UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 872 September 24, 2012

Attributes of Innovation

People often say: “Be innovative!”

You may have heard this from your boss or colleagues. Everyone wants to be ahead of the curve and lead their industry—to set an example for others to follow. In the digital sphere, customer- and service-oriented products are in the midst of a great many innovations right now, with the emergence of elements like cloud computing, tablets, mobile location services, and social media integration. Now is a fertile time for innovation. But what does it take to be innovative? What does an innovative product look like?

There are attributes that materialize differently depending on the product or service, but they are attributes that all innovations have in common. When these attributes of innovation are combined, the resulting product or service often exceeds the expectations of current user experiences and pushes the field of UX design forward. In particular scenarios such as enterprise IT or the public sector, these common attributes can seem daunting. They can sometimes even seem irrelevant. But in successful and innovative ideas, they are always present.

Innovation is Disruptive

I know, disruptive sounds like a bad thing. But it’s not. It’s what differentiates leaders from followers. A disruptive product or service changes the way that people think about things and the way that they behave. In consumer markets, innovative products change the way that people go about their lives and perceive industries. Within an enterprise, innovative products or services change the way that people think about how they work and engage their employees and employers. Innovation disrupts normal behavior and introduces a new—hopefully better—way of doing things and thinking about things. This is the quality that makes way for real innovation, that leads to leaps in technology, and that is often the hardest to achieve.

The original iPhone is an example of a disruptive innovation. The iPhone, for the first time, combined phone, camera, email, Internet, and GPS technologies in a single device with a touch-screen interface. This was not the first time that email and phone had been combined (that was done by BlackBerry), or phone and Internet browsing (as terrible an experience as it was, you could do that on an old flip phone). But the combination of all features and functions in one slick and easy to use touch interface made the iPhone disruptive.

People’s behavior changed—they carried fewer devices and used a single one for many purposes. Other companies tried to replicate the combination in their phones and portable devices, following the lead of a new product. Now, five years later, the features in the original iPhone are simply expected in all new models of smartphones.

Innovation Fills a Gap

There are many ways to view this factor of innovation, but at a minimum it is clear that innovative products or services are those that fulfill an unfulfilled need. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be a groundbreaking invention for which there is no predecessor. It could just be a new way of approaching an existing product or service, adding a differentiating factor that was not previously there—something that increases the convenience, simplicity, availability, or accessibility, for instance.

Google Docs is a good example of this attribute of innovation. It fills a gap—maybe not a huge never-before-traversed gap, but a gap nonetheless. There were, of course, productivity and document creation tools prior to Google Docs. But you had to email things to people, track changes and versions, and could only perform all of this on your desktop or laptop computer. What Google did was add a new differentiating factor: all your documents fully available and editable by those you shared them within the cloud. Google Docs increased the convenience, availability, and accessibility of a product that already had a solid foundation. Google Docs provided an innovative solution to a common document creation/management challenge.

Innovation Addresses Your Audience’s Needs

Knowing your audience is key to any successful innovation; this is particularly true for new products and services. There are many factors that could cause a great idea to fail because its creators did not take the time to learn about their audiences’ behaviors, motivations, needs, and desires. The first thing to consider should be how your audience will adopt this new innovation? Will the release of it need to be staged and phased in to make sure your audience accepts this new and innovative product or service? Or is your audience screaming so loudly for something like it that you should just release it at once in all of its glory and worry about fine-tuning later? Is your product or service being delivered on the right platform or in the right medium for your audience? Are you providing the appropriate types of support and training for your innovative product?

Let’s take a look at an example of innovation in the workplace—a new model for reporting time spent on different projects. Employees may be used to entering their time into a web application, with a typical table-based interface for entering time per-project across different days of the week. It might not be the ideal or most efficient method, but they’re used to it and they make it work.

Enter in enterprise innovation. Someone has the idea that employees should just be able to open an app on their phone or a widget on their desktop, select a project, and start a timer that will automatically record and report their time. Seems like a great idea, right? No more entering time at the end of the week taking up 30 minutes of an employee’s Friday, less risk for errors in reporting time, and it’s available on mobile devices for travelling employees. But what if people forget to open it? Or forget to change from one project to another? What if they want to edit something before the time is submitted to their boss? What if they are using their phones while travelling so they can’t start the app? These types of obstacles are uncovered by knowing your audiences. Addressing audience behaviors and needs such as these is a key factor in achieving successful innovation.

