Return to site

An Introduction to

Products Research and Integrative Design & Innovation

100 Years of Rigorous, Human Centered Design & Innovation

at Procter & Gamble and the Future of Products Research

· PR,Products Research,History,Procter Gamble,Prof Emeritus PR

Robb Olsen, P&G Global Products Research Community of Practice co-leader 2005-2010, Founder TransOrbital Dynamics - robb@transorbitaldynamics

What is Products Research (PR)?

What if I told you that a consumer goods manufacturer with over 180 years of history actually pioneered rigorous, human centered design almost 100 years ago? And that since that time, tens of thousands of engineers and scientists have been trained in, and many mastered, this holistic, integrated approach to innovation? Would you be surprised? Would you believe it? Well, oh educators and students of Design and Innovation, as well as leaders of today's industrial organizations of all sizes who aspire to innovate, it's true, and it is worth your while to learn a bit about this rich history of innovation at the intersection of humans, business and science/technology so you can apply it to your own design and innovation efforts.

Procter & Gamble made three breakthrough organizational interventions in the period from 1923-1931 that were critical to future success and competitive advantage. These were:

  • Products Research, 1923. 
  • Market Research, 1924.
  • Brand Management, 1931.

While you've likely heard of the latter two (!), what is this Products Research thing?

Products Research was originally called Products Service and was founded by Renton K. Brodie (Chemistry), head of the Chemical Division (R&D), Wes Blair (Chemistry), creator of the Products Service Department, H. S. Coith (Chemical Engineering), Blair's immediate successor, Harold Robbins (Chemistry), creator of the Commercial Laundry Lab, and Eleanor Ahern (Home Economics), creator of the Home Economics Section. You can read more about Eleanor and the founding in the book Creating Consumers by Carolyn M. Goldstein.

Products Service performed four very stretching functions:

  1. Partnering with Marketing to build P&G brands through coordinated product development. advertising and consumer engagement.
  2. Identifying unmet needs through direct observation of consumers in their natural environments and via research in P&G's home and commercial baking and laundry labs.
  3. Partnering with the Chemical Research and Process Development departments to create new and improved products.
  4. Solving technical problems identified by Sales, Manufacturing and Marketing.

This integrative role, while tremendously challenging, also created a unique innovation capability that stretched across the entire company and enabled carefully coordinated programs of need discovery, product development, brand launch and market leverage that were otherwise not possible with silo'd functions.

1920's P&G R&D Org Chart showing Product Services as one of the 5 R&D Departments

The org chart above shows the structure of R&D in the 1920s. Products Research (Products Services at the time) was one of five departments within R&D, and already included realistic home and commercial labs for washing and baking research, as well as sections devoted to innovation and optimization of the two main categories of products P&G produced, soaps (like Ivory) and edible fats and oils (like Crisco).

Who are Products Researchers?

Diagram showing that Products Researchers have a T-shaped skill set, with broad skills in the sciences of Humans + Business Growth through Innovation, and deep skills in Engineering, Physical Science or Life Science.

T-Shaped Skill Set

Today, Products Researchers are a very diverse group of over 1500 Engineers and Scientists who have distinguished themselves in academic study, and who, once hired, then select Products Research among the many disciplines within R&D. Once in PR, these folks master 1) the sciences of humans as potential customers and users of products, brands and services (e.g., applied cognitive and behavioral psychology, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, sensory, biometrics and neuroscience) 2) how to grow a business through innovation (e.g., innovation strategy, tactics and pipelines, platform evolution and structural economics, business model innovation, designing for competitive advantage, driving consumer choice, crafting and delivering intellectual property strategies). 3) the physical, chemical and biological sciences by which products are designed and produced.

What Do PR Folks Do?

In a single sentence, Products Researchers create better experiences for consumers, better outcomes for the world and more profitable propositions and innovation strategies for the enterprise by integrating consumer, business and science/technology inputs in creative new ways and bringing these to market.

Products Research is a really broad role, as noted above. And it is simply not for everyone. You have to be willing to go very deep technically so that you can choose the right enabling technologies from the host of options available, and very deep with humans, so you can discover the best ways to serve them and thereby gain the reward of them choosing your innovation. The next moment, you may be working very broadly, at the innovation strategy and socio-economic trends level. PR requires flips between creativity, caring and critical thinking, deductive, inductive and abductive logic, insight and action, and a robust ability to successfully challenge existing beliefs and the status quo. Simply put, PR demands a great breadth of passion and exceptional mental agility.

