In the Connected Age users have real power. They cannot be viewed as a gregarious heard of consumers waiting to be milked for what they have. Instead, value must be co-created and sharedRemember: customers are a company’s most valuable asset.

The practice of UX design inherently seeks to strengthen the value provided to users. With methods such as ethnography, mental models, personas and scenarios, UX strives to view the world from the outside in, rather than the inside out. In doing so, companies can better provide solutions that solve real-world problems and that fit into users’ lives.

But the contemporary practice of UX design doesn’t go far enough. The field implicitly examines and models user behavior as it currently exists. What’s needed is a better way to envision users as they may act.

Enter “The Ask,” a single question outlined by MIT Professor Michael Schrage in his book Who Do You Want Your Customers To Become?Successful innovations, Schrage contends, don’t merely ask users to do something different; they ask them to become someone different.

Here’s an example: George Eastman didn’t just invent inexpensive, automatic camera; he created photographers. His innovation allowed everyday people to do something only trained professionals could previously do with expensive equipment. The result: you, too, can be a photographer. That’s transformational.

kodak girl
With Eastman’s camera (circa 1888) anyone could be a photographer

Another example: Google’s innovation isn’t just a brilliant search algorithm; instead, Google let’s everyone become expert researchers and fact checkers. We’re now all reference librarians with the power of all known human knowledge at our finger tips. Powerful.

Now consider a would-be innovation that failed, such as the Segway. What does the Segway ask us to become? A mad helmeted scientist racing down the sidewalk? Or maybe an authority figure (e.g., policewoman) extending a few feet above other pedestrians? Or maybe just an odd ball on a weird scooter? During its commercial launch, the inventors of the Segway promised to revolutionize transportation and the way people get around cities. But instead it asked us to become somebody we didn’t want to become, and it failed.

nerd magnet<br /> small
The Segway asks us to become someone we don’t want to.

Role of UX

User experience design plays a role in all of the above examples. For instance, Kodak claimed in its early ads: “You push the button, we’ll do the rest.” Their strategy clearly relied on an exceptional user experience, and they delivered on that promise. This resulted in the mass adoption of Eastman’s camera.

Peter Merholz et al. discuss this at length in their book UX strategy Subject To Change. They write:

“[Eastman] recognized that his roll film could lead to a revolution if he focused on the experience he wanted to deliver, and experience captured in his advertising slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

We find a similar pattern with Google: a drop-dead simple user experience with high tolerance for “user error” (e.g., spell correction) makes the service efficient, effective and enjoyable to use. Schrage also highlights the importance of user experience design in his book. He writes:

“Innovations failing to provide good user experiences find difficulty succeeding, no matter what their price…The better the customer experience, the better the odds for innovation success.”

Practically speaking, The Ask doesn’t supersede or replace current tools and methods, rather extends them. It offers a unique perspective on our practices and how they fit into the bigger picture of things. And it can help better shape existing techniques.

Take personas. Often the number and type of personas created for a solution line are determined by traditional (even outdated) segmentation techniques of existing markets. By using The Ask, we can now consider creating personas around the transformational outcomes we envision. Who will our customers become in the future? We can then align our personas to the answers of that question and describe them in terms that address their transformation.

Keep in mind that it is the innovation that transforms the customer. So the point here is to align tools of design and innovation to point towards the future. Right now, personas typically reflect an as-is view of customer behavior. But to be relevant in rallying teams around truly transformational innovations — such as in design sessions and in workshops — they should rather describe an answer
to The Ask.

.the ask

For more on The Ask, I recommend Michael Schrage’s book. It’s clear and compact, and it’s wholly relevant to core UX work. Written by a leading business thinker, this book highlights the increasing overlap between business and design. The Ask is a simple, reflective query can alter the way we see our users and our
offerings. It increases our ability to create more value through user experience design.

I encourage you to continually ask yourself and the clients you serve, who do we want our customers to become?

2012 was a relatively slow year for me in terms of quantity of new blog posts. But I was able to capture and share some of my best thoughts this year.

Here are quotes that summarize each of the top 5 posts by number of views in 2012, in reverse order of popularity:

#5 – Incremental Innovation Is Underrated

Some business stakeholders are swinging for the fences in their innovation efforts:they want the big wins. And rightfully so: reaching for the stars keeps the company pushing forward, beyond what it can currently deliver. This inspires and motivates employees and management alike. But sometimes this quest for the next biggest and best thing overshadows everything else.

Companies need incremental innovation, breakthroughs and disruptions alike. To do this, there must be a comprehensive innovation program in place to channel attention and effort in the right direction.

