If you have ever watched the ABC show Nightline, you might have seen an episode in 1999 that featured a design challenge: redesigning the shopping cart in just five days.

IDEO, the product design firm in Palo Alto, California, took up the challenge to show off its innovation process. Their job was to redesign a grocery shopping cart, which led to the now-famous ‘Shopping Cart Project’.

IDEO’s Shopping Cart Project unwittingly followed many Agile principles, despite the fact that the Agile Manifesto was still two years away from being written.

Regardless of when the project happened, it shows the most powerful Agile project management principles in action. Let’s see how…

IDEO: A brief overview

IDEO is one of the most influential design and innovation companies in the world. The company is the think tank behind innovative products such as the world’s first computer mouse, the Apple Mouse, Nike Sunglasses, NEC computer screens, and the Palm V — a sleek, handheld device. In addition to all these, even the 25-foot mechanical whale from the movie “Free Willy” is IDEO’s brainchild.

The point is that IDEO was no stranger to innovative design solutions when ABC approached them for the Shopping Cart project. But for the first time, outsiders got a peek into their Design Thinking philosophy and saw how their team came up with innovative yet practical solutions.

IDEO’s Shopping Cart Project: What was it about?

IDEO’s shopping cart project was a brilliant showcase of what design thinking can do when applied to even the smallest of challenges. Shopping carts circa 2000 suffered a slew of problems, but safety concerns were the most pressing ones.

Shopping carts during those days were typically made from hard, lightweight plastic. When caught in the wind in open lots, they could reportedly reach speeds of up to 35 mph. That’s as fast as Chicago’s “L” trains. Their design also caused as many as 22,000 child injuries every year in the US.

The main focus of the team, headed by 35-year-old Stanford graduate Peter Skillman, was to redesign the shopping carts to make them safe as well as functional.

The IDEO shopping cart project was not only a successful design challenge but also a powerful demonstration of how design thinking can be used to tackle any problem with creativity and empathy.

It showcased how design thinking can be applied to any challenge, big or small, and how it can lead to creative and innovative outcomes. But it’s how the project was managed and executed that is the focus of this piece.

Because when you look at its execution, you can easily find unmistakable glimpses of the Agile project management methodology in action.

5 Key Lessons for Agile Teams from the IDEO Shopping Cart Project

There are several parallels between IDEO’s shopping cart project and Agile project management methodology, but there are five major takeaways from the project:

1. A user-centric approach helps you understand the end users and stakeholders

IDEO’s shopping cart project shows just how crucial it is to identify pain points and opportunities for improvement. And that’s where IDEO began its project.

  • They split into groups and started by observing how people use shopping carts in different contexts, such as supermarkets, warehouses, and farmers’ markets.
  • Next, their teams interviewed shoppers, store owners, security guards, and cart collectors to understand their needs, frustrations, and expectations.
  • They also looked at how other products and services related to shopping carts, such as baskets, bags, scanners, and checkout systems.

The team’s extensive research helped them empathise with the users and define the problem more clearly. Based on their research, the IDEO team defined the main problem they wanted to solve: how to make shopping carts more convenient, safe, and enjoyable for both shoppers and store owners.

Key takeaway: Establishing empathy with end-users through understanding their problems is the groundwork for developing a useful product.

2. Embrace diversity to attack a problem from all angles

The company appointed Peter Skillman to head this project, not on the basis of seniority or because he was a technical wizard but because he was good with people. And, this extended to the group members too. The company strung together a team with a diverse range of skills.

  • They brought different perspectives and skills to the table, which enriched idea generation and the problem-solving process. Agile teams should also seek to include diverse and cross-functional members who can contribute to the project’s success.
  • IDEO welcomed different viewpoints as well as the wildest ideas and made sure to encourage creativity and innovation.
  • They created a culture that is welcoming and respectful to all team members, regardless of their individual differences.

