There’s nothing new about innovation

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.

Formula doesn’t mean formulaic

One of the occasional criticisms hurled at user experience as a discipline is that it is simply a box–ticking accessibility exercise; that by engaging in solid research and analysis, somehow UX is the boring bitthat has to be done before real design gets a look in.

Related to this is another misconception that if a diligent user–centred design process is followed, somehow we will always end up with the same formula, the same outcome – the same design. This is part of the same myth which says that design is arrived at through inspiration alone; that ‘design’ is a noun rather than a verb; that we should ignore established best practice or patterns and instead search for true ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ (add your favourite devisive industry buzzword here).

The retort to this isn’t that UX design does not involve the use of formulae. The defence is that it is the very use of ‘formulae’ that ultimately leads to differentiation.

Some years ago I learned about a narrative pattern called the Hero’s Journey. American Academic Joseph Campbell wrote about it in his book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, the result of years of study of myths and legends from many different cultures from around the world. What he discovered was a set of common elements, a formula if you will. You can read more about it here.

Ever since Campbell put his findings in writing, a huge number of popular stories – be they in literature or cinema – have taken cues from the Hero’s Journey resulting in some of the most beautiful, most inspiring tales in popular culture. You need look no further than the original Star Wars (a story that wears Campbell’s influence on its sleeve) to see the template at work. The thing is, although you may be aware you are watching or reading something inspired by Campbell’s work, it doesn’t make it any less stirring or appealing.

It’s worth looking also at popular songwriting. I’m willing to bet that your favourite songs go something like verse–chorus–verse–chorus–middle 8–chorus. I’m also willing to bet that they are based around seven main chords, or variants thereof. And yet from this we get pretty much all modern popular music, and certainly some of the most emotionally resonant, moving songwriting the world has known. Even Lennon and McCartney knew the rules… albeit they stretched them more than most.

UX design is a similar: working within constraints, sometimes with familiar patterns, the unique aspects of the project – the client’s aspirations, the user needs, the business model – bring to the table elements which alter the chemistry of he process to create something if not unique, then truly effective – the most important benchmark of all.

Last year I worked on a support micro site for a minority community group. Conventional wisdom would have held that, as we were dealing with an already well–researched audience, user research would not yield too much in the way of insights. The client however was wise enough to seek validation of received wisdom and consented to a round of public workshops. One of the most valuable outcomes from these was a set of five distinct personas that the website needed to connect with and communicate to. The personas derived informed everything from navigation and wayfinding to site content and overall tone–of–voice, as well as providing themes for the associated promotional campaign.

As in music or storytelling, the basic building blocks may be limited but there are potentially infinite directions a project can take. And yes, as in those other examples, some results will be poor if a formula is relied on too heavily. What matters though is that the chosen outcome is an effective one, and one that connects with the right people.

In a changing world, where human factors consistently remain the most important elements in communication and interaction, a solid user–centred design process remains the best formula for achieving success with digital projects.

This post originally appeared on the Fathom_ blog

And then there was… iPad

I can’t offer an objective opionion of Apple’s new progeny; I’m an Apple fanboy, a design groupie and a tech non-purist.

The ability of Apple to distill the technological zeitgeist of the near future into exhilarating new product is indesputible. I remember being underwhelmed by the iPod when it arrived. I had barely a handful of mp3 files on my hard drive at the time, and still bought CDs by the dozen. Within 12 months I had an iPod and bought my last CD in 2004.

I haven’t quite succumbed to iPhone fever yet – I’m still a pay-as-you-go luddite when it comes to phones – but the iPad could well find its way into our home. As a device for the casual consumption of digital media it looks perfect to these eyes.

The gamut of reactions to the iPad have been entirely predictable. One reaction in particular I read left me staggered though. Twitter’s Alex Payne is “disturbed” by the iPad, suggesting it is the sunset of the tinkerer: “if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.” Wha? huh?

The opinions and ideas Payne trots out in his blog post are beyond ludicrous. Will Rock Band kill off real guitarists? Did the Walkman kill off DJs? Payne is completely missing the point: the iPad is not a PC replacement. It may be for some; for the low level user who are no sooner going to hustle some C++ than they are to learn karate from scratch, it will fit like a glove.

The iPad is designed for the convenient consumption of digital media, period. The user experience is likely to be, as with most Apple products, superior. The same inquisitive folk who might feel drawn to tinker with PCs will be inspired to look under the hood and create something for that platform. And guess what? For those people, there are SDK’s, PC’s, Mac and all the same tools there always have been.

To suggest that because Apple have added the iPad to their product line, innovation in the development industry has somehow been assassinated is simply inane.

Relax Alex, PCs still exist. All Apple have done is add a new member to their ‘nuclear family’ of products.