Subject To Change, by Peter Merholz, Brandon Schauer, David Verba, and Todd Wilkens (Adaptive Paths), O’Reilly, 2008


In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger formulated their 95 theses into what became the Cluetrain Manifesto, which was then published as a book in 2000. This pointed to new world marketplace, where markets are seen as conversations. To sum up this paradigm shift in the authors’ own words:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

Perhaps we’ve already seen this shift starting to take place. Old-economy models of management and customer relationships have been replaced by fast-moving, transparent ways of doing business. The authors of Subject To Change recognize this change as well:

“We’re sitting at the crux of a fundamental shift in the ways in which businesses engage with their customers. There are many reasons for this shift—globalization, containerization, digitization—and these emerging forces are causing consternation for businesses that don’t quite know how to react. The old tools at their disposal, such as efficiency, optimization, just-in-time manufacturing, blitz marketing, and outsourcing no longer provide the gains or competitive advantages they once did.” (p. 3).

Subject To Change guides us through this new environment from a user experience perspective, making a compelling overall case for experience design. And it does so with a sense of urgency: experience design and experience strategy aren’t things you should slowly start getting into. They are crucial to your business. You need to fundamentally transform your relationship with your customers and how you create products. Now.

A key message in Subject To Change is that “the experience is the product,” which is also the title of Chapter 1. Technology and richer feature sets alone are no longer sufficient to stay ahead in a competitive marketplace. Instead, you must create meaningful, engaging experiences to bring value to your business. And ultimately, from a user’s standpoint, there is no difference between the product and the experience.

An experience strategy, the topic of Chapter 2, is a critical step towards good experience design. The authors show that differentiation is of primary importance here, directly recalling Michael Porter’s perspective on strategy outlined in his landmark article “What Is Strategy” (HBR, 1996). A strategy based on parity is destined to fail. Instead, the goal is to find where you are different from competitors and highlight that value proposition in everything you do, including in the product design. Design and strategy, then, are not mutually exclusive; in fact, you could say that the former is the embodiment of the latter. Great product experiences demand a solid experience strategy.

What’s more, having an experience strategy is critical for dealing with change and uncertainty. Your product design may fail here and there, or you may have to change it often, but if the strategy is well-defined the user experience will still be consistent. Having a clearly articulated and explicit strategy, then, is central to being able to react and accommodate change:

“You have to recognize that a system will degrade, and make it such that such entropy doesn’t shatter the entire experience. The true success of experience design isn’t how well it works when everything is operating as planned, but how well it works when thing start going wrong.” (p. 99).

Unfortunately, many organizations overlook the value of a creating a clear vision of the intended user experience. The authors point out:

“All too often, product teams have no central vision to work toward. At best, there is a list of requirements to meet; more typically, they simply have a set of features to develop. Designing and developing to requirement and feature list leads to unsatisfactory experiences, because those lists aren’t oriented to the perspective of the user. As they make decisions along the way, teams’ concerns for features, data, and technology trumps [sic] serving the customer. This is in large part because they have requirement and feature lists in front of them, but nothing to represent the user’s ultimate experience.” (p. 26)

One tactic to clarify a product vision is through prototypes. Vision prototypes make a common experience goal tangible and visible to others on the development team. What’s more, this type of exploration is important for the general design process. The overall take-away: make the vision of the user’s experience explicit early on.

But where does experience vision come from? In part, it comes from empathy for users. Building empathy for users, the authors advise us, is the first step on your way to transformative experience design—preceding and directly informing the experience strategy.

Traditional marketing techniques, however, don’t create empathy. People are not the gregarious consumers marketing data often portraits them as:

“To cultivate empathy for customers and users, it’s vital that an organization have a realistic view of those people’s lives. We must understand people as they are rather than as market segments or demographics.” (p. 43)

Even some traditional user-centered research methods don’t necessarily build empathy. Many approaches view people as rational actors or goal-driven buyers. Though methods like GOMS have a place in user research programs, they often miss the bigger picture. Alternatively, the authors advocate seeing “user experience” as a holistic phenomenon, taking emotions, culture, and context into account. In other words, don’t oversimplify the user’s experience, and instead embrace its complexity and vagueness.

Luckily, there are methods and approaches for capturing a holistic view of users. These often contrast traditional marketing techniques. Ethnography, for one, currently leads the pack of such holistic techniques and is on the lips of many experience designers these days. It’s curious, however, that although very effective, ethnography is still not widespread. A recent study on methods clearly demonstrates this: of the 20 methods compared, ethnography emerged as the most effective for creativity and innovation, but was one of the least commonly used techniques. (See “Ideation for product innovation: What are the best methods?” by Robert Cooper and Scott Edgett).