Innovation is Simple

Think about some of the most innovative ideas and products you’ve seen in the last 20 years. What’s a common factor they all share? They make your life easier. They do not add complexity or confusion. They simplify things, make things more accessible, or bring comfort to your life. You may have to spend some time learning to use the new product or service. It may take a while for it to become ingrained in your everyday life. But when you use it, the innovation makes your life easier.

There has been much talk about innovation in the medical field recently. Digital prescriptions are a leading medical innovation for many reasons; especially because of the simplicity they afford to doctors, patients, and pharmacists. Doctors can look up a drug on their tablet or hand-held device, double-check all of the side effects and contraindications for a patient, and then send a prescription for the drug straight to the pharmacy from their device. The patient doesn’t have to deal with a paper script, which he or she also no longer runs the risk of damaging or losing. The pharmacist has a clear script and doesn’t need to interpret a doctor’s handwriting. And, in the time it takes a patient to drive from the doctor’s office to the pharmacy, the script is filled and waiting. Digital prescriptions changed the process of writing and filling scripts, making it easier and simpler for all of the people involved.

Aside from being a core attribute of innovative products, the concept of increasing simplicity is often the one that inspires innovation in the first place. The desire and drive to simplify people’s lives creates concepts that disrupt the more complicated way that people currently behave. That fill gaps in their lives, and addresses their needs.

So the next time that someone looks at you and says “We need to be more innovative," proceed by first asking, “How can I make my audiences’ lives simpler?” and move forward from there.

 

Zen garden image courtesy Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Megan Geyer is a Lead Experience Architect at NTT DATA, striving to ensure that all audiences are understood and represented throughout the inception, design, and implementation of any service or product. Over her career, she has worked on global cross-channel audience research and design projects, managed user experience projects, and provided information architecture and interaction design for internal and consumer-facing websites in a variety of industries. Megan is a member of the NYC Usability Professionals Association and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Rutgers University.

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Raul - I absolutely agree with your point that innovation is about knowing the culture of your audiences. In an open consumer market, I think it's more about being conscious of the culture and environment - knowing your audiences, what they need, what motivates them. There is less opportunity to shape and control the culture of your audiences in a consumer market so it becomes a challenge of knowing who they are and making sure it addresses the current culture of them. However when it pertains to the workplace, there is more opportunity to influence the culture. Encourage new innovations and not quick and dirty solutions; ensure there is C-level buy-in; support innovative programs by understanding long-term investment vs. just next quarter's budget. An innovative employee culture is created from a clear and consistent top-down vision and from bottom-up employee motivation. There are a lot of very important factors that come into play for innovation in the workplace that may not necessarily be factors in consumer markets. The majority of my research and work has been involving the enterprise, so I plan on writing a follow-up article about how these attributes apply to the enterprise as well as unique barriers or factors that come into play in that context. I hope to hear your feedback on that article when it is released!

Apu - Thank you for bringing Zoho to my attention. It seems like Zoho is mostly geared towards workplace document collaboration. Do you feel like it was an innovative product?

Paresh - Your points are all very interesting perspectives on the attributes listed above. In response to your comment "I don't know if you do study or write about innovation that has different justifications to drive efforts other then monetary return on investment" - I have not had the opportunity to perform research in areas such as the military, government, or non-profits. But I agree, there would be very different motivators for those industries. I suspect there would be several additional key attributes of innovation in those industries when the impetus is not ROI and profits, but instead is focused on community engagement or personal safety. I am now very intrigued by this and will look into those areas more! Thanks for inspiration!

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I think rather than only using Google Docs as an example, that could be considered a product extension of ms office. I think Google Wave should be studied also side by side to realize key factors to help define the starting line and people wanting to innovate.

Innovation is Disruptive:
Docs was trying to be disruptive to MS Office, but the needed and wanted product requested by users has been to disruptive to the users themselves, even though majority of the need is meet and the process as a whole is simple for everyone that use, purchase, install & maintain the tools.

