One-eyed kings: the masters of innovation

August 15, 2016

One sure way to spice up any conversation around design or innovation is to note that Apple have never invented any device.

While it may be met with some resistance, the fact remains that they didn’t invent the PC, nor the MP3 music player. They are not responsible for the tablet computer, the smartphone or indeed the smartwatch. For all of their (deserved) reputation as innovators, Apple have yet to debut any mass market device that didn’t exist previously.

Given that one of the greatest innovators of our age has achieved this position by essentially coming to the market second or third with their offerings, how have they managed to achieve such a lofty status?

“In the land of the blind the one–eyed man is king” – Desiderius Erasmus c.1500

Apple’s greatest asset by far has been their fieldwork; relentlessly studying how people behave, discovering what they need – and why. They then do one of two things: either a) successfully define a problem, and apply existing technology to solve it in a superior manner, or b) identify inherent problems within existing technologies and successfully solve those.

In doing so they stimulated latent consumer needs which then triggered demand for their product. This is Apple’s genius, and this is innovation.

The company’s rare failures tend to be situations where they tried to solve problems that didn’t yet exist. As an example, the Apple Newton message pad was a tablet by any other name but it came too soon to an unprepared market. In retrospect the consumer PC market itself hadn’t yet been properly established; the public hadn’t yet come to value personal computing of any kind let alone tablet computing. For a modern-day comparison, one has to wonder whether Apple’s reported removal of the headphone jack from the next generation of iPhones is straying into just this territory.

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door – attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, c. 1889

No matter what a business or product offers, someone else has either already tried it, or is currently doing it. To innovate, you need simply to do it better than those others. And by “better” read ‘in a more customer-centric fashion’. A surprising number of founders, businesses, organisations don’t appear to have grasped this. Investing heavily in what may be incremental improvements might not set the boardroom alight, but that’s where the gold is. As with design, innovation is a process not an event. A verb, not a noun.

Correctly defining the problem is more than half the battle in product development. Putting the customer at the centre of the solution is the rest. And to any cries of “but… what about marketing??” in response to that last point, let’s answer it with a look at the banking industry.

Banks are so far behind where they should be with their services it’s tempting to be embarrassed for them. Banks are prime examples of organisations that have tried to market their way out of problems that should have been answered by simply providing better services. This approach has led banks into the unenviable position of being some of the least customer-centric businesses in the world. Millions of RBS customers unable to withdraw money from cash machines for days on end would attest to that.

The financial sector is gradually waking up to the fact that design thinking can be applied to services every bit as much as products. Design thinking doesn’t need to be the territory of the ‘big thinker’ or genius designer. It belongs to everyone on a team – including designers.

Of course everyone wants to innovate. And innovation can be managed through a pragmatic process of observation, competitive benchmarking and incremental improvement. Just ask Apple.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

Every app is competing with Facebook

October 26, 2015

Very few app producers or start–ups may recognise the fact, but far from offering a unique experience to users, their apps are vying for attention with the giants of digital – Facebook, Instagram, even Candy Crush.

Any app that manages to make its way on to a user’s device automatically becomes a direct competitor to dozens of other apps, all within a thumb’s reach and all with the potential to use up those few minutes that the user has to spare at that point in time.

Combined with research that tell us apps feature an abandonment rate of around 95% overall, and that 1 in 5 apps are used only once, this is chilling stuff for any app producer. So while the user’s decision to download an app remains a landmark moment, the battle for engagement has only just begun.

Some months ago Vibhu Norby, founder of start–up EveryMe, wore his heart on his sleeve in a blog post, letting the world in on adoption rates for the app that had to date secured $3.6m in funding. Those of a nervous disposition may want to sit down for the next part:

• From over 300,000 downloads of the EveryMe app, 200,000 people signed up to use the service.
• A requirement for a phone number or email address saw 25% abandon the app.
• A further (optional) step to sign in via a social network saw a further 25% leave the process.
• Just less than 25% didn’t create a social group within the app
• Finally, another 25% failed to add anyone to the group they created

The net result was that EveryMe retained around 5% of users through the entire on–boarding process, by all accounts a common story even with apps that have firmly established themselves over time.

The challenge for EveryMe, indeed for every other app on the market, is simply to build something that people want to use. Before app producers get close to design of any sort answers to the following questions should be clear: firstly, “What problem are we solving?”, and subsequently, “Are we building the right thing?”.

Solid research and user experience strategy goes a long way to providing answers to those questions, which should include getting a firm grasp on user motivation and intent. A lot has been made in the past of the idea of gamification and making apps and services more pleasurable to use. These principles tap directly into motivation theory, where ‘rewards’ (badges and user levels for example) are offered as extrinsic motivation for user interaction.

