go and compare notes afterward. It is amazing how many things you see that you would have never noticed otherwise.

Q. In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers and challenges that stand in the way of organizations becoming more innovative?

A: Simple: top management. Unless someone from the top decides to take an offensive approach to their products and services, all that will happen is incremental growth.

Today at Dell, there is a lot of excitement and a focus on creating great experiences, not just products.

Q. Beyond your organization, who do you admire for risk-taking innovation, and what do you think makes them successful?

A: The key theme here is risk-raking. You have to be ready, at the very top of the company, to take an offensive product/service stance and risk turning your business model on its end. Eliminating complexity, creating new products or services, reorganizing the entire company, and alienating current customers are just a few of the painful steps that are generally required to innovate.

There are a few companies that stand out in the B-to-C market like Apple, Nike and Dyson but there are many B-to-B companies you have never heard of that are taking risks and innovating their businesses.

Q. What innovation are you still waiting for?

A: Lots! A better way to iron clothes, heads-up display in my car, easy tools to visualize information, an OS between Apple and Microsoft, and a contractors level that doesn't rely on a bubble floating in liquid to tell me when things are level.