Innovation is all about iteration and refinement

February 23, 2011

There’s a popular belief that innovation can only come straight from the mind of a genius. After the article User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea has been published some people have taken it as proof that processes like User Centric Design (UCD) stand in way of innovation. I’ve spoken to my colleagues designers, developers and managers and it seems as if many (but not all, luckily) agree with this belief.

I believe this is wrong.

First and foremost, I think many people don’t understand what innovation is. Innovation is not just something that is new, more creative and radically different. Rather, it is something that is better, something that has proven its worth for the people. If you invent something new, that is just an invention. If your invention is accepted and used by people, that’s an innovation. Lightbulb, for instance, is an innovation. We know that because it changed lives of generations for the better.

Innovation doesn’t come straight from a mind of a genius. Something new, creative and different might be a consequence of one brilliant moment of enlightenment. That’s an invention. But to create an invention that is useful and that makes sense, one would need to evaluate and refine many different concepts. Some of them completely crazy. Most of them completely wrong. But we know which ones to dismiss and which one to refine only through iterations of trials and errors. Lightbulb, that I mentioned before became a useful invention only after 10,000 iterations.

Then there’s a huge and important misconception about the UCD process. The misconception is that UCD, by focusing on users, forces designers to answer their wishes, stifles creativity and limits their ability to create something substantially different. UCD does focus on users, but it focuses on recognition of their needs, limitations, tasks, and goals. It’s about understanding people which will help designers make the right decisions. It isn’t about what people want – it is well known that people can’t tell you what they want. Rather, it’s about what designers want to make in order to meet users’ needs or create something new and unimaginable for users.

Can you really make something better for the people if you don’t understand them? Not listen to them as the article says, but understand them. Can you increase value for them if you are unaware of their goals? Can you predict the future if you don’t know the past or presence? Highly unlikely. An innovation might be a sparkle in a mind of a genius, but I would argue that innovation is a consequence of a very hard, iterative process.

Let's discuss this on twitter.

22 Comments

  • Neo (February 23, 2011)

    Totally agree, it’s not until an invention is accepted as a norm does it become an innovation. For something to become a norm it needs to be tested, trialed and improved(iterated) until it meets a basic need(well). I’m sure there were MP3 players before the iPod, MP3 stores before iTunes. The 2 innovations were successful iterations of existing technology.

  • Alex (February 23, 2011)

    Hi Janko,

    I pretty much agree with you!

    As a coincidence I just published (few minutes ago) an article about Design Thinking (and its connection to the German Bauhaus). So if you’re able to understand written German, feel free to have a look! :) – actually there are some parts in English, too!

    => http://post.ly/1ezwV

    PS: I like how you differentiate between innovation and invention as it gave kind of an aha-effect!

    Cheers,
    – Alex

  • James Fenton (February 23, 2011)

    An excellent and timely post Janko. Thank you.

    Learning about users needs, is almost certainly key to creating an innovative product. Whilst it is important to give users a unique visually pleasing design (if simply to differentiate it from the competition), real engagement comes from meaningful interaction and delivery of useful content.

  • Janko (February 23, 2011)

    True. There were 4 version of iPod until it became a really great product.

  • Janko (February 23, 2011)

    Well, I know a few words, but I will consult Google Translate if I’m stuck ;)

  • Janko (February 23, 2011)

    I truly believe that understanding users, in its broadest sense, is the key to any successful product. An innovative one as well.

  • Alex (February 23, 2011)

    *yeah* :)

  • Emil (February 25, 2011)

    They are confusing asking user feedback about a product which does not exist with determining what users need before investing in the R&D of a product.

    Some of those innovations are so obvious that the companies do not need to ask the users. Would you like a small "walkman" where you can save and listed to all 5000 of your pirated mp3s?

    How about a desk that looks as good as the one you just purchased, but is 10 times cheaper.

  • Anneka Mistry (March 29, 2011)

    In design, innovation is a norm, the development of an initial idea or existing design into something much more usable, pleasing to the eye and of course the reason we design, to meet the users criteria. I agree with Janko that trying to predict or foresee what a user wants is impossible when they themselves do not know what they want. But as designers we can take a small piece of feedback and turn it to an innovation, something that the user can appreciate more and fulfil their needs and more.

