Designing the New: Lessons in Building New-Category Products

Session Title

Designing the New: Lessons in Building New-Category Products


Robert Barlow-Busch, Mark Connolly, Primal Fusion

Session Type: Demo

Designers are EXCELLENT at finding flaws. Want some proof? Ask anyone who has posted their work to the IxDA discussion list, and they’ll have some battle scars to show. Indeed, we can be a critical bunch. But it’s a designer’s job to spot flaws and respond with solutions. We get a lot of practice with design critiques.

Occasionally, though, we’re faced with challenges that force us to exercise our design muscles in unfamiliar ways. For example: being asked to design a legitimately new, truly unique product or service. Something that nobody would mistake as an improvement upon existing products. Something that pioneers a new market. That has no competition to learn from. Yet simultaneously, it must be something that people desperately want, but didn’t know they needed.

Sound like fun? It certainly is! Sound like a tough challenge? Well, that too. In this demonstration, the design team from Primal Fusion will share our experience in facing this challenge head-on. We’ll discuss:

- How new-category product design demands a different and sometimes counter-intuitive mindset.
- How Clayton Christensen’s theories about “disruptive innovation” can guide design strategy.
- How your definition of “good enough” may need to drop to an uncomfortable level.
- How to define constraints and guideposts that keep you on strategy.

We’ll illustrate these ideas through demonstrations of Primal Fusion’s new-category products for “thought networking”. Thought networking enables people to express abstract ideas in concrete, machine-readable forms that computers can act upon. It’s a big idea and a great design challenge — so we’ve learned some lessons on how to imagine, design, and build new-category products.


Robert is Director of Product Design at Primal Fusion, a semantic technology company in Waterloo, Canada. Robert’s thoughts about leveraging user research to drive product design have been published in books such as “User-Centered Design Stories” and “The Persona Lifecycle”. He co-founded IxDA Waterloo and is an experienced speaker, having presented at conferences across North America, Europe, and Asia. You’ll find him online at or as @becubed on Twitter.

Co-presenting is Mark Connolly, a user experience designer who is also Director of Application Development at Primal Fusion. He has previously created the user experience for products at Platform Computing and Maptuit Corporation. Prior to that, Mark was a partner in Convivia Interaction Design, a consultancy with a wide range of clients. Mark thinks there are few careers that are more rewarding than designing cool products and putting them out in the world.


  1. Posted September 16, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Great idea Bob! Definitely will be a unique offering. I know this is classed as a demo, but i think an interesting aspect of this would be to show the iterations and focus on the failures along the way as a backdrop to where you netted out. I’m looking into attending now… see what you’ve done?! :P

  2. Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Drew. We definitely intend to show iterations along the way. This session will be approx one part demo and one part lessons learned; we’ll use the demo to illustrate our challenges and drive home some key points about new product design in general.

  3. Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    FYI that, for further background, you can watch a video of a product we’re likely to demonstrate in this session. Here you’ll see me onstage at DEMO, along with Peter Sweeney (our founder), launching Primal Fusion’s “thought networking” alpha.

  4. Posted October 1, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Robert, the opportunity to create something truly new and unique is something that we dream of doing. One of the reasons that these opportunities are rare is that they are fraught with risk.

    How does one distinguish between a new-category product vs. a fool’s errand? Where does research and design enter into that calculation? They are questions I didn’t see addressed or answered in the proposal.