Stronger than this again is intrinsic motivation, where the drive to act (and interact) comes from within the individual. Take as an example the popularity of the ‘Couch to 5K’ system. The method of incrementally lengthening periods of running until a non–runner can comfortably cover a 5 kilometre distance has spawned dozens if not hundreds of apps, which consistently top the app download charts. Leveraging intrinsic motivation is one of the most effective ways to encourage engagement over the long term.

The secret to establishing motivation – extrinsic or intrinsic – and knowing which one to use, is to know your audience well enough to answer the fundamental questions: what are users trying to achieve and how are you facilitating those goals? A user’s time spent interacting with an app or a website is an investment on their part; they expect a return on that investment, whether that is in the form of a tangible return, say an item bought online, or through realised ambitions and goals achieved.

What motivations are you able to tap into for your app, website or application? What are users really trying to achieve, and how are you making it easier for them?

If these questions are not credibly answered, those thumbs will almost certainly drift towards the Facebook icon once again.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

There’s nothing new about innovation

August 20, 2015

If you are familiar with phrases such as ‘early adopter’, or the bell curve model of adoption then – whether you know it or not – you are also familiar with the work of Everett Rogers.

In 1962 (53 years ago at time of writing), Rogers published Diffusion of Innovations which contained not only enduring ideas like the bell curve, but a wealth of material that continues to be relevant in a world hungry for the silver bullets of success.

Still in print, and in its fourth edition, Diffusion of Innovations remains a central text when it comes to assessing the potential of innovations in the marketplace. Building on research gleaned from over 1500 field studies, Rogers identified that an innovation could be rejected, and therefore fail, based on one or more of the following characteristics:

Relative Advantage – the degree to which an innovation is perceived to be better than something comparable

Compatibility – the degree to which an innovation is compatible with existing habits or behaviours

Complexity – the level of complexity associated with adopting the innovation

Trialability – the level of opportunity to test out or trial the innovation

Observability – the extent to which the results of an innovation are visible to others (particularly peers)

Many producers or technologists believe – indeed, need to believe – that they will be the next Steve Jobs or Henry Ford. Quite a number will claim that Rogers’ criteria don’t apply to their product, in the same way that Jobs’ or Ford would never be tethered by rules of any kind.

However the vast majority of everyday innovations tend to build on and improve something already familiar. Taking the iPod as an example, the idea of a portable music player was well established – the Walkman was first introduced in 1978 after all. Indeed, the Walkman’s innovation had been to miniaturise the music player, as the opportunity was already manifest. Its inventor Akio Morita had observed young people in New York carrying boom boxes around on their shoulder and recognised the desire for portability.

Further, the iPod was not even the first of its kind; that honour belonged to the The Audible Player from, arriving on the market almost 4 years before the launch of the of the iPod. By the time Apple’s response appeared there were over half a dozen MP3 players available on the market.

So the ‘innovation’ of the iPod was building on already established behaviours and needs. Where Jobs’ vision triumphed was in the exquisite execution of the concept, something that other companies didn’t come close to. Viewed through the lens of Rogers’ criteria, the iPod matched many of the requirements:

Relative Advantage – it had a much greater capacity than the Walkman

Compatibility – the idea of personal stereos was ingrained in the consumer mindset (although iPod brought with it the iTunes eco–system)

Complexity – the iconic scrollwheel made the task of navigating huge amounts of content not only easy, but pleasurable

Trialability – many high street stores stocked the iPod

Observability – the white earbuds were instantly identifiable, and formed the centrepiece of advertising campaigns of the time

Assessing the potential for innovations to succeed is prime territory for user experience work. UX is often confused as being user interface work alone, or as a trendy nom de plume for what we should simply call ‘design’. But in 1962, Rogers was already speaking a new language:

Determining felt needs is not a simple matter, however. Change agents must have a high degree of empathy and rapport with their clients in order to assess their needs accurately. Informal probing in interpersonal contacts with individual clients, client advisory committees to change agencies, and surveys of clients are sometimes used to determine needs for innovations.

This was new thinking in 1962, and it remains a challenge for businesses and organisations today. But it is evergreen advice, and words that we in Fathom adhere to day and daily.

In the scramble to innovate, don’t overlook the fundamentals.

This post first appeared on the Fathom_ blog.

