Transforming an abstract idea into a commercial product through a process of exploration and prototyping for Cisco Systems.
Rarely is it the lack of an idea that holds a company back from the path of innovation. It is the process from vague to concrete which poses the biggest challenge. For an idea to enter reality, it needs to be communicated to others and placed in motion through an iterative prototyping process.
The first step is to “get it down on paper”. This gives space for the idea to be seen from new perspectives, allowing for previously unknown directions to be explored and next steps taken—collaboration is where the true growth happens. By creating mockups and prototypes, the idea then becomes tangible. Only when others take ownership and continue its growth, can the idea be fully realised and enter the real world.
The following is a case study of Cisco System’s App Intent, and an exploration into its transformation from vague idea to fully realised commercial product.
Traditionally, Cisco Systems has always been a hardware company. To remain relevant in the digital age, they have extended their core business to include digital products and services, and dedicated teams of developers to build innovative tools.
App Intent is a product of this evolution of Cisco Systems. It is a policy-based application allowing for a smooth translation of business requirements into infrastructure settings of a running microservices application. The concept for such a tool came from Kenneth Owens, CTO of Cisco Intercloud Services.
Ken had a high level idea, but neither the process nor the time to take it through the innovation cycle all the way to implementation. This is where Remember to Play came in.
Process & Solution
The idea was vague and needed substance to move forward. In collaboration with microservices expert and consultant Pini Reznik of Container Solutions (CS), Remember to Play investigated the details of the initial concept and imagined how it could be implemented within a UI. The simple act of adding a practical application (UI) and potential user (DevOps) to the game resulted in something much more considerable and comprehensive than what had initially been devised.
Over a two-week period that involved an iterative process of conversations, whiteboard sessions and sketching, we simplified the concept and produced initial mock-ups. A visualisation of the idea greatly helped in discussing and moving forward. It became almost immediately visible what about the concept worked, what the missing pieces were, and where our preconceptions did or did not align with reality. In order to further advance the idea, we not only received new input from Ken and his team, but also from CS developers who were able to ask important questions and offer invaluable insights as firsthand users themselves.
The outcome of this co-creation was an interactive prototype, used by Ken during MesosCon Dublin 2015 to introduce App Intent and his ideas surrounding policy-based app orchestration. This was not just a one-off; the presentation was designed to be adaptive and used regularly at other conferences, meet-ups, meetings and pitches. It thus became an effective tool to inspire new ways of thinking about cloud native applications and strengthened Cisco’s position as a thought leader in this field.
The collaboration of a diverse project team, using a variety of creative tools and mediums to express collective insights, helped bring a vague idea to life within just a few months. App Intent is currently being integrated into Cisco’s continuous delivery platform, Shipped.
Despite a small investment for Cisco Systems, this high potential process resulted in the following:
- Faster time-to-market for App Intent
- A quick way to evaluate risky – yet high reward – ideas
- Mockups and prototypes allowed for the idea to take shape and evolve
- Clarified a vague idea allowing for feedback and new directions to be taken
- Generated traction among internal teams to get excited about working on the project
- Created unique offering for Cisco clients
- Inspired new ideas and potential products for Cisco
- Strengthened Cisco brand as an innovative company and thought leader in microservices
Methods & Tools
During the process of developing App Intent the following methods and tools have been used to explore and advance the initial concept.
Inspiration and solutions to a problem can be found in unlikely places. In this case, looking at AirBnB, parametric architecture and map layers to design a policy application for microservices proved very beneficial for the development of App Intent. First, we investigated and pinpointed unique aspects of the overall characteristics. We then were able to implement findings into a functional design. Such “analogous inspiration” is part of the Human Centred Design approach which can lead to new insights and ultimately the innovation of a product.
WHITEBOARD SESSIONS & LOW FIDELITY MOCK-UPS
Collective brainstorming sessions involving a designer and microservices expert, in combination with focused sketching, moved the project forward rapidly. The designer’s role here is not merely to ‘draw’ what the expert has envisioned. It is a process of co-creation through collaboration and alternating perspectives. The project engineer does not need to have a fully formed idea to begin — the magic happens through iterative ‘play’ that involves questioning, answers and discovery.
INTERVIEWS WITH POTENTIAL USERS
Once the initial mockups are ready, an idea can make its way into the world. At this point, it is time to test whether users can easily grasp concepts, and if the product-to-be would be useful to them. For App Intent, collaboration with CS was the perfect opportunity to rapidly test assumptions among developers. Critical questions and feedback can be difficult to hear, but they always offer an opportunity for improvement.
A clickable prototype provides users with a very close experience to what the final product might be like. It is another step on the way to refining and evolving an idea, and with today’s rapid digital prototyping tools, it is easy to add basic behaviors and functionalities to a static design.
As the project evolved and new concepts came to light, animated graphics were implemented to effectively communicate new findings and the inner workings of App Intent.
Our iterative product innovation process increased the time-to-market dramatically. After only a few months App Intent was mature enough to be integrated into Cisco’s continuous delivery platform, Shipped.