One way I could always identify a good potential PR person is, once they mastered a technology, they'd say "what's next" vs. "I can't wait to spend the next decade using this technology". Another key ingredient is empathy and intuition, both for the consumers one is working to serve, and the co-workers who face their own issues related to doing big, disruptive or highly scaled innovation. Empathy is the motivator to do good for your target audience, while intuition is that wonderful human engine that connects the dots in the background, even when faced with tremendous complexity. Without empathy and intuition, one cannot craft integrated innovations that will succeed across all domains - human, business and technical/scientific.

Of course, the empathy and intuition must be balanced with insight into the best ways forward in the short, medium and long term, and the will to rapidly formulate and test hypotheses across all domains, then make effective choices among the seemingly infinite number of variables at play.

Finally, great PR folks never stop being good scientists and engineers. While they often engage with experts who have more science or engineering skill or experience in a specific area, great PR folks still ensure they understand the benefits, risks and mechanisms of each technology option, ask informed questions, challenge assumptions, and never stop thinking critically about the science of it all.

Here is a list of some of the key roles and activities of PR folks as I see them. Note in every case the simultaneous goals that must be met and boundaries that must be respected: human needs and desires, scientific and technical capabilities, and business objectives. None may be ignored, but trade-offs are often made, as the timely delivery of the good with a path to great is better than pursuit of the perfect. PR folks have the skill and breadth of view to make these tradeoffs intelligently such that multiple generations of innovation are enabled to succeed. The list below builds from basic to advanced Products Research.

  • Project Leadership. Lead product, package and service innovation collaboratively, working with all functions and disciplines across the company and with key research and business partners. The leadership role is an integrative one (expounded upon further below), helping bring forward the very best from partners in every domain, and integrating this into an innovation at the product, package, service, community, brand or category levels. Collaborative Leadership starts right away when one enters PR, and grows in scope with experience.
  • Initiative Design and Delivery. Masterfully integrate internal and external capabilities across the consumer, business and science/technology domains; shape these into compelling business models and consumer experiences; then guide these propositions successfully to market, including designing and conducting learning plans at the human, technical and integrated design levels, specifying design requirements, manufacturing standards, claims and demos.  
  • Human Understanding and Insight . One thing every PR person gets really good at is designing, conducting and analyzing primary consumer research to understand today's human experiences and to guide the innovation work towards even better experiences tomorrow. Many human research methods practiced by PR were originated at P&G, while others were adopted from sociology, psychology, anthropology, ethnography, sensory science, biometrics, ergonomics, human factors, and neuroscience and optimized for use in consumer goods innovation.  Products Researchers utilize the full range of classic qualitative and quantitative consumer research techniques as well as contemporary behavioral science approaches that are much more powerful, accurate and efficient at guiding innovation. The latter is an effort I led for some years, a major pivot in approach that is both exciting and one that provides a much higher resolution view of the relationship between innovation parameters and desired consumer behaviors like trial, adoption and advocacy.
  • Science/Technology Understanding and Translation . A second area where every PR person builds strong skills is understanding enabling technologies across different product categories, breaking these down into physical, chemical and biological mechanisms, and connecting these mechanisms to consumer perception and product choice. This enables human-centered evaluation of technical options and selection of those options that both drive choice and deliver competitive advantage through IP, platform evolution and structural economics. Where is each technical option on its S curve of value and cost? When should we jump curves, and how? This is why PR folks must have formal technical training and demonstrated skill at quickly understanding new technical domains.
  • Business Growth Through Innovation. For innovations close to the core business, Products Researchers must understand the structural economics of the current business model for the categories in which they work, and include these elements in the business model for their innovations. These include materials, manufacturing, distribution, capital and administrative costs, sales volume, share trends and margins for both the company and retailers. Estimates of price elasticity and volume must also be covered. However, for new, big, or disruptive innovation, current structural economics are not relevant, and in fact, the application of current business model parameters to big new innovations is a great way to destroy the innovation and miss the opportunity. In my front-end innovation work both at P&G and in teaching graduate courses, I expanded the innovation scope to encompass the entire business model, both for the initial path to market, and including scenarios for growth and scale, absolutely essential for anything really new and big to succeed. See the final paragraph of this article for a bit more information on how this has progressed.
  • Innovation Strategy. Build innovation strategies and tactics for products, brands and categories that deliver and maintain leadership shares and profits. The more skilled, experienced and successful one becomes in PR, the broader the strategic role and reach.
  • Transformative and Disruptive Innovation. Craft a vision of better future for a brand, category, business or new venture andthe humans we seek to serve, then create the innovation strategy and tactics to make it real.
  • Innovation Capability. Maintain and enhance innovation capability and the Products Research Discipline. Scour the world for the best innovation models, research methods and organizational structures and apply them to enhance overall innovation output. I did quite a bit of work here in the second half of my time at P&G, as I loved and appreciated the unique role of PR and wanted it to thrive and evolve in useful new ways. More about this in future posts.

