Meetings By Design

Cisco Spark Board just won Red Dot’s Best of the Best Award for “extraordinary, innovative design.” This is one of the world’s top design honors, and I could not be more proud of our team. Cisco won four more Red Dot Awards today, for Cisco Spark Room Kit and other tech components from the Cisco Spark family

Companies like CoBuilder, and Signa are telling us that the Cisco Spark Board has transformed the way their teams work together, and I know of two companies that have bought more than 80 Cisco Spark Boards a piece for a single office space. Verizon has called Cisco Spark Board the “next evolution in cloud-based collaboration” and plans to roll them out to customers and employees worldwide.

Frankly, this is the real reward — people love this product.

We built Cisco Spark Board to radically improve what is an often miserable business process: holding a meeting.  The Cisco Spark Board is a simple, all-in-one display that works as an electronic whiteboard, a wireless presentation screen, and a video-conferencing system. Like many great industrial design achievements, it’s simple on the surface, with a lot of innovation under the skin. That’s what it takes to turn the too-often painful meeting experience into a magical one. Cisco Spark Board was chosen among the 5,500 Red Dot entries and is validation of how hard we worked toward that goal.

Taking the Panic out of Meetings

When we first sat down to plan how we wanted the product to feel, it was the stressed-out team member who has to run their team meeting that we were thinking about — not the IT manager who installed the product. We wanted anyone to be able to walk into a room with a Cisco Spark Board, and having never used it before, immediately know which icons to touch on the screen, quickly conference in other attendees, and share their computer screen – in 90 seconds, tops. Without help or support from IT.

Nobody is happy when a meeting can’t start because someone has to spend 20 minutes getting the screen-sharing or conferencing set up. We set out to fix that. And we did.

People entering the workforce today also should expect that their work communication tools are easy to use and empowering – as much as the social tools they use with their friends and family.

And we wanted the Cisco Spark Board to keep getting better, for everyone. We made it self-updating, like Teslas and iPhones, so we could keep it current as we learned more about what people were doing with it. Today’s workers expect this, and rightfully so. The era of static products is ending.

For us, all these changes from our standard product development model meant building a meeting-room technology platform from scratch – hardware, applications, cameras, the stylus, the operating system, everything. Even the sales model and pricing structure.

We took a big risk with this approach. One of the biggest was the integration challenge (some would say outright competition) with our existing product lines that have happy users and robust sales pipelines already. At Cisco, we’re accustomed to supporting multiple generations of products, and we’ve lived through several technological tectonic shifts. Even so, the Cisco Spark Board would be radically new and different for us.

That meant we needed a new kind of team. I have learned the hard way that how you build a design team is the most important part of making a breakthrough product.

Shipping the Org Chart

Cisco is a huge company with tens of thousands skilled and devoted people. But we didn’t want to put our standard corporate team on this project, even though we had all these great resources at hand. Single-purpose teams are faster and more nimble.

 Products tend to reflect their creators. If you have a complex, bureaucratic development structure, it is easy to build a product that mirrors that. And we wanted the product to work for small teams. That meant we needed a small group to create it.

So we did ship the org chart. But it was a great org chart, because we built it from scratch.

A select team of people, from across Cisco’s disciplines, came up with its own ways to build a meeting room product focused on the end user first. That might not sound revolutionary today, when consumer products are infiltrating the enterprise, but Cisco’s traditional customers have always been IT professionals, not end users.

The team built the Cisco Spark Board with the idea that we would “sell” it to the end user office worker, even though it was Cisco’s paying customers, IT teams, who would actually buy it. (That said, IT requirements, like industry-leading security, performance, and manageability were table stakes for the product. This is Cisco, after all.)

The design and development team, physically separated from the bulk of the company, built a new industrial design, a new software architecture, and new low-level code and apps to bring it all together. And did it in a fraction of the time a ground-up project would take using our standard process.  If you want a small team to succeed, you absolutely must reduce dependencies on larger teams with different goals. It’s not that established teams can’t be good, it’s just that they often serve different masters.

The entire Cisco Spark project, including the Cisco Spark messaging app, the Cisco Spark Board, and more products to come, is our offering to the millions of workers that don’t have the advantage of a company-supported modern communication system, and those that have to use conference rooms that have technology from the 1980s, if they have any at all.

The Red Dot Award we won for this product isn’t just a validation of the Cisco Spark Board’s beautifully-designed hardware and its magical ease of use – it is also recognizing that for us, great design came from a great team and great teamwork. Getting that right is the best way to get products that work, look amazing, and are fun to use. And we’re just getting started.

I highly encourage you to view this interview with Cisco Spark Board’s lead designer, Torkel Mellingen. It’s an awesome insider’s view of the design process and this team that I’m so proud to lead.



Rowan Trollope

Senior Vice President and General Manager

IoT and Collaboration Technology Group