Toilet Design Flush With Ideas

Credit unions can find inspiration for creating revolutionary financial products in unusual places.


Jeff Chapin, senior designer at IDEO, created a simple, low-cost latrine, and sink station for Cambodians that earned an international award for its clear thinking design. Chapin, who believes strongly in a user-led approach, gives the local consumers credit for its creation and success, saying that he and his team found solutions because they made mistakes.

Chapin’s ideas have saved many people in Cambodia by promoting easy sanitation. Although this toilet engineering, which he discussed during the recent TEDxChange conference in Berlin, may seem irrelevant for credit unions, this design offers several ways that credit unions can better shape their products and services.

When Chapin was promoting the latrine, which starts with a simple concrete mold and then can be expanded, he used a sequential linear design printed on a long piece of paper. But many Cambodians, accustomed to learning about additions with transparencies, did not understand the blueprint. So, Chapin and his team adapted to their needs and created transparencies more clearly taught the villagers how to make additions to the latrines.

Chapin engages local communities in research, ideation, and testing the products, which keeps his ideas malleable and adaptable. Cooperative financial institutions also engage communities, but credit unions could likely better involve member-owners in the research, ideation, and testing of the financial products.

When providing a new method of financial services don’t get too attached to the details of a specific idea, product, or service. Set up group meetings with credit union staff and members of the community to discuss the ideas. Your member-owners will tell you what they are looking for, and it’s usually a product or service that’s adaptable to different situations.

Financial institutions, often focused on rules and regulations, sometimes forget that every member has a different situation that they’ll take into account when shopping for financial services. Credit unions have the opportunity to get to know members and should do so, as Chapin did with the Cambodians.

And award-winning toilets aren’t the only source of inspiration for innovation. IDEO design director Tom Hulme, who spoke at another TED conferenece,  TEDxCentralSaintMartins conference in London, outlined four ways to ensure good ideas emerge.

Evolution In The Fast Lane

“We need to develop the great stuff faster so that we’re addressing real needs,” Hulme says. Accelerating innovation evolution is essential to creating a design prepared for emergence. Hulme provides examples on how humans can indeed control the pace of the process. 

“We can take it, we can adapt it, and in theory we can push it back,” Hulme says about the opportunities for growth with open source collaborating, as demonstrated by Linux’s operating system. Now running on more than 90% of the top 500 supercomputers, Linux became the leading operating system by using free and open source data for the development and distribution of software. And the collaboration was key to its success.

Keeping Constraints In Mind

Every idea, product, or service has constraints that can’t always be removed. While that’s especially true in the financial sector, Hulme advises not trying to remove the constraints but instead being mindful of them.

The progression of mobile phones from its inception to the inception of the first smartphones is a useful example of useless constraints. Before smartphones, cell phones were increasingly restrictive, shrinking in size and increasing the amount of keys on the front. The smaller keypad was stalling consumer’s creativity, until the iPhone came along. Today’s smartphones can be adapted to create heart rate monitors and other solutions, making for a substantially more evolved product.

Mold The Opportunities

Opportunities to learn and grow are everywhere, even in your financial institution. Along with networks for exploring other possibilities, keep an open mind to new uses for long-standing products and services.

Play-Doh was invented as a wallpaper cleaner. But kids were using the putty to make Christmas ornaments and a new product was developed. Today, another sticky putty called Sugru is promoted as a product with countless uses. The differences between the two companies business designs is that Play-Doh was not designed for emergence, whereas Sugru is building in discovery-of-use cases.

Look at the unique ways people are using your services and products, marketing and branding. Recognize these innovations and welcome them.


April 25, 2012



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