Wave was trying to be disruptive to everyone who offered email service & tools across many categories, even themselves as a major player in that market. Wave I think from technology engineering implementation to understanding the need of users and path the communication domain was headed toured, a simple interface to truly mashup email, messaging and content sharing in one product. The Google Wave was the winning invention & brilliant solution that was not adopted by even the early minority to allow for even one revision.

Innovation Fills a Gap:
Google Docs tries to fill a gap. These types of initiatives often have shorter lifespan, because it reliers on what's creating the gap in the first place.

Clearly with Google Wave the desired motive was not to fill a gap. However, the gaps it created like all disruptive inventions create initially was too big of a leap for most to hertal and get past. I am speaking of the gap left by the lack of a migration path that would allow a smooth transition from email to wave as a communication tool. This was a product release few years to early and in my opinion, wave should/would/could have disrupted email, blogging, cms, crm, website build tools (WordPress, Drupal, etc.) & few others to simplify UX, provided converging user data and process to drive leaner processes to one product.

Innovation Addresses Your Audience’s Needs: Should be #1 of anyone list.
Google Doc Group was handed exact need not fulfilled "Sharing & Accessing Files across machines", that's it but somehow the need to move to a new file format, all new set of UX and detachment from many, many 3rd party solutions to get 3 new needs filled that I don't have anyway.

Google Wave I think was too close of an assessment to the users and markets need in more ways then any user could have described. But again, ignoring current user data and expecting a voluntary discernment of information held within emails and documents as a result of new value the wave solution would provide in the long run was too much to ask of user. It was not the same situation where users just had to discard 8 tracs & LPs and saw it as progress.

Innovation is Simple:
Simple has more mass then Better when users try to weigh out the net value the product will give them. When the market was provided with a simple solution to the command line (promp, sorry *nix user) that to cumbersome for most. The courser won vs the I-bean, even though typed command interface was/is a far more efficient and productive method to send commands then using a mouse or trackpad, the courser give the user freedom to not memorize hundrads of commands but how to move, align and click one button and after searching you know you would be able to find the command you where looking for.
Simple is a valuable determining factor for use of products, a wide adoption of a product is possible if value can be added to justify the complexity.

I don't know if you do study or write about innovation that has different justifications to drive efforts other then monetary return on investment, where success is gaged by different metrics that may be subjective and max, min & intervals can't be expressed. But its very interesting when you go from a business driven process to perserving the state of the union that drivers the military innovation process.
The US Military remains 10-15 years ahead of any other entity (private or gov. based) in the world. And although it's nice of them to share innovations for public use once they find better ones, how would it change the private sector to use their process? Large corps. seems now understand large corps. will never innovate and acquiring technologies innovations to stay big and ahead is to find the guy in the basement or garage who gets it done simple as possible because it's the only option for single and small groups. Large corps will never, ever be able innovate at that level because 1. more then 3-5, 80% of the time will be spent on coming to a consensus. 2. No one want's to put failures on their resume to miss out on the next level-up opp. because you took risks.

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"Google Docs is a good example of this attribute of innovation. It fills a gap—maybe not a huge never-before-traversed gap, but a gap nonetheless. There were, of course, productivity and document creation tools prior to Google Docs. But you had to email things to people, track changes and versions, and could only perform all of this on your desktop or laptop computer. What Google did was add a new differentiating factor: all your documents fully available and editable by those you shared them within the cloud. Google Docs increased the convenience, availability, and accessibility of a product that already had a solid foundation. Google Docs provided an innovative solution to a common document creation/management challenge."

Online docs isn't goggle's innovation. It's from Zoho . Just an FYI

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Many would agree above all else, innovation is about culture and an environment that allows employees to think differently. It's disappointing to hear a manager cry for more innovation and then proceed to send off his/her employees to their 6 foot high cubicles.
Another critical point is a disruptive product can only be successful if it is tied to a supportive business model.
Another point, is that if you're going to speak about "disruptive" technology, it should be compared with "sustaining" technology to better illustrate the difference. Let's not forget about Clayton M. Christensen's contribution to this subject.

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Thanks for catching those errors, Kezra.

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Typo in third paragraph - "hopefully" is spelled wrong. Also, 7th paragraph line should read,"Google Docs increased the convenience, availability, and accessibility of a product that already had a solid..."

Otherwise, good article that describes how one can use innovation in user experience design.

-Kezra