How Do They Do It?

Learning how to do PR is a long journey, historically taking 7-10 years to become masterful. However, there are some modern Masters Degree programs in Academia that produce folks who move to PR mastery much more quickly (e.g., MS Engineering Design Innovation at Northwestern University or Masters of Integrated Innovation for Products and Services at Carnegie Mellon University ). For anyone in PR, though, the learning truly never ends, as the context and requirements for successful innovation in this rapidly changing world, on this scale, in highly competitive markets, is constantly evolving and changing.

Let me share a couple of personal perspectives on HOW PR is done using Design Thinking as a comparative construct and focusing more on the front end of the innovation process.

First up is a comparison of HOWs using the five Design Thinking activities. On the left is the description from the Stanford DT bootcamp guide, on the right, my compilation of PR hows. Compare them row by row and I believe you'll see many similarities, but also some key differences. One difference in practice is that PR utilizes a much broader and deeper set of human research methods to understand behaviors and translate these into insights that guide innovation at every step of the process, most especially in the Empathize and Test phases. Another is the focus on identifying and resolving tensions in the current experience and defining and delivering on aspirations. A third is the degree of rigor brought to technical problem definition and resolution. This is only natural given the global crucible of competing in the FMCG industry, the financial resources of P&G, the size of the PR community, it's focus on advancing the state of the art of innovation, and it's nearly 100 years of history doing so.

Chart showing that Design Thinking activities have parallels in Products Research activities, though some of the PR activities are more robust given the professional nature of the Products Research discipline.

Integrative Design & Innovation (idei): A Thoroughly Modern Innovation Paradigm (full idei article here)

Design Thinking per se, while powerful and useful, is insufficient to describe the activity system of PR, nor is it the best of what's taught and practiced out in the world today, some 20 years after its introduction. And "classic" Products Research must evolve as well to embrace and integrate the best of other innovation models and approaches or be left behind. This is where Integrative Design & Innovation comes in.

Integrative Design & Innovation is a state of the art approach that combines the best of Design Thinking, Lean Innovation, Behavioral Science for Innovation, and the richest of the methods and learning from the 100 year history of Products Research. This combination is dramatically more powerful, effective, and efficient, produces much bigger innovations and moves them to market transactions more quickly, and is frankly a lot more fun than any of the individual innovation models mentioned!

For example, the diagram below shows how I conceptualize and teach the front end innovation process today integrating the best of various approaches and models. I originated this framework during my time at Northwestern's Segal Design Institute as Industry Innovator in Residence and taught this in the Intersect CPG class I created with Craig Sampson. I still use this framework, though the actual methods and techniques we practice to execute against the framework are always improving.

idei is composed of three interconnected blocks

  1. WHAT - Alpha Innovation Hypothesis (tm)
  2. HOW - Lean Design Thinking (tm)
  3. WHEN - Behavioral Science for Innovation (tm) measures applied at the project level.
Integrative Design Innovation framework diagram shows innovation hypotheses and how to test them via fast cycles of prototyping and evaluation

WHAT: Alpha Innovation Hypothesis. This is the starting point in the framework, and consists of a simple statement with five parts that the team must pull together to launch the fast cycle innovation process effectively. The statement goes like this: We can improve lives and create value by doing new thing X for human group Y using enabling science and technology Z. The work of the team is then to test the components of the innovation hypothesis using the rest of the framework.

WHAT: Alpha Innovation Hypothesis. This is the starting point in the framework, and consists of a simple statement with five parts

Breaking the alpha innovation hypothesis down into the 5 component parts, we have:

  1. Improve Lives - What are the issues today? What is a compelling future experiencethat humans will choose consistently vs. current offerings?
  2. Create Value - How will this be valuable to you, your partners and your sponsors?
  3. New Thing X - What will you produce to deliver the compelling experience and create value, i.e., product, service, community, combination, etc.?
  4. Human Group Y - For whom will you improve life? How do you define these folks, and find them for research? Hint: do NOT use demographics, rather use contexts, tasks, tensions, aspirations and decisions.
  5. Enabling Science and Technology Z - What science and technology will you bring to bear on the creation of New Thing X? What already exists and what must be created? Who has the best in the world? What should you create within the team, sponsor others to create for you or license from others?

