Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Idea #14: Artificial Constraints and the "Wake Agent" Alarm Clock

An often valuable exercise in the ideation process is the approach of identifying products or services that have gone unchanged, questioning long-standing assumptions, and looking for opportunities for improvement. This is a common but fairly ambiguous challenge and may be too vague to instigate targeted innovative ideas. Instead, I believe the most effective way to do this is to decompose the system into a set of sub-parts,  understand how they come together and interact, and then questioning them on a part-by-part basis.

Now here's the trick... when it comes to redesigning a product or service that has gone unchanged, I suggest you prompt new ideas by creating a series of artificial constraints for each of the sub-components. For example, experiment with the sub-components by removing them, replacing them, "de-technologizing" them, resizing them, or whatever other action you would like to take to generate fresh ideas. Keep in mind, before you do this, it may be valuable to write down the high-level intent of the product to ensure that whatever innovations you design at the sub-levels do not alter the whole point of the product. 

Let me demonstrate by analyzing a common household product: the alarm clock. While you may wake up to your phone every morning like I do (highly recommend the first few bars of Karma Police for this), this doesn't mean that there is no longer a place for the trusty traditional alarm clock. So, let's just abstract out and consider the intent of the alarm clock, which is simply to "wake someone from sleep at a pre-defined time". In order to meet this intent, there will need to be a timing mechanism, an easy way to set it, and a means for waking someone up. A great deal of products have been created that utilize light, vibration, and other methods for waking sleepers up, so I'm going to try out a different direction for sake of this exercise. 

In order to instigate new perspectives, I'm going to create an artificial constraint for myself. That constraint is that the alarm clock cannot be placed on the nightstand (or next to the bed). This restriction should instigate new ideas for alterations in alarm clock form factor. Now, we move from intent to concept generation. We could come up with a range of alarm clock concepts that are built into the bed, such as flattening pillows or escaping blankets, but I would suggest avoiding the suggestion of any alarm clock concept that may risk the quality of sleep of the person during the night. With the nightstand and bed off-limits, what's next? My answer came from the sky... 

Consider a small spherical alarm concept that is about the size of a golf ball. During the night, it sits fixed in the ceiling far above you as you sleep. When the time comes for you to wake up, the alarm slowly drops down on a zip wire, like a secret ops agent dropping in for a mission. The alarm wakes you up with audio, direct light, or some combination. Since the length of the alarm drop could be pre-defined, it could drop to a close enough point where only soft audio would be necessary. Once the sleeper wakes and reaches for the alarm, it detects movement and pulls itself back up towards the ceiling. The sleeper is not able to turn the alarm off until they are sitting up in bed. Once the alarm is turned off, it returns to its original place in the ceiling to await the next day's wake-up call. Concept sketches to come...


  1. What about an alarm clock for actual Special Forces members? Has to work in the field (when the clock+user are hidden in mud or sand or swamp), can't alert anyone else, etc. Maybe a band that tightens on your arm? (probably shouldn't be wrist in case you are sleeping with a gun)...

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  3. Love it. This whole ideation process is so interesting. I'm assuming that you probably read "special ops alarm clock" and it generated a completely different product concept in your head based on your experiences. I bet your idea could even be used as a haptic communication mechanism as well, right? It could signal basic commands, like "stop", "go", and of course "wake up" as you said.