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

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