Design-led Innovation at Hyphen


In the last two issues of Innovation Quarterly we discussed the benefits and pitfalls of Design Thinking and what big businesses may be able to learn from designers. This time, we caught up with Mike Elam, Technical and Development Director of design consultancy Hyphen to learn how his team approaches innovation. 

Who are your typical clients and why do they come to you for assistance? 

Hyphen’s clients take many forms, from inventor entrepreneurs to large corporates. The key to what clients get from us centres around our core principles of User Focused and Function Led design. With a broad client base comes a very wide range of challenges, from developing hair care products, to helping a client address an ambition to move from a ‘cash’ to a ‘cash-free’ society. All our clients have goals, but they don’t necessarily know how to get there. They will often have a very good understanding of their market, but are perhaps slightly disconnected from the real day-to-day needs of their users. That’s very much where Hyphen comes in; in trying to understand different users, experience what they experience, spot the innovation opportunities and know how to translate those opportunities into product successes. 

What is the most exciting project that you have worked on? 

The projects with the most interesting outcomes tend to be the ones that permit us a certain amount of freedom within the brief. A few years ago we designed a number of swimming goggles for Speedo UK. The brief was to “design the world’s most comfortable swimming goggles”. The outcome was a great success, and became one of their longest selling models.  But perhaps an even more open brief, with even greater potential for innovation would have been something like, “how can we make our goggles better?”.  I am a strong believer that designers should be engaged during these kind of strategic discussions as they can bring a unique and very valuable perspective to the wider picture and help foster a more creative approach to the product portfolio. 

What approach did you take? 

The most important first step in innovation is understanding the user. For us that means going beyond the traditional market research techniques. Our clients tend to assume they know everything about their users, how they use their products and what they want. We like to challenge them and really get under the skin of their users by understanding the emotional and physiological responses they have when doing certain tasks with certain products. We achieve this by running an immersive observation and innovation workshop with ‘power users’, which we capture on video for later review. We’re good at spotting when a user is feeling discomfort, or is struggling with an imperfect solution, even if they don’t know it themselves. 

What are the typical tools and techniques that you use in your NPD process?

We frequently differ from our competitors in the order we do things. Following the initial User Insights stage, designers will often jump in and start creating aesthetic styling concepts and developing the product from there, leaving the technical and engineering challenges to be solved later on. But although the pressure is often on designers to produce some colourful concept imagery early in the process it makes far more sense to de-risk a project by solving the technical problems before the aesthetic. This approach keeps development cycles short and success rates very high.  The tools and techniques we use throughout our NPD process include rapid prototyping (usually 3D printing) and 3D CAD, but we also have a small workshop that’s useful for developing and working through ideas. With the client being a vital partner, we also use visualisation software to review even early design concepts with clients in a dynamic and interactive way. 

Besides running immersive observation and user workshops do you involve users to validate and refine your ideas?  

Where possible we put early proof of concept prototypes into the hands of users to get feedback, and again, observe how they use them and where improvements could be made. The number of test iterations depends on how ground-breaking the product is and how fine the line is between the product failing or succeeding at a particular task. Depending on the project we will sometimes suggest focus group research on more refined prototypes that closely resemble a finished product. Market research and insight provided by a client helps us to form part of the ethnographic backdrop that facilitates our understanding of the user by highlighting things like buying trends and preferences that are often better collected through quantitative research methods rather than the up-close approach we take. Market research can aid incremental innovation, but rarely, in our experience, leads to breakthrough ideas.

To what extent do you design emotional responses into the customer experience of the products that you design? 

Emotional responses are absolutely central to the qualities we try and bring to the products we design. It’s something that’s hardly ever included in a brief from a client, but user frustration is where opportunities for innovation lie, however small. How a product behaves, how you interact with it physically and how easy it is to use, are fundamental to good design. These qualities are far more important than what the product looks like. You can have an amazing looking product, but if it’s frustrating to use you will quickly hate it and form opinions of the brand responsible, which can be commercial suicide. 

Where do you see the key differences between product and services innovation? 

We call ourselves product designers, but the empathy for the user is a vital trait for achieving both product and service innovation. As problem solving designers we are naturally excited by service innovation, too. Interestingly, products and services are converging and companies are going the extra mile to create more complete customer experiences covering both product and service. Products are often judged on the wider picture of the service and experience that comes with it, and great products are often an essential part of reinforcing an already fantastic piece of service design. 

Where do you see gaps in typical innovation processes? 

Marketing departments are often required to steer NPD and innovation, but the traditional marketing approach of researching groups and trends is not designed to highlight innovation opportunities themselves, only to highlight where some innovation opportunities may lie in the context of these trends. If market research were to ‘frame’ a design brief, rather than define it, then channels for innovation would be encouraged to remain open, both within a company and when using design consultants, creating structure and focus for seeding innovation through user observation workshops and other such techniques.

Where do you see the next frontier of innovation? 

As consumers become more and more design savvy, the question is, what’s next for the consumer? There will, no doubt, be a shifting tide against the rampant consumerism of the last two or three decades, and we are beginning to see this on the fringes (driven, in part, by the thriftiness that the recession has brought).  The mistake is thinking this is where we will remain. Kids are often far more aware of green issues than we are as adults, and with the gradual increase in pressure on the world’s resources brands need to find business models that rely less on consumption and perhaps more on maintenance. It’s an inevitable shift – not a question of if, but when. What will be interesting is how companies innovate to achieve the transition, and who will lead the way.

What advice would you have for corporate innovators? 

Designers have historically been brought-in once a design brief has been thoroughly worked through and established. But this limits the value a designer can bring to a project, and the effectiveness and thoroughness of the design process. The result could be a client feeling that a programme of NPD wasn’t money well spent. The problem is that en- gaging designers after most of the decisions have already been made will only ever achieve so much, and the lack of meaningful results has the knock-on effect of reducing trust in the design profession. Brands like Apple have helped raise the profile of ‘design’. It is, perhaps, not surprising how many clients say to us that they want their product to be like an Apple product. But the investment Apple makes in design is enormous, and design is used right from the start, not something that’s applied down the line. It is this approach that has made Apple so innovative and why Apple products please on so many levels. It is organisations that embrace design and give it a strong voice within the company that are the most innovative.


150Hyphen is a product design and development consultancy that is renowned for designing and engineering innovative functional products, and has worked with companies of all sizes including the likes of Ericsson, Kingfisher and Bosch.

Hyphen combines a sensitive, user-centred approach with great technical creativity to innovate complete product solutions, up to (and sometimes into) manufacturing. 

Its technical approach often appeals to organisations who want a bit more out of a design consultancy. An example is the ‘Avantix’ mobile train ticketing machine it developed with Schlumberger that is used across the entire UK rail network. Hyphen worked with both client-side and third party development teams to design the UK-made device. 

Learn more about Hyphen at


Mike Elam is a designer, product engineer and ‘ideas man’, and the Technical and Development Director of East-London based consultancy, Hyphen Design.

He has a skill for mechanical solutions that help make the physical user experience more intuitive and pleasurable, and has many patents to his name for creating such solutions for his clients. 

He also takes a keen interest in the future of product design education in the UK, is a London board director of British Design Innovation, and is exploring a personal interest in the concept of design for repair.

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