The point is that incremental ideas shouldn’t be neglected: they are profitable and can fund your big idea projects. And they also provide a stepping stone toward game changers via the adjacent possible.

#4 – Principles of Alignment Diagrams

Specific techniques for research and diagramming are important, of course, but it’s really the principles of alignment diagrams that are essential. Once you grasp these, you’ll find there range of potential ways to go about diagraming, including mental models, customer journey maps, service blueprints and more. You may even introduce variations on these standard forms or come up with your own.

#3 – Clarifying Innovation: Four Zones of Innovation

I’m proposing a 2-dimensional picture of innovation:

  • The y-axis indicates the degree of technological progress an innovation brings with it. Moving from low to high along this line indicates improving existing capabilities, services and products.
  • The x-axis shows the impact an innovation has on the market, also from low to high. This usually entails new business models or reaching underserved target groups.

This gives rise to four distinct zones of innovation:

  • Incremental innovations involve modest changes to existing products and services. These are enhancements that keep a business competitive, such as new product features and service improvements.
  • Breakthrough innovation refers to large technological advances that propel an existing product or service ahead of competitors. This is often the result of research and development labs (R&D), who are striving for the next patentable formula, device and technology.
  • Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Clayton Christensen. In his best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma he shows that disruptive innovations “result is worse product performance, at least in the near-term. [They] bring to a market a very different value proposition than had been available previously” (p. xviii).
  • Game-changing innovation transform markets and even society. These innovations have a radical impact on how humans act, think and feel in some way.

#2 – Cross Channel Design with Alignment Diagrams

I’m advocating the incorporation of channel-based distinctions and information, such as a Touchpoint Matrix, directly in alignment diagrams. By doing this, you get not only channel-specific information, but you can also see how this aligns with both customer goals and business goals. In this light, alignment diagrams are a suitable tool for cross channel mapping and design.

#1 – The Project Canvas

Defining a project in its earliest stages is like hitting a golf ball: if the face of your club is slightly tilted , you’ll end up slicing the ball as it travels down the green. Likewise, small miscalculations at the beginning of projects can have massive consequences later on.

Part of the problem is that the logic of a project definition is invisible. You can’t “see“ project goals or risks, for instance. Sure, you can write them down as text. But long documents – if they get read at all – tend to get lost in the shuffle as the project unfolds.

What’s more, a written description of project elements doesn’t expose relationships between them. The big picture can fade quickly as work and deadlines pile up.

Here is a tool to help you get a quick, but broad definition of a project in a single overview. It’s called the Project Canvas.  You can download it here: Download the Project Canvas v1.0 (PDF)

5 Levers of Behavior Change

17 November 2012

In my talk at UX Brighton 2012, I highlighted Everett Roger’s 5 perceived attributes of innovation. These, I explained, can be seen as heuristics in the innovation adoption process. See my presentation on SlideShare in case you missed it.

To quickly review, the principles Roger’s identified over 50 years that predict whether an innovation gets adopted or not are:

  • Relative advantage. Is the proposed innovation better than existing alternatives?
  • Compatibility. Is the innovation appropriate? Does it fit into the user’s daily life, beliefs and values?
  • Complexity. Is it easy to comprehend and use?
  • Trialability. Can it best tested without penalty?
  • Observability. Can it be observed and understood?

Any time an innovation is introduced to a group of users, it requires them to change their behavior. After all, innovations are by definition “new.” And with this newness comes change. The above factors describe how the adopting population is likely to perceive that change. If an innovation is too complex to use and hard to understand, for instance, it may not get adopted. Or, if an innovation is contrary to one’s beliefs (i.e., not compatible), it may also get rejected.

Of course, there many other factors that may influence the rate of adoption, such as price, communication channels and PR, but the above human factors play a key role. Building a better mousetrap does not guarantee user’s will accept the new idea. You also have to look at the human factors involved. In fact, many would-be breakthrough inventions fail because of not taking this human factors into consideration.

Keith Wood, CMO at Unilever, recently contributed an article to the Harvard Business Blog entitled “Change Consumer Behavior with These Five Levers.” I was struck by the similarity of these 5 levers to Roger’s perceived attributes. Wood focuses on invoking change for sustainability reasons, and he doesn’t talk about “innovation” explicitly. But the message is the same, I believe:  recognizing the drivers of behavior change and designing with them (instead of against them) can greatly increase the likelihood of adoption.