You would think that bringing people from diverse backgrounds and different perspectives together would be a breeding ground for simmering tensions, but you would be wrong. The team members enjoyed collaborating. They met regularly and always kept the others in the loop, which is why the project ended up being a massive success.

Key takeaway: Inclusive working environments are essential for building diverse teams. Collaboration is just as critical to the success of multidisciplinary teams, such as the one IDEO used in its shopping cart project.

3. Brainstorm, experiment, and prototype extensively

Even while working under limiting time constraints, the Shopping Cart Project team didn’t hold back when brainstorming and experimenting extensively. They followed IDEO’s three innovation mantras—”Encourage wild ideas”, “Defer judgement”, and “Build on the ideas of others”—to the T.

The team used a variety of materials and methods to create low-fidelity prototypes of their ideas, such as cardboard, foam, wire, and duct tape. They tested their prototypes with real users and iterated on them based on the feedback. They also challenged themselves to create a working appearance model in four days.

Key takeaway: Fail often to succeed sooner. Agile teams should also adopt a fail-fast mentality and use prototyping tools to test their ideas early and often. This will help them validate their assumptions and learn quickly from their failures.

4 An iterative approach to design delivers the best final product

IDEO’s team did not limit themselves to the existing shopping cart design or functionality. They brainstormed hundreds of ideas for improving the shopping cart experience. These included adding wheels that can swivel 360 degrees, a collapsible frame that can fit in any car trunk, a scanner that can tally up the items and charge them automatically, and a locking mechanism that can prevent theft.

  • IDEO’s designers created prototypes of the shopping cart, tested them with users and collected feedback on what worked and what didn’t.
  • They evaluated their prototypes against criteria such as cost, feasibility, usability, and desirability.
  • They explored different possibilities and alternatives, such as making the cart more ergonomic, modular, or secure.
  • The team members welcomed constructive criticism and suggestions from each other and from the users. And the team itself was willing to change its direction or abandon its ideas if they did not work.

Based on their findings, they refined their prototypes until they had a final design that met their goals.

Key takeaway: Iterative product development based on ongoing user feedback ensures that the final product meets end-user needs. Your Agile team should also be open to new ideas and feedback and be ready to pivot or adapt when needed.

5. Collaborating with all stakeholders is vital to designing a good product

IDEO followed a human-centred design process that involved understanding the needs and behaviours of different stakeholders, generating and testing ideas, and iterating on feedback.

Some of the insights they gained from this research were:

  • Customers want carts that are easy to manoeuvre, spacious, and comfortable.
  • Store owners want carts that are durable, secure, and cost-effective.
  • Employees want carts that are easy to clean, stack, and retrieve.
  • Children want carts that are fun, safe, and engaging.

They brought all these insights together and redesigned the shopping cart. The result was a shopping cart that was functional and, at the same time, fun and delightful. It was a radical departure from the traditional carts that we all know and hate.

  • It had a scanner that could scan items and keep track of the total cost.
  • It had hooks for bags and baskets that could be detached and carried around.
  • It had large wheels that could swivel 360 degrees and a small wheel at the front that could lock when needed.
  • It also had a child seat that could fold down and become a play area for kids.

Key takeaway: Always consider the concerns and needs of all stakeholders involved. Only then can you come up with a solution that is innovative as well as successful.


The IDEO Shopping Cart project is a great example of how design thinking can solve complex problems and create value for everyone involved. It shows how important it is to empathise with your users, experiment with different ideas, and iterate based on feedback. It also shows how you can use constraints like time and budget as creative opportunities.

Ultimately, by learning from IDEO’s shopping cart project, Agile teams and Agile projects can develop innovative products and services that meet end-users’ and stakeholders’ needs, and push the boundaries of what is possible in project development.

Want to find out more about how AMO can help with your project management capability? Have a look here (https://agilemanagementoffice.com/consult/) how our team can help yours reach their full project management potential. If you want to know more, contact us on contact@agilemanagementoffice.com