Innovation: The Next Big Thing.
Everyone wants it, few understand it, and the world’s successful businesses are built on it. The entire tech industry (and to a large extent the creative design agencies that serve them) are singularly focused on achieving innovation at a ceaseless pace. But if you take a deeper look into this industry buzzword, maybe there is less here than meets the eye. Sometimes companies, in searching for some unique way to differentiate from competitors, rely on “innovation” to the detriment of what their market is really yearning for. Just because The Next Best Thing improves upon certain metrics, a market success is in no way guaranteed.
There are plenty of examples of this in the marketplace of products on parade around us every day. My favorite is that scourge of bike lanes and bike paths everywhere: the recumbent bike. This invention possesses significant advantages over other modes of human-powered transport: much-improved aerodynamics, increased bio-mechanical leverage, reduced butt-pain, etc. Its low-slung form is uniquely architected for maximum efficiency, but apparently the only target demographic this appeals to is middle-aged, bearded science teachers. Conceived to drive a nail into the coffins of more standard upright-bikes, with each turn of their calorically-efficient cranks recumbent bikes instead draw smirks and jeers. A gaping hole exists in their value proposition that is obvious to almost everyone on the planet. Despite the undisputed innovation they represents, recumbent bikes will never threaten the standard bike configuration.
What? Something that is unquestionably innovative and improved, and also completely unsuccessful? How can such a disconnect exist?
The Answer: We happened. The Innovators.
The global community of tinkerers, inventors, engineers, designers, strategists, and entrepreneurs: all share a part of the blame as we constantly seek to improve the world around us. Improving the world is a noble goal, which should ever be our constant purpose. But when the only tool you have is a hammer, all the world’s problems start to look like a bunch of nails. And no one has swung that hammer more wildly, with as much bravado, and quite frankly with a considerable amount of upper body strength, then have we, The Innovators.
It begins during our careers in the creative field. We gain a certain prowess in challenging the norm. We collaborate with the specific charter to “think out of the box”. We see the rewards reaped by opening up new markets, or up-ending existing ones. Of all the hats creative professionals wear, we begin to see that the big shiny yellow hardhat labeled “Innovator” gets A LOT of attention. True to human nature, we start to wear it all the time: out to dinner, into bed, out shopping, and (here’s where the trouble starts) with our hobbies.
We might be out in the backyard tending to the grill, or paddling out on a surfboard. Perhaps we’re in the middle of a ripping guitar solo, or we’re one of the hapless bicyclists cruising down the boardwalk. Then because we forgot to take off our Innovator hardhat when we got home, we go to work on this unsuspecting little hobby we derive so much joy from and treat it like a design project. How can it be improved? How can we bring more technology to it? Is there a way to optimize the user experience? What about applying that new material I heard about the other day? Or a touchscreen LCD display, people like those! The seed of potentially mis-placed Innovation has been planted.
Depending on the industriousness of the Innovator, the idea marches on: right through development, funding, and into production. Because the ideas are (by definition of what we do) innovative, they get a lot of buzz. Design blogs, company portfolios, business/tech magazines, and design awards extol the innovators’ virtues and cleverness. “Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? It’s obviously so much better!” Except the growing pile of industry accolades becomes eventually dwarfed by the adjacent pile no one wants to talk about: the pile of “But no one’s buying it”.
One main reason no one’s buying it is because there are product categories that react positively to innovation, and ones that react negatively. Each category is different, and must be assessed on its own merits, but it is a simple, unavoidable fact. This is why the classic Fender Strat has, far and away, been the best-selling guitar since its invention last century. Or why Coke routinely trounces Pepsi and the myriad other canned beverages. Or despite Taco Bell’s latest Avengers XXL Triple Beef CrunchWrap Supreme, most people just come in for a regular taco or burrito. This is a category’s receptivity to innovation.
