An Introduction to the Innovation Cycle

At the Design Public Conclave tomorrow, we’re going to be talking about the interaction between design and governance innovation. That means that we’ll be talking about design concepts with many people who have little exposure to the field of design.

With that in mind, we thought it might make sense to give a brief introduction to the CKS method for using design. It’s called the Innovation Cycle…

The Innovation Cycle consists of three arcs:


In this first phase, we seek to understand the context and market of a project, as well as the challenges facing the consumer, their interactions with a product or service, and their needs and preferences. This phase is driven by ethnographic research into the lives of the people involved, aided by other forms of design research.

We might shadow a frontline healthcare worker to see how they perform their job, or observe a person as they use their mobile phone to conduct financial transactions. We’ll conduct interviews, take pictures, shoot video, write notes – anything to help get into the mind of the user and gain a deeper understanding how a system or product works.


In the second phase of the innovation cycle, we take the material generated through our research and begin using it to develop new models and solutions.

This phase is focused primarily on generating as many quality solutions as possible. Often, this happens by creating new design concepts in a studio environment or by holding collaborative workshops where a team will use design thinking methods to generate (and refine) new ideas.

Once we’ve generated a set of new ideas, we begin exploring their relative value and feasibility. We’ll pick the most promising ideas and then begin developing more fleshed-out versions of the idea. We might create a detailed Concept Design of a potential solution or we might create a Use Case of how a particular service or product might be used. When possible, we may even create a functional prototype of a proposed solution.


In the last phase of innovation, we take our ideas directly to the intended consumers and communities to test and enhance our proposed solutions. We put our solutions in the hands of the user and see if they work the way we’d intended. And we get the user to contribute their ideas and observations about what functioned and what didn’t.

Our innovation process is cyclical because once you have a potential solution that you can put in the hands of the user, you begin observing the way they interact with it. From there, you return back to the design process to incorporate what you’ve learned into a more refined design solution. And at that point, you put your improved product back into their hands, and repeat the entire process until you create something that is seamless, functional and as effective as possible.

Innovation arises when we see in a visionary way, see things anew, see things as they really are or as they really should be. The Innovation Cycle is one way to integrate these different ways of seeing the world into a larger process of innovation that easily be applied by large organizations.


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