Six Bite-Sized Innovation Lessons From Ebay’s New Design Think Tank

Ebay recently created its own internal design consultancy, to stir the creative juices of its product teams. Here’s what they can teach you.



Ebay’s scrappy startup days are years behind it, and like any other billion-dollar company it faces distinct challenges that stem from being ginormous: How can it launch new products that don’t get nibbled into oblivion by bureaucracy? How can it make sure the best ideas emerge, when all its managers have slightly different visions? How can you do all that nimbly enough to stay ahead?

To solve such problems, eBay is leaning on design with Previz, a new internal consulting business staffed by its cracker-jack designers. In addition to lending their creative juices to whomever needs them, the hope is that they’ll spread a process for innovation. “The real challenge is to get out from under the tactical, day-to-day stuff,” says Dane Howard, who heads the Previz team. “So our designers had the idea of creating workshops to imagine the near term future.”

“When design enters early, it can provoke and elevate the conversation.”

Previz began as a labor of love with the organization, two years ago. Seeing the shortage of forward-looking thinking, Howard and a tiny team of designers created “viz kitchens.” These workshops eventually played a role in creating several new products, including a feature on eBay Fashion that allows you to browse images similar to an item you’d like, but at different price points and in different colors and eBay Local, a site which features proximity and price filters, so you can find goods near you.

Seeing those successes, eBay’s strategy executives finally gave Howard a dedicated staff. Their mandate is to bring their design-thinking process to eBay teams creating new products. Previz has already yielded some valuable insights into creating better products. Here are six:

1. Most of your work lies in identifying the right problems

Howard’s team is still refining their process, but the earliest stages involve defining the right problems. It begins with themes drawn from eBay’s consumer research — one theme, for example, might be visual interfaces. Then, Howard’s group takes people from each unit involved in a new product, and has them generate a list of problems that need to be solved around each them. Eventually, the group decides which problems loom largest, and whose solutions would represent the biggest breakthroughs.


2. It’s a numbers game

In the round where Howard gets teams to come with burning questions, he typically involves 10-15 key members of the various departments involved in creating a new product. But then he separates them in groups of about 4-7 people. Anything less, and one person usually dominates; anything more, and there’s too much chaos to generate ideas.

3. Set the time frame of your would-be innovation

Innovation means nothing if it’s detached from a time frame. If that time frame is too short, then you’re back into the grind of minute changes that don’t push your product further. Too long, and you’re in the realm of science fiction that you’ll never be able to realize. Previz usually sets its sights on innovations that are 1-3 generations from being brought to reality.

4. Start designing before you’ve totally settled on what you’re looking to produce

After questions are prioritized, the Previz designers try to start solving them, in design prototypes. After as little as four days, they’ll have working wireframes or mockups that can then be presented to the original product teams. Compare that to four months, which is about how long it would ordinarily take to create a prototype.


The vast difference, according to Howard, comes about because of when design is brought to bear on the innovation process. Usually, product manages would create a 60-page book of requirements they’d like to see for a product. Only then would it be passed off to the design teams. But with Previz, the design teams are involved before any of that, and before the product concept is set in stone. “When design enters early, it can provoke and elevate the conversation about what a product will be,” says Howard.

5. Understand who benefits most from the work

Obviously, Previz would be lost if the managers responsible for carrying the vision through to completion didn’t buy into the product. That means that they are very careful to involve key people in the process. “A lot of this is understanding people,” explains Howard. “When you behave like a consultancy, it forces you to be strategic about who you’re putting into the room. You have to understand who benefits most from the work.” It’s those people that will have the passionate input.

6. Involve would-be users early

To create its eBay Local product, Previz started by investing what “local” means. They found that consumers balance myriad considerations — price and distance being the most common ones. The further something away was, the cheaper it had to be to be worth the trouble. That insight eventually led to the creation of search filters in the form of sliders, that let you winnow results by price and distance.

But just as important to the final product was that it was seen early on by users, who helped refine and define how it worked. During it’s four-day intensive design process, Previz creates simple, working prototypes of websites: Picture dummy windows that are clickable, bringing up images of concept webpages, rather than full-blown interactivity.


They put those prototypes before users as early as possible, so they they can see if the basic mechanics and information flow actually make sense. By the end, they have as many as four iterations of initial concept, each of which has been validated by users. That, in turn, adds heft to the concept — elevating from a mere exercise. “”The product group also gets something they can evangelize,” says Howard. “The design allows a story to be told and retold.”

[Top image by Chelsea Sabrina]

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.