In their book, The Knowledge Creating Company, Ikujiro Nonaka, and Hirotaka Takeuchi give a really good example of the power of analogy. It’s about how a product team at Canon achieved a breakthrough in the design of the Mini-Copier by figuring out how to make the copier drum inexpensive enough to be disposable. Doing that reduced the need for maintenance, and allowed them to launch a product suitable priced for the home and small office. The inspiration came to team leader Hiroshi Tanaka from the beer can he was holding, during a discussion on how to solve the problem. Tanaka could associate the designs of the beer can and copier drum because they were analogous in material and shape. Therefore, his team could learn from the process of manufacturing inexpensive aluminum cans.
In an essay in WIRED magazine, Chef David Chang explains the thinking that leads to the discovery of several of his most successful dishes, such as the Momofuku pork bun. He talks about how it is possible to deconstruct dishes to a set of base patterns that people respond to and subconsciously identify with, across cultures and cuisines. So, for example, a morsel of the signature dish Spicy Pork Sausages and Rice Cakes (in the mouth), evokes the sensations of mapo tofu and Bolognese, in the mind. In another dish called Ceci e Pepe, fermented chickpeas (in the mouth) evoke the sensation of Pecorino Romano in the mind. Because of flavor compounds that are common across ingredients, diners at Chef Chang’s restaurants are associating deep memories of dishes they’ve enjoyed since childhood, with the sensations of something entirely new on their plates.
“The key to analogical problem solving is to find known problems that have the same structure as the problem being solved.” Arthur Markman, Kristin Wood, Julie Linsey, Jeremy Murphy and Jeffrey Laux, in Supporting Innovation Through Analogical Reasoning, Rotman on Design, 2013
A battery stores energy. So do fat molecules, flywheels, and springs. They are solutions to problems with the same structure: Conservation or storage of energy through local conversion. AquaBells are dumbbells you can pack for travel. When you are ready for exercise, you fill them with water to add the necessary weight. Like air mattresses, they are compact, flexible and light and make use of an inexpensive local resource that’s readily available and discardable.
Known solutions are also useful in imagining patterns of possible failure, and therefore in understanding the costs and risks of design decisions that might lead to similar kinds of failure. Known solutions can be services, and innovation can be less risky and more inexpensive when it is possible to use existing services as the basis or components of a new service in another sector or problem domain. But first, we need a system or method for drawing and extending analogies that is suitable for services. As Markman and colleagues suggest, there needs to be a way to describe the essence of a service in a way that relates to other services. Performance and affordance provide that relational essence.
If you visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, one of the exhibits from the missions to the moon is the DSKY, the numeric display, and keyboard for the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). Two of the most worn out buttons are the ones used to issue commands. They have the labels VERB and NOUN. Within the context of a program, every command was a verb-noun combination. For example, the sequence NOUN06 VERB33 ENTERwould issue the command to display the time of the next engine burn. The verbs and nouns make sense within the context of programs or procedures during various phases of a mission. The essence of the 06-33 command is to get the computer to display-time.
Similarly, it is possible to express capacity and demand in a way describes the essence of a service, in terms of performance and affordance. Simple verb-noun combinations can express demand for action (AC), demand for access (XR), capacity to perform (CA), and capacity to provide (RX).