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Escape From The Silicon Valley Echo Chamber

Is it possible to think creatively in a culture where everybody is awfully alike? Yes, if you work it into your process.

Escape From The Silicon Valley Echo Chamber
[Photo: Flickr user Paul Williams]

The startup world has an echo chamber problem. So many of the products and services were created to solve personal “pain points,” but end up catering to a very particular demographic–generally white, male, young, and urban dwelling.

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“We draw from the same cultural script. We have the same information at our fingertips. We tend to come up with the same solutions,” explained Valerie Casey, who heads up Samsung’s in-house accelerator. The phenomenon has led to, among other things, the oversupply of laundry apps, a glut of cars on demand, and a million and one dating apps. While some of these technologies are useful to some people, it leaves a lot of problems unsolved for everyone else.

Valerie Casey

Not to mention, copycatting isn’t a smart business plan. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we are guilty in the Valley of designing things for ourselves, and we are not the target market,” Andy Smith, coauthor with Jennifer Aaker of The DragonFly Effect said of the echo chamber.

For those very reasons, Casey, who finds entrepreneurs with early-stage startup ideas and turns them into potentially lucrative and useful products, doesn’t want to fall into that habit. She has therefore designed her creative process to protect against the echo chamber. “The core of my creative life has been to move myself out of my comfort zone and really get deeply immersed with the people that I’m designing for,” she told Fast Company.

One of the techniques Casey uses to bring varied perspectives into her thinking is what she calls a bootcamp. During these bootcamps, she has people within and outside of the tech world focus on a particular problem together, intensely. “A lot of the work that I’ve done over the last couple of year is to create these very immersive workshops where we are inviting the actual users to explore some of those preconceptions about what motivates people,” she explained.

Take health apps, as an example. Right now, there’s glut of tracking and alerts-based technologies, a la Fitbit. But does that actually change behaviors? To tackle that question for type-2 diabetes, in particular, Casey had people with diabetes come in and test possible solutions alongside those creating the apps. Casey found that the existing technologies, which emphasized exercise and diet, didn’t connect.

What they ended up with completely surprised Casey. Instead of creating an app or particular technology, the group focused on language. The words they used mattered a lot. In the end, they decided as they developed the app to focus on the phrase “don’t lie down after you eat,” a goal that can bring about a series of positive related outcomes. People eat less and take smaller portions, they eat earlier in the day, and they exercise after eating dinner, before heading to sleep.

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“When you spend time with people, you learn to tackle the problems in an indirect way, you look at the problem slightly awry,” she said. “It was a huge revelation for us.”

This is a theory that she applies in all of her projects, from working with the World Economic Forum helping businesses in Myanmar, to the accelerator within Samsung. At Samsung, for example, although the projects are not yet available to the public, she tries to get the products in front of real users as early as possible. She learned the tactic from the Chinese startup community, which puts its apps out into the world well before they’re ready as a way to do some rough user testing, which is pretty distinct from how people do things here. Developers like to perfect a product and then release it. Casey, however, understands the value of outside opinions.

But because of competition and the highly secretive nature of new technology here, she has to get creative with early user testing. For example, she might have the app or product launch discreetly in beta under a different name and see how it does in the App or Play store. Samsung won’t flat-out promote anything, but there are “growth hacking tactics” Casey uses to give it some attention, like using social networks or creating viral videos. (Casey wouldn’t tell me which viral videos have been secret Samsung projects.) All of this helps her gather insights that creators wouldn’t otherwise see.

The echo chamber, of course, doesn’t just exist in Silicon Valley. We all hold on to our darlings. “As a designer, you spend so much time conceiving of ideas and they seem infallible in a way,” said Casey. “That rarefied designer behavior you have to build into your creative process.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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