Unilever’s 5 levers of behavior change are:

  1. Make it understood. This lever is about raising general awareness and, more important, the understanding of the innovation. Woods points to the example of video demonstrations using ultra-violet light to show children that washing their hands with water alone doesn’t get rid of invisible germs. In Rogers’ terms, this corresponds roughly to “observability.”
  2. Make it easy. People like things to be simple. But this lever is also about convenience and about confidence. If a new product or service has a long learning curve, for instance, it will lower the likelihood of invoking a behavior change. Rogers calls this “complexity.”
  3. Make it desirable. Changing behavior has emotional aspects to it. This lever is about asking, Does this new behavior fit into my aspirational self-image? This overlaps with Rogers’ “compatibility” and “relative advantage” factors.
  4. Make it rewarding. Do people know when they’re doing the behavior correctly? Do they get some sort of reward? This is about confirming the correct behavior.
  5. Make it a habit. Often a one-time behavior change is not the goal of innovation. We generally want people to continue using the things we introduce to them. This resembles Rogers’ “compatibility” attribute. (Things that become a habit are things that fit into our lives well, generally).

The Unilever levers don’t exactly line up one-to-one with Rogers’, but many of the sentiments are the same. Here’s my somewhat artificial alignment of the two sets of principles:

Unilever’s 5 Levers Rogers’ Perceived Attributes
Make it understood Observability
Make it easy Complexity
Make it desirable Compatibility and/or Relative Advantage
Make it rewarding
Make it a habit Compatibility
Trialability

“Make it rewarding” doesn’t directly appear in Rogers’ list, and likewise “Trialability” doesn’t appear in Unilever’s list. I’m not sure if that matters in the long run if the labels doesn’t match. It’s the approach that I find interesting: identifying key, human-centered principles that drive behavior change or innovation adoption and consciously designing to support them. As Woods concludes, change agents “will have the most positive influence when they work with these ‘structural’ factors, rather than against them.”

A main point from my presentation at UX Brighton 2012 is that UX design as a disciple fundamentally strives to achieve a positive influence on behavior change. Thus, our inherent user-centered approach plays a key role in the innovation process. In commercial contexts, UX design is ultimately good for businesses and for growth.

See Unilever’s full white paper outlining the 5 levers of behavior change for more details on their approach.

.

UX Brighton 2012 was a fantastically brilliant event. I was truly honored to share the stage with a first-class line-up of speakers: Alex Wright, Mark Backler, Guy Smith-Ferrier, Ben Bashford, Sriram Subramanian, Mike Kuniavsky and Karl Fast. Wow.

The theme of the event was “Past & Future Interactions,” which took us from hundreds of years in the past via Alex’s history lesson to Guy’s controlling computers with his brainwaves. What a ride. One of the best single-day conferences I’ve ever attended.

My talk was entitled “Human Factors in Innovation: Designing for Adoption.” Here it is on SlideShare:

And here’s the summary from the conference program:

The ultimate goal of innovation is user adoption: we want people to actually use the things we create in a way that impacts their lives. But building the better mouse trap guarantees nothing. In fact, history shows it’s not the whiz-bang of technology but rather human factors that matter in the end. This is where UX designers come in. Through empathy and understanding of people’s needs and perceptions, we can increase the rate of adoption.

My intent was to give UX designers additional, high-level arguments to better evangelize UX or convince stakeholders for more time and money. I made 4 over-arching points in the course of the presentation that sum up the value of UX design in relation to innovation:

  1. The impetus for innovation has no start point: it’s an iteration between technology and needs.
  2. The end point of innovation always lies with users: the ultimate goal is adoption.
  3. UX reduces the risk of non-adoption and accelerates the rate of adoption.
  4. Good UX is good business: it is essential for innovation and for growth.

“Risk” and “growth” in business contexts aren’t things UX designers general talk about. These are terms business stakeholders understand and will grab their attention.

We need to live up these expectations, however, so my positioning of UX presents a real challenge for us. I hope you’re up for it!

In a previous post, I show that not all innovation is the same. By putting innovation on a two-dimensional matrix, different types emerge — from incremental to game changers. This isn’t new per se, but it does help locate initiatives relative to each other.

Some business stakeholders are swinging for the fences in their innovation efforts: they want the big wins. And rightfully so: reaching for the stars keeps the company pushing forward, beyond what it can currently deliver. This inspires and motivates employees and management alike. But sometimes this quest for the next biggest and best thing overshadows everything else.

In particular, incremental innovation is underrated, I believe. I’m not just talking about continuous improvements and optimization of existing products, rather clear steps forward that keep a business in the game.

