I'll be honest with you, the word "innovation" makes me cringe. It's not innovation itself that makes me shudder, but rather, the frequent misuse of the word. Since true innovation offers growth, profit, and the opportunity to stand out from the competition, it only makes sense that brands are so tempted to integrate this word into their marketing. For the sake of this discussion, let's ignore the use of "innovation" as an empty buzzword and focus on real innovation.
Merriam-Webster defines innovation as, "the introduction of something new." I agree with this definition, but it's a bit vague so I'd expand on it to say,
Innovation is a new, valuable solution to a meaningful problem.
Innovation requires new ideas that present desirable solutions to your customer. So how do we repeatedly and dependably innovate? The answer lies in how we cultivate these new ideas.
Over the years, I've worked alongside a wide variety of product development teams, giving me the opportunity to witness many different approaches to generating new ideas. Let's take a look at the three most common approaches I've seen and discuss their contribution to repeatable innovation:
This approach typically looks like a wall covered with ideas on post-it notes. Kicked off by a design brief, the project team brainstorms, sketches, and/or builds mock-ups to exhaust all possible ideas to satisfy the brief that they've been given.
While this is an extremely helpful effort later in the development process, this should not be the foundation of innovation. This approach is like throwing darts at a dartboard. Yes, there is a chance that you might hit the bulls-eye, but it usually requires a multitude of tries, sometimes even missing the board altogether. This approach is unguided by the user's perspective and consumes a lot of wasted effort when a focused, more dependable method exists.
This approach often begins with a designer saying, "Ooh, I have an idea!" The designer pulls from the collection of information in his own head. Once the idea has been fully formed, it's then presented to the user for validation.
Sure, a seasoned designer's intuition has been honed and strengthened with every project under his belt, but unless the designer matches your end user's persona, he will be making assumptions on their behalf. Assumptions are a gamble and should be replaced with research whenever possible. It is true, this method has been the source of many game-changing innovations, but it's risky and if we're talking about how to repeatedly and dependably innovate, why not let the judge (your customer) be our guide?
Hunt for Insights
This approach often begins with observing a user's behaviors and actions in the context of their environment. The team might also conduct interviews and surveys to collect information about the user's aspirations and preferences. The goal with this approach is to gain a deep understanding of the end user to reveal unmet needs or wants and subsequently highlight new opportunities. By connecting the dots in the data from user research, the team may draw insights on innovative ways to provide value to the end user.
All three of these approaches may benefit the product development process, but "Hunting for Insights" is the only approach to repeatedly produce new ideas for innovations that your customer desires. By involving the user at the very beginning of our process, before an idea has even been formed, we see opportunities that would add value to their world. A genuine understanding of THEIR experience paired with OUR ability to connect the dots between the data, produces an insight.
An insight is an uncovered truth about your customer's feelings or behaviors that presents an opportunity to satisfy their needs or wants better than has been done before.
In simpler words, an insight is that "Aha!" moment."
To boost dependability and develop a repeatable process, I suggest we let insights be the bedrock of our innovation efforts. When these insights stem from a deep understanding of your user, we can be confident that the user will find our innovations both valuable and desirable.