(Another barrier to the success of an innovation is the misalignment of a value proposition. Is solving the milk-to-cereal ratio really of any interest to people? Or does Dyson’s Air Multiplier and its promise to “reduce the unpleasant buffeting of normal fans” really something that is foremost on the target markets’ mind? More on these examples in another installment.)
Receptivity to innovation has to do with the nature of the activity, and the mindset of the users in that field. In examples used previously there is a serious disconnect between what the Innovators offer, and what those consumers truly want. Often the misstep is to force modern technology into the category: large internet-connected color LCD displays on refrigerators. Barbeques with digital readout displays. Or to use new materials, processes or architectures enabled by modern technology, as in guitars that radically re-architect the form but sacrifice acoustics. Or introducing completely new interactions or postures that make the user look ridiculous, as does the recumbent bike (and some would argue, the Segway). Some recent examples of high-tech surfboards have been featured in the design/tech blogosphere recently: new innovative forms that promise to revolutionize the sport, or the addition of high-tech telemetry to track every carve and barrel. For very specific product categories, few (i.e. none) of these technological advancements ever catch on.
But we Innovators are mute to that discordant note. We’ve worn the Innovation helmet for so long, we can’t fathom the notion of taking it off. It was this rush-to-innovate that compelled Coco Chanel to declare: “Innovation! One cannot be forever innovating. I want to create classics.” She was tired of the constant barrage from the fashion community of always evolving, always creating The Next Big Thing, never having the time to perfect what already existed, to return to the roots of meaning, to the core principles.
With regards to the aforementioned surfboard examples, I took an informal poll with several life-long surfers. Their responses captured their disdain perfectly: “Surfing isn’t about the technology, or the board…it’s just the wave and the person, the soul…” So it’s no surprise then that for some categories, adding Bluetooth or Wi-Fi or carbon fiber is a giant step in exactly the wrong direction. How many times have we seen a vintage car roll by, and either exclaimed ourselves or heard from all those around us: “why can’t they just make them like that anymore?”
To be specific, I believe those more “soul-centric” categories are: the culinary arts (and their consumption), wine & spirits, musical instruments, surfing/skateboarding/snowboarding, motorcycling, automobiles, children’s toys, teaching & teaching aids, outdoors/camping/hiking/birding/fishing, pets, gardening, fine arts and crafts, the performing arts, reading, fashion, and sex. There are probably many others, but is it a coincidence that these are also the most joyful, exhilarating, and desirable activities in life? No.
Now we all know there are some definite categories that LOVE innovation. Consumer electronics (for one) is driven by two critical factors: that the next technological leap will vastly improve your information-consuming life, and conversely that that leap will very quickly be out-dated by an even more fantastic version, propelling the cycle forward. In the athletic category, tennis, running, cycling, and skiing are other ones: for 25 years, since the introduction of composite materials, these categories have constantly chased new material and structural innovations and spawned years of rabid purchasing and re-purchasing of the same, marginally-improved gear. Also in Aviation, although most commercial planes have settled on a few tried and true forms, there continue to be incredible new advances from the likes of Lockheed’s Skunkworks, Burt Rutan, Aerovironment, and SpaceX.
These examples are well-known, and create a constant pool of clientele for us Innovators to partner with. However, the anti-innovation categories are equally compelling, lucrative, and enjoyable to work in, but require a completely different mindset from what most creative professionals are used to employing. And we’ve come to the point when the needs of those categories cannot be ignored, for these categories we must put aside our Innovator hat.
So what to do when we find ourselves in one of these counter-intuitive categories? What do these finicky “niche” users want? If we don’t reach for the Innovation hat, which one do we grab? It turns out it’s a hat that doesn’t get much attention, it may have quite a thick layer of dust on it. Listen to Coco, because Coco had it right all along. She’s telling us exactly how to proceed, and it’s a completely opposite approach, process, and mindset from how we’ve practiced design and product development in almost every other circumstance.
Listen to Coco: Coco knows the power of Classics.