And I’m not alone. Innovation expert James Gardner writes in his book Future Proof Banking. He describes how incremental innovations not only sustain a business but are prime source of positive returns. They’re downright profitable:

People are surprised when I tell them most returns from good innovation programmes come from incremental innovation.

Perhaps the most famous incremental innovator is Toyota. The volume written about this company and its rise from relative mediocrity to global dominance on the back of small, quite basic changes is monumental. Founded in 1937, the company started commercial passenger car production in 1947, and by the 1980s was consistently ranked higher than any other manufacturer in owner satisfaction surveys. Attention to detail, and making small changes to create lasting improvements, led the company to become the largest automotive manufacturer in the world by 2007. Clearly, incremental innovation can pay, even if the individual changes aren’t exciting and high profile.

Convincing people that small improvements are important is a big challenge for an innovation function. A common response to the idea that innovators should do incremental is that innovators who do so are reducing themselves to optimisers. (p. 11)

Breakthroughs, as Gardner points out, are risky with a lot that can go wrong. They also often suck up more money than they bring back in the short-term, but also in the long-term. So it’s no wonder some companies have done well focusing on incremental innovation.

Marriott hotels, for example, are known for continuous innovation. They identify the services people want and launch them in a planned way to continually “wow” customers and keep the competition guessing.

Even Apple, which frequently tops lists for the most-innovative companies, profits from incremental innovation. Sure, Apple has launched more game changers than any other company in recent times. But after the initial release Apple sees huge returns from incremental innovations. In his article “Incremental Change Wins Apple Big Gains” tech commentator Glenn Fleishmann describes Apple’s incremental approach:

Apple is consistently criticized by pundits, bloggers, other firms, and market analysts for either innovating too much with initial releases (the MacBook Air, the iPhone, and the iPad, notably) or too little in subsequent product revisions. There’s a reason for that. I want to defend Apple’s incremental improvements as the basis of its success in the market, something its competitors seem baffled by, because they apparently don’t understand the difference between revenue and profit, and between delighting customers with products that can be used for several years and those that are obsolete before they’re even sold.

The advantage of incrementalism seems clear if you can make products that are outstanding enough to cut through the clutter of the marketplace. Rather than focusing at any point in the last decade on a cheap item that could outsell PC and then handset competitors, Apple has largely focused on releasing hardware that costs more in order to buy more of the future for its purchasers. The iPad is unusual, in that it marks the first time that Apple can be both ridiculously ahead on price relative to features and have such an extreme lead over competitors that it can maintain its position, all while making only incremental improvements.

The key, I believe, is having an incremental innovation strategy. Sequences of smaller innovations — taken together or spread out over time — can give the illusion that a company is moving forward faster than competitors.

One such strategy is “The Long Wow,” a concept first developed and described by Adaptive Path’s Brandon Schauer. With this approach, companies strive to pace features that will give a “wow” experience over time. He writes:

Plan and stage the wow experiences. Developing all your ideas at once is a risky undertaking. Instead, organize a pipeline of wow moments that can be introduced through your platform of touchpoints over the long haul. As you learn more about your customers and how they perceive the wow moments you can better organize your pipeline of ideas for development. Outline where and when additional wow experiences will emerge in the future, unfolding in a coordinated network of experiences.

Finally, consider also Steven Johnson’s notion of the “adjacent possible,” one of the core concepts of his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson shows that innovative ideas aren’t conjured up out of thin air; rather, they most often come together by combining existing ideas in new ways. Rarely in the history of innovation has man leaped forward ahead of what’s currently possible. Johnson explains:

What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each  new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. Three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace. (p. 31)

So not only is incremental innovation profitable, it’s also necessary to fuel and support breakthroughs from a creative standpoint. It’s the foundation that helps you build a palace of innovation.

In the end, none of this is an either-or question: companies need incremental innovation, breakthroughs and disruptions alike. To do this, there must be a comprehensive innovation program in place to channel attention and effort in the right direction.

We can use matrix for the “Four Zones of Innovation” to balance resources. I’m suggesting a ratio of 5:2:2:1, as shown in the chart below:

If you had $1 million, for instance, you’d dedicate $500k to incremental development, $200k to breakthrough ideas and disruptions each, and $100k to a game changer. You can argue with this distribution (please do!). But for immediate returns, focusing on incremental innovation makes sense.

The point is that incremental ideas shouldn’t be neglected: they are profitable and can fund your big idea projects. And they also provide a stepping stone toward game changers via the adjacent possible.

“Innovation” is a tricky word to define: it means different things to different people. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “You Call That Innovation?” provides a solid review of the use of the word “innovation” in business contexts.

