The Moment of Innovation

Joshua Porter

February 16th, 2006

There is a point in every project, whether you’re working on software, a web site, or a physical product, when you’re not sure what to do next. Either you haven’t done user research, the user research you have done is limited, or you’re not sure exactly what the problem is. This is the moment of innovation, a moment in which the possibility exists to enact change that will help solve your user’s problems by moving beyond what you currently know.

One way to help alleviate our frustration at this moment is to look to other designers for the answer. If you’re working on a web site, for example, you might go look at your competitors and see what they’re up to. How did they solve it? Does their method seem better or worse than the one you’re considering? Would it be wise to simply assume that they figured out the best way to solve it and do something similar?

In research this is akin to a “product review”, and if done cautiously, can save a lot of time and frustration. For example, we’ve done in-depth competitive analyses on top e-commerce web sites where we look at how competing sites solved similar problems: like helping users find that perfect laptop, for example. When we present our findings, we make sure that our road to recommendations was based on how the sites actually performed, not on what site had what cool feature.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to take a different route at the moment of innovation. Many times, when the answer is not clear and doing research seems daunting, we see “feature grabbing”, a technique where you simply grab features that others have used because they seem like a good idea.

But it’s not always a good idea to feature grab. First of all, you can’t be sure that the feature even works. Just because a competitor has a feature doesn’t mean you should have it too. We’ve seen many cases where features that were copied directly failed to work, and it wasn’t because they weren’t copied faithfully, it was because they weren’t addressing the actual problem.

This idea was captured perfectly in an interview of Dean Kamen I read recently in Make magazine. (subscription required ;( ). Dean is one of the greatest inventors of our time and his company, Deka, is right up the street in Manchester, NH. You may have heard of their much-hyped Segway Human Transporter, their dialysis machine, or their current incarnation of the Stirling engine.

In the following excerpt, Dean talks about how, when they were designing their personal mobility device called the IBOT, they realized that if they did all their research on the existing solution (the wheelchair), then their solution would look and act too much like a wheelchair. This was undesirable because the actual problem was something that a wheelchair doesn’t readily solve. I love his simple and straightforward philosophy on design:

“I try to understand the basic laws of nature. Beyond this, I do very little research as to what the product should be. You would never get the iBOT by doing research on wheelchairs. If you do “product research,” the product that you end up with will be similar to what already exists. For example, if you went out to people who make wheelchairs and said, “I want to make the next great improvement,” they would typically conduct focus groups with people who use wheelchairs. And these wheelchair users, operating within the context of their existing wheelchairs, might ask for things like a new cup holder. They saw a great cup holder in a minivan and realized that their wheelchair didn’t have one. So they ask for a cup holder, or some other incremental improvement. You have to start with basic question: if this person is now missing this amount of functionality, is there some alternative to a wheelchar that is both dramatically better and not prohibited by the laws of physics and the current state of engineering and technology?

“Focusing on the problem in this fundamental way allowed us to understand that wheelchair users need to have the same small footprint on the ground as you and I so they can navigate around areas and obstacles as we do. They need to have their eyes and hands at the same level as a standing person, so they can see over counters and get things down from shelves. They need to be able to get water out of a faucet. And so on. In order to achieve any of these things, we looked a how fully functioning humans do it. They do it by being dynamically stable – by constantly adjusting themselves to maintain balance. Balance is a preprequisite condition to living in a world that is architected by people who walk around balancing themselves. So we decided to forget about wheelchairs and focus on the real problem. The real problem isn’t locomotion – wheels solve that problem fine. The real problem is that these people typically lost their ability to move around while also physically elevating themselves within a small footprint, which requires dynamic stability. Solving this problem would dramatically improve their lives.”

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