HOW: Lean Design Thinking. The HOW part of the diagram shows the Lean Design Thinking (LDT) approach to fast cycles of innovation and evaluation. LDT is a synthesis of Lean Startup and Design Thinking, with a liberal dose of rigor pulled from Products Research. I created the Lean Design Thinking synthesis to enable innovation teams to move from raw hypotheses to fundable propositions in weeks vs. months or years. The diagram makes rapid hypothesis formation and testing via minimum viable prototypes explicit, as well as the Pivot action when needed to win consumer choice vs. current offerings in a viable way.

The HOW part of the diagram shows the Lean Design Thinking (LDT) approach to fast cycles of innovation and evaluation

The notes on each LDT hexagon provide guidance re: how to focus the activity. For example, in Empathy, Tasks, Outcomes and Experiences (for the consumer) are called out as primary focus areas, and we teach and use specific state of the art research approaches to identify each of these. In Define, we focus on Tensions (found in the current approach as practiced by the humans we seek to serve) and Aspirations (of the humans, at the task and life levels), using carefully crafted research techniques to deeply understand each. Once Tensions and Aspirations are understood and defined, the goal of the innovation work in the last three LDT activity blocks - Hypothesize, Prototype, Learn - becomes the resolution of tensions + delivery of aspirations, a very powerful and effective focus for teams that is stretching enough to inspire breakthroughs and concrete enough to enable rapid iterative progress.

Teams applying Lean Design Thinking form strong bonds of purpose which helps teams create big, game changing innovation. Building empathy together, experiencing the human responses to their prototypes together, and pitching their propositions to key stakeholders together drives a sense of a common experience and purpose for all the members, making the teams powerful advocates for the humans they are trying to serve and the best ways to serve them, no matter the background or expertise of each team member. We always teach that if you must fall in love with something, fall in love with the humans you're trying to serve and resolving their issues, but do not fall in love with a specific technology or solution! Many an innovation program fails due to unrequited love for technologies or solutions when these solutions are actually no longer the best ones for the humans served or the sponsors and stakeholders.

WHEN: Behavioral Science for Innovation. Under WHEN in the diagram, we bring in principles from state of the art behavioral science and business growth through innovation. Classic market research techniques are very blunt instruments when it comes to guiding innovation and must be set aside in favor of behavioral tools that by their nature illuminate the relationships between the things we do control, like the parameters of our innovation, and the response of those we're trying to serve. It is not enough that a potential user likes or even prefers your innovation, rather, they must CHOOSE it over alternatives in some kind of realistic context, or a context that produces responses with known correlations to the real world. Behavioral Science for Innovation and to some extent Behavioral Economics provides a paradigm and methods by which choice can be measured quickly and effectively throughout the innovation process. These behavioral metrics avoid many potential dead ends that one might otherwise be misled into pursuing using attitudinal measures.

Under WHEN in the diagram, we bring in principles from state of the art behavioral science and business growth through innovation.

Use a Business Model Canvas as a tool to guide and summarize progress as the idei framwork is applied. The business model must be made explicit and treated as a source of innovation as well, evolving through fast cycle hypotheses formation and testing in concert with with the rest of the innovation offering. I utilize my own Living Business Model (tm)when doing innovation sprints that most teams prefer and find especially easy to understand and use.

Living Business Model (tm) has three main parts: Your Offer, Paths to Profit & Scale, Paths to Market

The Business Model must be developed in a way that nurtures transformative and disruptive innovation. Normal models of cost and profit are not appropriate. For new to the world innovations, it is important to craft a smart path to market introduction and path to scale, with a plan for sustainable levels of margin and profit at the right time in the journey of growth, adoption and advocacy for the innovation. This is a very startup-like approach, and is much more effective at enabling the big, transformative or disruptive innovations to succeed.

I hope this introductory tour through Products Research and Integrative Design & Innovation has stimulated some insights that you can apply to your own innovation work! More soon!

All the best, innovators!

Robb Olsen

Founder of TransOrbital Dynamics LLC, and past Global Products Research Community of Practice co-leader and Principal Scientist in Products Research at Procter & Gamble.

June 9th, 2019

Copyright 2019, Robb Olsen, Author. All rights reserved.

All content shared here-in are the views of the author. No other endorsement is claimed or implied.

Short quotes from this article are allowed so long as they reference and link to this article and credit the author. Mentions of this article with links are also allowed. This article may not otherwise be reproduced or distributed in any way without explicit consent of the author.