How to find an idea for corporate innovation? An example of a waste bin becoming a compelling prototype

Cezary Zbierzchowski
02 April 2020
7 min read

Prototyping is an important part of the innovation process. Apart from the fact that it quickly gives new ideas a tangible shape and doesn't generate large costs, it is also a great opportunity to verify whether a service meets the user’s expectations. Participants of every "innovative brainstorming" or, more generally, creative workshops used to develop new products, can create prototypes. What is prototyping and why do I think it makes sense, is what I’ll try to explain below with a specific example.

Design Sprint workshop

Having worked as a Manager of the Innovation and Quality Department at Siemens Financial Services in 2016-2017, I was responsible for designing and building digital products and tools. I already knew quite a lot about methods of product development but I’m not the alpha and omega. Therefore, I decided to take part in the "Designers of Innovation" workshop, organised under the patronage of Google and the Polish Development Fund. It was held in Warsaw, on the Google for Startups campus and was conducted according to the Design Sprint method, which allows us to quickly create a prototype service. 

How did it start?

Several dozen people took part in the workshop, so they were divided into teams of 5 or 6, including people from very different companies and industries. I immediately asked myself a question: what is the point of having participants with such different experiences and goals work out a solution in a mere few hours? Not only did we have typical freelancers, corporate employees, people from the art industry and engineers in one group, but the Google CSI: Lab leaders also made sure that participants defined their character types beforehand and also got “mixed up". Another rule stated that people from the same company should not be part of one group. So it was a real "hotch-potch"! To tell the truth, I had little hope for success.

An exercise in empathy

Before working on the prototype at all, the coaches organised an exercise in empathy, or more precisely, in active listening to the interlocutor. They divided the participants into pairs and asked one of them to talk about themselves for a while. The idea was to focus as much as possible on what they are saying during the two-minute speech of their teammate. Don’t interrupt them and don’t let your thoughts fly away somewhere else. You have no idea how difficult this is! Some people say it helps to keep quiet and not interfere with someone else's speech by sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Obviously, you can’t scroll through your phone either!

Afterwards, the other participant tried to repeat as faithfully as possible what he understood from the story and received feedback from the storyteller. Of course, the colleagues then switched roles and almost everyone stressed that listening was way more difficult than talking. And all this turned out to be a preparation for an interview with the "client", a role played by one of the team members. It turns out that we should carefully hear out our client and not assume in advance what they need. We all sort of know that, but we do have quite a few problems with active listening.

Interview with the client

After the empathy exercise, we had to quickly determine what kind of problem we would address. In our group, three ideas were put forward, of which we chose one that our colleague came up with. It turned out that she loves to shop on the Internet, but she has long been troubled by the return processes. She thinks that they are time-consuming and overcomplicated (due to the need for repacking the purchased item and printing out the label), and most of all, she doesn't know how to organise having it collected by the courier.

Our "client" spends almost all day at the office, where she cannot meet the courier company for collection. The delivery itself is easier because the parcels are dropped off at the security desk in her apartment block. But she can't just have the security guards send her shipments!

A fifteen-minute interview convinced us that due to returns our colleague often opts out from ordering things like shoes or clothes. She really likes to shop online because she then has some peace and time to think about it, but the things she buys often don't fit, are too small or too big or have a different shade. Of course, you can shrug your shoulders and say that this belongs to the "first world problems" category. But it really can reduce sales!

We had to do something about it with our group! Two people asked the "client" carefully, focusing on her needs and ideas about the process, and two others took notes of what she said so that they would then have discussion material. We tried, as instructed by the coaches, not to suggest solutions and to ask open questions. And when our colleague left the group, we started working together on a solution.


It turns out that sticking yellow cards to the wall makes sense. I have to admit that after several "creative" training sessions, which I had had for years as an employee of a corporation, I had doubts about it because the "cards" had never led us anywhere. Of course, it was possible to collect some interesting ideas this way, but nothing concrete happened with them later and the process of inventing optimisation or innovation was dying. It was completely different in this case.

It started typically, with each team member writing down all, even the strangest ideas for solving the client’s problem. The leaders asked for 50 ideas to be generated — in the end, when we stuck our cards to the wall, we had about 40 of them. We grouped them so that the same or similar ideas were in one place, and then we presented to each other those ideas that were questionable or intriguing to other team members.

We had everything up there: from drones picking up returns to giving up online shopping altogether, from complicated smartphone apps to reusable courier boxes (which would solve the issue with packing returns). When we voted for the solutions (each of us had three votes), it turned out that the idea of a "return-o-mat", i.e. a clever combination of a parcel machine and a container for used clothes, had won.

When we sat down at the table again and started thinking about how to make a prototype, it turned out in the first moments that we may face quite the challenge making it. It seemed to us that from the cards, boxes, yarn, paper clips and other similar materials provided by the organisers, we would be designing our returns machine for a long, long time. Until one of our colleagues, the one with an engineering background, suddenly pointed to a recycling bin standing by the wall (in a wooden casing, with four chambers for different fractions) and we already knew that we had an almost ready prototype.

Prototype and presentation

The idea for the returns is simple: if the online store offers such returns, it attaches an appropriately coloured tag to each product, with a barcode in which the product and transaction data are encoded in. A customer who wants to return items to the store does not have to especially pack them, print labels and order a pick-up. He walks up to the nearest return-o-mat, reads the code from the badge, then the chamber marked with the colour of the badge opens and the customer places their item in there. The courier has to "re-pack" the items and deliver them back to the store. When the customer inserts the item into the chamber, he is informed that the return machine has accepted them. Or maybe, if they are a regular customer, they also receive an instant refund onto their account?

To create a prototype and demonstrate it to our colleague — which was the most important part of the workshop — we only had to cover the symbols of the factions with cards item groups (clothes, shoes, electronics, gadgets), mark them with colours using post-its and attach a colourful badge with a "barcode" to one of our colleague’s blouses. Then, we acted out a scene in which one person played the role of a client and one played a courier. The client unpacked and "tried on" the sweatshirt, then walked a dozen or so feet, read the code in a pseudo-reader glued to the bin’s casing and threw the sweatshirt into the appropriate chamber (from which, of course, we took the trash can out earlier). The client was delighted with this solution.

Of course, the idea would need some polishing, many details should be considered. You can certainly find many weak points when it comes to the process itself. But the prototype helped us clarify the main idea and present it to the client. During the workshop, it was a person chosen from among us, not a real client of a company. But the problem was genuine and working on it also resembled what you could actually do to come up with a new service.

Prototyping as a way to save time and money 

It turned out that using what was at hand (but not necessarily in the provided toolkit), we created one of the best prototypes and did it in five minutes. We were the last to finish the brainstorming phase and it seemed like we were behind the other groups, but thinking out of the box also paid off when it comes to how the prototype was made. Why shouldn't the waste bin become a return-o-mat for a while?

Sounds like fun? Yes, it was quite a lot of fun but it was also an example of how you can quickly come up with a product and test it with the end-user. In practice, the prototyping is critical to avoid the cost of producing a final product that customers won't like. But the most important thing is to listen to their needs!

What is the role of a tech-partner in prototyping?

If you want to take advantage of the Design Sprint to the fullest and form your idea into an existing and successful product, I would recommend collaborating with experts who have hands-on experience in conducting workshops and translating conclusions into real prototypes. At Startup Development House, you’ll find a pool of great experts: designers, product managers and product strategists who conduct Design Sprint workshops for Clients as the first step of the innovation process. If you are looking for innovations at your company, I would recommend you read how your journey from the idea stage, prototyping to the final product launched to the market could look like. 

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