Designing for Dignity

June 26, 2015

User experience professionals are vocal about the benefits of a user–focused approach, the need to remember that users are people, and the importance of dealing in human–centred design. Rationale tends to link the outcomes of a user-centred methodology with conversions and completions, funnels and fulfilment. It is less common however that we hear of the human value of great design.

In 2007, Dr. Richard Buchanan published a seminal essay reflecting on the ability of design to play a greater role in society. In the essay, he wrote:

“Human-centered design is fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in varied social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.”

With those words, all stakeholder, designer and developer egos should collectively and rightly crumble.

Simple support for human dignity doesn’t make it into the marketing discussion. It’s unlikely to be talked about during the brainstorming sessions; it almost certainly won’t make it into the design brief, and the technical specification won’t address it either. So where do we fit in designing for dignity and the basic ability for people to achieve their goals and get on with their lives?

Respect for people’s time by rights means allowing them to complete what should be simple tasks, and letting them get on with what they really want to do; something which is unlikely to include continuing to use your app or website. Linking design with usability is a vital step. But that further step, of linking usability to dignity and respect, is under represented.

Unconditional positive regard is a term used in psychology relating to the acceptance and support of a person no matter what they say or do. Applied to the world of UX, we might say ‘there is no such thing as user error’. Design luminary Don Norman puts it this way:

What we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.”

And yet it is technology that so often lets humans down. It often appears that our desire for impact and ‘cool’ has overtaken the need to design products and services that meet basic needs.

As an example, I’ve witnessed first hand a 90+ yr old come to grips first with a PC and subsequently a tablet. I’ve been left feeling ashamed for the software industry as a whole, as the same person tried to adapt to a new operating system that installed itself, after they had only managed to come to terms with the previous one. I have seen them struggle with the iPad version of a shopping app only to be forced to running the scaled–up iPhone app on the tablet to make the system accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, they blame themselves.

The inherent simplicity of touchscreen devices offers a potential lifeline for those who have been left behind, or left out of the internet revolution of the last 20 years. Badly-designed apps and online services immediately waste that potential.

The goal that people should be able to use what we design with ease, free from stress or friction, is not mutually exclusive from the business objectives of most projects. Absent from too many project briefs, the principle of designing for dignity should be a prerequisite; a foundational element in any design discussion.

This post first appeared on the Fathom_ blog.

User Experience is serious business

May 17, 2015

Opinions are like bellybuttons: everybody has one. It’s one of those wonderful little traits that makes us human.

There is of course a right time for opinions; a design process addressing the public interface for your organisation or service is not one of them. If the debate around (for instance) a website descends into contributions such as “I think we need to have our Twitter feed on the homepage”, the alarm bells should sound.

Protracted debate around what is understood to be the design tends to come too late in the day, and represent nothing but a distraction from deep–rooted issues that will dictate the success or failure of an organisation’s digital strategy.

Digital touchpoints now represent the de facto form of initial contact between businesses and customers. A little unfairly perhaps, expectations for these interactions have been set by the giants of the digital world – Google, Amazon et al. B2B transactions are similarly shifting towards B2C patterns of behaviour, in terms of researching and filtering suppliers. User experience increasingly defines the brand in the minds of consumers.

Faced with these stark realities, isn’t it crazy that a design discussion could fixate around colours, logo size or font selection? To put such debate into perspective – how probable is it that a website or app will fail for any of those reasons? More likely, a digital initiative will fail to meet its objectives because those objectives have simply not been defined, or are inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of user needs.

Amid the talk of ‘user–centred’ design and the ‘user experience’, it can be easy to misinterpret the message as something akin to ”the customer is always right” – 5 words guaranteed to raise the ire of many an MD or CEO.

Design for the user experience is more than gauging opinion, or paying lip service to customer satisfaction. The truth is that any effective user– or customer–centred process includes careful consideration of the business objectives for the organisation. Business goals need to be clearly defined in parallel with user needs – it is these that will most clearly define the nature of the digital transactions required for both the business AND users to benefit. This is a symbiotic relationship, not a zero sum game.

User–centred design thinking is the perfect antidote to destructive, subjective discourse. Learning about your organisation through the lens of primary research undertaken with customers and users can be a daunting prospect; it may even unearth some long–buried suspicions and fears.

Once the unknowns are known, design decisions can be informed and supported by evidence as to what is required for users to achieve the goals they want to achieve, which in turn support the business goals for the project. This necessarily brings in elements of overall business strategy, product strategy and marketing strategy.

It is essential to see your business through the eyes of those outside your organisation. Knowing what you represent to your users and customers may affect everything you had previously believed; it is also sure to empower you to focus resources on what really matters, for you and for your customers.

  • About Rick Monro

    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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