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Results-Oriented Innovation

Phil Heywood

This is the third part in a series where we'll be looking at the role design plays in creating digital experiences that have a positive impact on both business and customer.

For many, creating something 'innovative' is the holy grail in terms of achieving success in business. If I create something new, it will give me an edge over my competitors.

This is true, but only sometimes. There are many examples where new and ingenious ideas have failed to find an audience: the Sinclair C5 and the Segway are two famous instances of novel engineering solutions that, in the end, didn't do enough to appeal to potential buyers. 

Technically they were clever and they were certainly both new and different. But commercially they were a failure. Why? Because they were expensive, unattractive solutions for a poorly-defined problem.

Does history regard the C5 and Segway as innovative? I would argue no, because they didn't fulfil their basic objectives of changing the shape of personal transportation. Our streets are still bustling with pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Nobody is trundling along on a Segway.

Interestingly, what has changed recently in this area is the proliferation of electric scooters. Arguably the only things they can't do that a Segway can is stand up on their own and go backwards. If only those two things were the Segway's innovations, then maybe it was always doomed to fail.

Real innovation

If we were to think big, we'd define true innovation as something that changes the world. There are plenty of examples of this, dating back to the earliest tools and the ability to make fire. Computers and the internet are obvious modern touchstones.

Some innovation is accidental. The post-it note was famously invented when a scientist's new super-strong adhesive turned out to be only slightly tacky. But if you're simply waiting for lightning to strike, there's no guarantee that it ever will.

On the flip side, making a conscious, planned effort to be innovative is a bit like making a conscious, planned effort to win the lottery. You can try, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen.

But it is possible to make a conscious, planned effort to solve a problem, and most—if not all—innovation starts there.

Does the wheel need reinventing?

As I talked about in my last article, a lot of what how we design digital products falls back to convention: tropes and behaviours that people are comfortable with and instinctively know how to use.

Merely approaching a design task with the goal of making something different is not innovating, especially if different ends up being worse. But if we're able to identify a problem with something we consider to be conventional, and make the necessary improvements, that's where innovation can begin.

Those problems, and the improvements we make, have to be real and not merely imagined. This requires careful research to discover if there's a market for the idea, and testing to see if it works. If it does both, and it's different to anything else on the market, then you're innovating.

The power of unexpected value

Going back to the example of the post-it note: the 3M scientist in question, Dr Spencer Silver, had a specific goal—invent a very sticky adhesive—which didn't come out at all as he expected. The notable point in his story is not that he failed: this happens all the time. It's that he recognised what he had as an opportunity that he was able to turn into a product that's sold millions of units. We don't know what his business aspirations were for his super glue, but I doubt he ended up disappointed. 

Unexpected value happens when we're focused on designing a solution, and find ourselves thinking in ways that go beyond the original challenge into uncharted territory. It's often serendipity at play, but serendipity fostered when we create the right conditions.

Don't fail to innovate; succeed in solving problems

The whole point about unexpected value it that it's, well, unexpected. If your goal is simply to innovate, you're more likely to fail than succeed.

But if your goal is to solve a problem, that's much more realistic and achievable. The opportunity is then to approach that problem with a laser focus and an open mind. 

A trick I use is to express a challenge as a "How might we..?" statement that really captures the change we're trying to achieve.

-  How might we give more homeless people shelter overnight?

-  How might we make public transport more attractive than driving cars?

-  How might we get more people to visit our website?

-  How might we increase the amount people donate to our charity?

-  How might we encourage more people to share our products on social media?

These challenges can be large or small, but they invite anyone to come up with answers without limiting their thinking. Even if your project is digital in nature, some of the best solutions may lie elsewhere (and vice versa of course).

This approach provides fertile ground for that elusive 'eureka!' moment, when you, or someone in your team says "What if we..." and the idea turns out to be perfect.

What if that perfect idea isn't innovative? No matter, you've solved the problem. If it is, then make sure to write it down on a post-it note.

Coming up

More people use digital products in their everyday lives than ever, but that doesn't mean they trust them. How can we create digital experiences that overcome the trust barrier, and encourage people to do business with you?


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