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GE Appliances’ Plan To Help Other Companies Crowdsource Good Design

An idea so crazy it just might work?

You might not know the term “nugget ice,” but you’d probably recognize the product. It’s the delightfully chewable frozen kernels found inside hospitals, hipster cocktail bars, and Sonic drive-ins. GE, a multibillion dollar corporation with hundreds of employees worldwide, had an R&D team that built a tiny compressor to make nugget ice. But what to do with it? Would nugget ice really sell a $3,500 refrigerator? So the technology sat inside GE’s library of unused intellectual property.

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That was until GE Appliances (sold off by GE to Haier in 2016) used its FirstBuild program, a rapid prototyping open platform for makers, headquartered in Kentucky, to crowdsource the design of a countertop nugget ice maker. The resulting product became the Opal, which raised $3 million through crowdfunding on Indiegogo. For the $150 billion GE, it was a small but notable win: With nugget ice, GE struck a chord with crowdsourced consumer tastes that it could have never reached through its traditional, big-box store channels.

FirstBuild’s test kitchen. [Photo: GEA]
Now, GE Appliances wants to make crowdsourced design available to any company that is interested, with Giddy, a mobile app where corporations (or maybe even individuals) can post projects they’re trying to bring to market. And a community of designers and engineers will try to develop the projects for fame and prizes ranging from a sketchbook to a few thousand dollars in cash, provided by GE Appliances.

In other words, the GE brand is launching a Behance that ships, a Kickstarter product bootcamp for corporations that don’t get design thinking, or, perhaps most apt, a Quirky 2.0. Before it folded in 2015, Quirky crowdsourced product ideas from anyone, then attempted to turn these ideas into products. The idea was ultimately unscalable, because Quirky had the onus of inventing and selling countless products from nothing but a one-line pitch. 

[Photo: GEA]
But to this day, companies still crave community buy-in, and they are increasingly turning to crowdfunding sites to rally the internet and validate product ideas on the cheap. But what if they don’t even have the right product to bring to such a marketplace in the first place? That’s where Giddy comes in. Yes, it’s a strange model to explain, but GE believes there’s a real niche to fill: crowdsourcing product design before any next step in the production, promotion, or fundraising process.

“Giddy is designed so you can solve a lot of problems on it,” says Giddy CEO Taylor Dawson. “For the most part, it’s an engagement between a company and a community for a specific piece of work.”

Dawson is an unlikely voice in the world of tech, literally. He speaks with the friendly drawl of southerner rather than the glib inspiration-quotes of someone in the Valley. The GE designer-engineer launched FirstBuild in 2014, which was essentially GE internalizing the Quirky model (GE was an early, major partner for Quirky, and the two companies launched multiple products together).

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[Photo: GEA]
FirstBuild exists as both an online platform with 30,000 users, and a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Louisville where GE requires no NDAs as the company works on new projects with makers and entrepreneurs. Over the past three years, FirstBuild has brought just over 30 products to market. In the case of Opal, GE posted a design challenge with some  parameters, like the size of the ice condenser, the max height of the unit. A few dozen entries followed, about half of which Dawson says tend to be by amateurs, and half of which are the polished work of bona fide industrial and UX designers. One stood out for its particular innovation in tabletop ice-cube making: It had a clear hopper that lets you see how much ice had been made.

“That went sharply against any of the prevailing notions of what a countertop ice maker should look like,” says Dawson, who points to the value of looking outside one’s own corporation for good ideas. “Go to Amazon now and search ‘ice maker,’ you’ll see 30 to 40 designs. Thirty-nine of those 40 ice makers look the same . . . [but] that’s a typical approach within companies. You’re given a task to complete, you go with the most-known path to get a product to market as fast as possible.”

[Photo: GEA]
Dawson says that while running FirstBuild, several big companies (with names you know, he says, but he declined to share specifics) have approached them, asking how they could take part. FirstBuild was simply structured for GE and couldn’t be adapted to other organizations. This led GE to develop Giddy. Giddy allows third-party companies to take part in the process on a case-by-case basis, negotiated with GE. (GE will merge FirstBuild with Giddy later this year, amassing somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 designers and engineers in one spot.) Though according to Dawson, Giddy hasn’t finalized negotiations with any corporate partners yet.

On one hand, the value proposition for companies is clear: Giddy is a place where you could get a few good ideas for a product, all while testing out an idea without putting the full weight of a company behind it. Giddy offers the potential to build excitement and feel out new markets, and offers a step a corporation might take before going to Kickstarter (where you might not need a product, but you need a well-developed idea). It’s a low-risk place to take a stab at building community engagement, and perhaps, develop the next viral hit.

[Photo: GEA]
On the other hand, if you’re a major corporation that requires superb design, why not simply hire a superb design studio? Quirky tried much the same model, and failed. And GE tried that model right alongside Quirky as a partner! Dawson recognizes the parallels between Giddy and Quirky, but he’s quick to allude to Quirky’s inability to scale. It needed to both develop and commercialize countless, varying products to turn a profit, and that caused its business plan to implode.

“Giddy [products] don’t necessarily need to be commercialized,” says Dawson. “Think about the funnel of how ideas go to product. There are 10,000 ideas for every product. Sometimes you find a great way to create a product out of an idea, sometimes you don’t. . . . Firstbuild launches 10 to 12 products a year. Three out of those become successful products they add to their portfolio. I don’t think that means they’re doing something wrong, but something right. They’re doing things on the edge of their understanding. Some things won’t get traction, so we put them aside and move on to the next project.”

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[Photo: GEA]
As for designers: Giddy’s prizes won’t represent a meaningful windfall, or even a decently paid gig. Few designers can afford to work for free, but Dawson says that they do help people get exposure and build their portfolios, and, at least in one case, landed a designer a permanent job. As for consumers: They get to be delightfully out of touch with the messy process of design. Giddy isn’t really aimed at them.

Now that Giddy is available to both corporations, we’ll see if companies actually sign up–and if 100 designers typing on 100 keyboards really can make a masterpiece.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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