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.

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