  • Sam Beckham (April 25, 2011)

    To innovate is to "make changes in something established, esp. by introducing new methods, ideas, or products" You need to listen to what your audience wants in order to create something truly innovative.

  • Chris Mosely (April 26, 2011)

    I don’t appreciate getting emails updating me on spammy comments when my well written carefully considered comment in an area in which I’m an expert of sorts is just deleted. If you’re just looking for pats on the back like the comments you’ve got here(that all sound ridiculous by the way) then you should have a disclaimer stating that you’re not really interested in any serious debate, just spammy nonsense comments.

  • Janko (April 26, 2011)

    Hey Chris, I am really sorry for the fact that your comment has been lost and for the notifications you receive. I am constantly getting a lot of spam and I am trying to find a best way to handle it. I obviously failed to find the good solution. Notifications on spammy comments shouldn’t be sent and I will check what the problem is.

    Once again, I am sorry and please feel free to leave your opinion on the article, as I would love to hear it.

  • Tim Barker (April 26, 2011)

    You know, I think I am in the same boat as Chris Mosely, It seems that my comments have been deleted too. I am not suggesting that I am an expert though, but I was trying to take part in a discussion on a subject that I was interested in.

    Furthermore, I added two posts, which I cannot see how they were deemed "spam". Of course, Janko has the right to delete them. I have to agree with Chris though, that it is a little unfortunate to get update emails and my comments aren’t there because they are considered spammy.

  • Janko (April 26, 2011)

    Please take my apologies for the comment deletion. I’ve never deleted any comment but rather only approve the ones that are not spam. This is why I don’t know what is wrong with the BlogEngine, but I am trying to determine the cause for this (and for spam notification), and will do my best to restore the comments.

    If I don’t succeed, I would like to ask you to join the discussion again as I really appreciate each meaningful comment on this blog.

  • webton webdesign (June 7, 2011)

    Thanx for sharing this. An excellent and timely post Janko!

  • Web Dizajn Studio (July 4, 2011)

    [quote]It’s about what designers want to make in order to meet users’ needs or create something new and unimaginable for users.[/quote]

    IMO, this is 100% true. And yes, we can’t predict the future needs and wishes of our clients if we don’t know the what they exactly need now.

    But, this point of view can be wrong.

    Henry Ford, founder of Ford Corporation: If I asked my customers what they need, they would told me, just a faster horse.
    Luckily for us, he decided not to listen and now we have cars.

    Anyway, thanks for very nice post. :]

  • Janko (July 4, 2011)

    Henry Ford was right. However, there is a substantial difference between asking people what they want and observing them. Understanding their wishes can take you only so far, but insights into what, why, when or how they do what they do are invaluable.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Ron Clabo (July 15, 2011)

    Janko – I totally agree. Solution design must start with the problem in mind. Designers & developers must be fluent in the issues and concerns of the end user if they are to use their many skills to design an innovative solution.

    I think you draw an important distinction that many miss. Seeking out user input isn’t about the designer becoming a puppet to user demands, only creating what the user specifically asks for. No, seeking input is about understanding the real wants and needs of the user so that the designer is armed with the crucial information necessary to design a solution that delights the user and causes them to exclaim "Wow, that’s awesome! That’s a better solution than I could have ever imagined!"

  • Gabi from portrait drawings (July 19, 2011)

    "Rather, it is something that is better, something that has proven its worth for the people"
    As Neo points out, innovation means you take something that already exists and make it better, you optimize it, you improve it.
    "Lightbulb, that I mentioned before became a useful invention only after 10,000 iterations."
    Uhm yeah.. thats just because Edison was so stubborn and never cared for doing his math, as Tesla points out.
    "Can you really make something better for the people if you don’t understand them?"
    Obviously if you don’t understand their needs you can not improve the product. I would go even further and say if you don’t understand the product you are trying to improve and what is it about it that needs improved then you have no clue of what you’re doing. Just like trying to make the iPod a better tool without knowing what the iPod does.

  • Jason (July 27, 2011)

    I can only agree with you.

  • Alex (July 28, 2011)

    Would like to give @Ron Clabo a LIKE, +1 or something similar! :)

  • Ron Clabo (July 29, 2011)

    Thanks Alex!