The article points out that some people limit the scope of term. Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation (see my review), reserves “innovation” for civilization-changing developments, like electricity and the telephone. This avoids the dilution of the term, which has already become the buzzword du jour.

In a broader perspective, some consider any change to be an innovation. Etymologically, this is acceptable: the Latin root “innovare” simply means to renew or change.

To distinguish between these two extremes, some definitions view innovation on dichotomous scale. For instance, Michael Porter talks about “continuous” and “discontinuous” technological changes;  Tushman and Anderson distinguish between “incremental” and “breakthrough” innovation; Abernathy and Clark refer to “conservative” vs. “radical” innovations; and Clayton Christensen shows the difference between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovations. While this helps differentiate types of innovation efforts, viewing innovation along one dimension doesn’t tell the whole story.

To clarify the situation, I’m proposing a 2-dimensional picture of innovation:

 

  • The y-axis indicates the degree of technological progress an innovation brings with it. Moving from low to high along this line indicates improving existing capabilities, services and products.
  • The x-axis shows the impact an innovation has on the market, also from low to high. This usually entails new business models or reaching underserved target groups.

This gives rise to four distinct zones of innovation:

  • Incremental innovations involve modest changes to existing products and services. These are enhancements that keep a business competitive, such as new product features and service improvements.
  • Breakthrough innovation refers to large technological advances that propel an existing product or service ahead of competitors. This is often the result of research and development labs (R&D), who are striving for the next patentable formula, device and technology.
  • Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Clayton Christensen. In his best-selling book The Innovator’s Dilemma he shows that disruptive innovations “result is worse product performance, at least in the near-term. [They] bring to a market a very different value proposition than had been available previously” (p. xviii).
  • Game-changing innovation transform markets and even society. These innovations have a radical impact on how humans act, think and feel in some way.

My proposed view of innovation isn’t original. It’s directly influenced by a model developed Wheelright and Clark (1992), which is mentioned as a way to prioritize and plan for innovation in the book The Innovator’s DNA. Still, I believe my approach improves their model and sheds new light on some important differences in our discussions and efforts around innovation.

Chief among these is the confusion between “breakthrough” and “disruptive” innovation. Scott Anthony et al. point to this common misconception the book The Innovator’s Guide to Growth (see my review). They write:

The word disruption itself is loaded with alternative meanings and connotations, many of which run counter to the precise pattern Christensen identified is his original stream of research. As the concept has seeped into the mainstream, this language “disconnect” has led to confusion, misunderstanding, and the occasional misallocation of resources… The error people make most frequently is assuming that a great leap forward in performance is synonymous with disruption.

Breakthrough innovations promise significant improvements in performance compared with existing products. Examples include the Airbus 380, Nokia’s flagship Lumia 900 phone and Microsoft Office 2007. To contrast, disruptive innovations address underserved market needs with products that are more convenient to access, easier to use, and cheaper to buy. Examples include budget airlines, plain vanilla $25 mobile phones, and “good enough” web-based word processing software.

The value of viewing different levels of innovation along two dimensions, as in the graph above, is that you can plot different trajectories of innovation that keep breakthroughs separate from disruptions, as needed.

What’s more, the above zones of innovation can better guide innovation efforts. I believe a good innovation program should balance attention to each zone. Each has a different purpose and requires a different strategy:

  • Incremental innovations help keep a company in the game and provide short-term revenue.
  • Breakthrough innovations can catapult a product or service well ahead of competitors.
  • Disruptions usually entail a change in a business model, making them harder to implement. One strategy is to create a separate brand or company that operates at a lower level than its parent — perhaps more like a startup. (See my review of Xiameter, a sub-brand of Dow Corning launched to address the low end of the market.)
  • Game changers transform markets. They introduce new product categories, for instance, which can ensure long-term success for a business.

Of course the lines between each zone are blurry. And you can argue about the labels themselves. But it’s the logic behind the above graph that’s key here. I’ve found it helpful in explaining innovation to clients and hope you find it helpful too. I hope you’ll adopt my labels.

Please let me know what you think.

In his book The Myths of Innovation (see my review), Scott Berkun highlights the importance of framing problems creatively. Finding the right problem is as important–if not more important–as coming up with a solution quickly. Berkun writes:

Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions. There are many ways to look at any problem, and realizing a problem is often the first step toward a creative solution. To paraphrase John Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, a properly defined problem is partially solved. (p. 128)

The start of innovation, then, shouldn’t begin with the search of the perfect solution, rather with the search for the right problem.

Read the rest of this entry »

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