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 Audible.com, 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.

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