What is Innovation? (part two)

1828_bWhat do you mean by THAT?

A few years back I wrote a post called ‘What is Innovation?’ and tried to put a definition around the word.

But, hanging a definition onto something that has become such a buzzword is difficult.  By definition, any word or phrase that occurs in so many corporate mission statements starts to lose its original meaning.

The definition has expanded.  Or, contracted.  Or, diffused.  Now we feel a responsibility to define what kind of innovation we are discussion at any given time.  Is this incremental innovation? Is it breakthrough innovation?  Is it market innovation?  Is it product innovation? We are obliged define what we mean by each of those terms.

Maybe it is safer to avoid the term all together.  In the space of product and service development, what are we really talking about?

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Innovation as a Laboratory Experiment


Duncan Watts at the MIT Technology Review, recently posted an article called ‘The Scientific Method in Business.’

He argues that business is frequently run on existing data or on the instincts of its leaders, both of which have drawbacks.

Replicating the conditions of a controlled experiment is often difficult or impossible in business or policy settings, but increasingly it is being done in “field experiments,” where treatments are randomly assigned to different individuals or communities. For example, MIT’s Poverty Action Lab has conducted over 400 field experiments to better understand aid delivery, while economists have used such experiments to measure the impact of online advertising.

One application he does not mention is in the development of products and services. 

The approach designers take to their work has a lot of the scientific method in it.  A designer might not tell that they go about creating a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis against other conditions, controlling for all variables except the one in which you are interested.  They do, however, conduct a great many experiments.

We do gather understanding about a space.  We also build a set of rules or an understanding of that space.  Then we start to make guesses about what would happen if we introduced something new to that space.

We build prototypes and test them.  We make models and put them in people’s hands.  We walk through a process or a job in a new way to see how it turns out.  Then, we act on what we learn—frequently by creating new models and trying again.

Learn.  Conceive.  Create.  Test.  Go back to step one.

This is the same king of thinking Eric Reis argues for in the Lean Startup.

As Duncan Watts points out, many other kinds of business decisions do not allow the luxury of that kind of experimentation.

Maybe that is why some companies avoid it in product development as well.

Getting Quick and Dirty with Prototyping

Prototyping has a lot of uses.  Sometimes we use it to show the look and feel of a completed product, before it is actually in production.  Other times we are trying to prove a concept works.  Or, it might be a way to make a potential product seem more real to potential investors.

Mostly, we use prototyping as a learning tool.  We build things to see how users might react.  The goal is to test a concept, or an idea an interaction and move quickly to refine it, change it or scrap it.

Because we move quickly, we avoid worrying about if a technology actually works.  We usually fake any technology we can.  A screen is a piece of paper, with content printed or drawn on it.  We talk through a script of what is actually happening and pretend everything works.

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Bringing Clear Vision to 1 Billion People

Dave Volger has a great post over at Fuel Your Product Design about AdSpecs.  They’re glasses that allow you to adjust to your own prescription and lock them down permanently once you get it right.

More than half the people in the developed world use some kind of vision correction.  Glasses.  Contacts. Surgery.

We can see.  We can be productive.  We enjoy life.

Generally, glasses aren’t particularly expensive–unless you go for something really special.  But, just to get a clearer view of the world isn’t prohibitively expensive.

In the developing world, the problem isn’t so much the glasses–although the cost is great.  It’s also a startling lack of optometrists (sometimes one for well over a million people) who can figure out what correction you need to even order the glasses.

Josh Silver, saw this problem and postulated that glasses people could adjust for themselves would eliminate the need for a medical professional and bring glasses to millions that would previous just had to live with bad vision.

Here’s Josh Silver’s talk on the idea.  He’s created a foundation called Centre for Vision in the Developing World to help make his vision of bringing clearer visions to one billion people happen.

It’s a great example of an elegant solution to a problem.  Many would think the solution would be more optometrists, cheaper glasses or some other more straightforward, resource-driven solution.

Instead, Silver found a new way to deliver what people really needed, clear vision, in a way that they can do for themselves.

The Role of Storytelling in Innovation, Part 4: Putting on a Production

If customers seek great experiences, how do you deliver?  You can’t just limit yourself to thinking about the physical product, the piece of software or the service you’re trying sell.  You have to consider the whole experience.  It’s more than commerce; it is an encounter with your company.  From your side that encounter can be like a telling a story or putting on a play.  You assist in the creation of an experience that will be the basis for their opinion about your company and your product.

We’ve talked about how you can use the idea of storytelling to better understand your audience and to make it easier for your team to create products and services that your customers will actually want.

(Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

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The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 3

photo by Reinis Ivanovs, http://www.flickr.com/people/untums/

Characters. You need characters to tell a story. The more vividly drawn they are, the better. This part of the story is about understanding those characters and how that understanding can help you meet their needs.

In Part 2 of this series we talked about actively telling the story of your context. We focused on the action and what’s happening in a particular situation.

We discussed the people in this context, based mostly on what they do and how they act in the space. We called them stakeholders. Each of them has some interest in what’s happening. They won’t all be customers. Some will influence the customer or the situation, but they all still have a role to play. A part in the story.

(Rest of the series: Part 1Part 2, Part 4)

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The Role of Storytelling in Innovation: Part 2

Observing isn’t enough.  Anyone can just sit and watch a story unfold.

With innovation, we must actively tell the story.

In part 1, we discussed getting the story of the customer by being a sort of armchair  anthropologist. A few weeks ago we introduced the idea of context.  Now it’s time to get beyond the theory and talk about what we should actually do with all of those observations.

We’ve got to move from passively observing the customer’s story to actively telling it.

(Rest of the series: Part 1, Part 3Part 4)

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