Making Magic: Is There a Trick to Really Good Innovation?

As a designer, I frequently deconstruct products in my mind.  Why this particular material or manufacturing process? Why this color? Did they do studies to decide how big or small it should be? How much time did they spend actually studying the end user?

As a designer, it’s also necessary to shut some of this off and stop looking behind the curtain from time to time.

I don’t always care how the products and services I use create the experience I have with them. I’m more concerned about how well they actually deliver.

Engineers and marketers want to create assurance in my mind that their products and services will work as advertised by trying to explain their features to me. But knowing what “type” of memory chip is in my phone or from what alloy the handle of my ice cream scoop is forged probably won’t impact my experiences using them.

I just want my phone to work instantly and reliably and my ice cream scoop to allow me to effortlessly produce uniform and delicious spheres of rocky road.

When we make, we can get caught up in materials and tools.  If you’re building a deck, you might spend countless hours evaluating the benefits of synthetics versus pressure-treated wood. But, regardless of the material you ultimately chose, what you’re really seeking is an inviting place to have a cool glass of iced tea and watch the kids chase each other around the yard.

It’s not that the technology isn’t important; it’s only a means to an end.  The bulleted list of features and technologies you’re cramming into your next product are not THE PRODUCT.  Or at least, they shouldn’t be.

If a product is just the sum of the features you pile onto it, you’ve really missed out. Customers will read that list, but not the same way you do. Sure it might give them peace of mind that the product will do what it’s supposed to, but they’ll have to become an expert before they truly know if that X47 Drop Technology actually makes the widget run and, if so, if it’s better or faster.

In fact, I’d argue that you want the features to disappear.  If how your product accomplishes its task becomes invisible, sublimated to the amazing experience your customer is able to have, then you’re following what science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke referred to as the “Third Law:”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Think about it–magicians don’t spend their time describing how they did the slight of hand that amazed you, or talk about the well-designed trap door with which the beautiful assistant was able to disappear.

They do exactly the opposite. They do everything they can to distract you from the illusion and instead pull you into the experience. They’re doing their job if they can keep you in the moment.

Think about a hammer. If it’s doing its job, you don’t ever have to think about it.  You focus on driving the next nail and the one after that and how close you are to completing that new deck.

It’s only when the hammer isn’t enabling you to drive those nails that you actually notice it.

“I’m getting a blister on my hand from this poorly shaped handle.”

 “It’s out of balance and I keep bending nails.”

That’s not the kind of attention you want.  When people grumble about using a new word processing software application, it means it has intruded on their work.  They’re trying to get their thoughts down, but instead they’re fighting with how to format a bulleted list.

Maybe the developer thought it was important to give the user 23 formats for bulleted lists and 16 ways to space them and 87 ways to indent. But the user just wants his or her list—not an overly complicated interface.

Your job is to help your customer create the experience they want to have.  And they don’t care if you do it through nanoparticle plasma laser technology or by magic—as long as they’re able to get the job done without bending too many nails.

– Tom Kubilius is the founder of Bright Innovation and adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in the Master of Product Development program.

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