A central point in gaining empathy is that user research must go far beyond just listening to what people say. Looking at verbatim customer comments from questionnaires, for instance, can be flawed and skewed. It assumes that users are capable of expressing the real issues they are having in words, and that you—the reader of their comments—can draw the right conclusions from those comments.

But even if users could formulate their issues clearly and you could interpret them accurately, they won’t tell you want to do or how to design a product. They can’t. People don’t know more than what they’ve already experienced when it comes to product design, and they won’t be able to see beyond what they know. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Or, consider the now-famous collaborative filtering navigation mechanism for book recommendations on Maryam Mohit, responsible for the online customer experience at Amazon, explains in an interview that the idea for that feature was inspired by users, but didn’t come directly from their comments:

“It’s a combination of listening really hard to customers, and innovating on their behalf. For example, quite awhile ago we developed the “similarities” feature – the one that says “people who bought this also bought that.” In focus groups, no customer ever specifically requested that feature. But if you listened to customers talk about how they buy things, they’d say, my friend bought this, and I like what they like. In other words, they get recommendations from people they trust. There was a cognitive leap, based on those comments, to realizing that we could create something like that based on the data we had. That’s an example where there was a need expressed by customers, but the innovation was taking that general need and making the leap to a technology that meets that need in a new way.”

To be able to design for an innovative experience on the user’s behalf, you first have to build empathy. To do so, go beyond just listening to customers, and observe what they do as well.

The authors Subject To Change therefore urge businesses to make user research a core competency. This doesn’t mean throwing a few extra dollars at consultants to perform a few more usability tests each year. Instead, everyone in the organization must have an implicit empathy for the users of your products and services. First-hand contact with users helps greatly.

All of these recommendations in Subject To Change are not just idealistic talk without regard of project constraints. Thankfully, the authors have a very realistic perspective on product development. They recognize that having a primary focus on the user experience doesn’t mean you should ignore technology or business constraints. Of course these things matter, and they are huge challenges to solve in their own right. But the approach advocated in Subject To Change suggests that the user experience must be the centripetal force pushing downward on traditional technology- and feature-centered perspectives of product developement, rather than having those aspects act as a centrifugal force outward on the user experience.

Tim O’Reilly makes a similar observation in his blog posting “Designing from the Outside In.” He writes:

“Isn’t it curious how many of the applications and ideas getting the most buzz right now are coming from fertile collaborations between designers and developers? In addition to basecamp, there’s Flickr, conceived by designers Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake. And who put their finger on AJAX, the meme of the moment, but web design firm Adaptive Path. Are designers the new heroes of the computer industry?”

O’Reily also quotes from Christopher Alexander’s landmark book A Pattern Language, which is about user-centered patterns of building architecture. Alexander writes:

“To lay out paths, first place goals at natural points of interest. Then connect the goals to one another to form the paths.”

This suggests that to create the optimal footpaths in a public space, it’s best to first put in the lawn and see where people walk. Then lay down the pavement to accommodate their natural walking patterns.

However, designing from “outside in” is often opposed to the organization and culture of many companies. Recognizing this, the authors of Subject To Change devote considerable space to discussions on how companies are organized and how organizational structures affect experience design. They point out that aligning an entire organization towards experience design represents a fundamentally different approach to how the company is run. Despite these challenges, the recommendation is to also make Design (with a capital D) a core competency—along with user research.

”Most companies are absolutely capable of creating the necessary processes. It’s just that this capability has languished because design activities have been discouraged in standard business practice. The ability to design and create new experiences is diffused and scattered throughout every technical and creative discipline. In addition, it’s typically relegated to lowest levels of an organization, given the least thought and analysis, and, not surprisingly, products results that are well beneath its potential.” (p. 111).

Bill Buxton, a notable author and speaker on human-computer interaction, corroborates this notion in an article “Innovation vs. Invention,” taking a perhaps more hard-core position. He writes:

“Is design leadership an executive level position? Do you have a Chief Design Officer reporting to the president? My view is that if you do not, you are not serious about design or innovation. Furthermore, you are telegraphing this fact to all of your employees, along with a clear message that they need not be either. As a result, you might as well fire all of your creative people, since you are setting them up to fail anyhow.”

It seems that good experience design—and innovation for that matter—must come from the top down within an organization, as well as from the bottom up. With out broad, high-level support for transformative design, good product experience won’t happen.

Why should businesses care? Well, the benefits of experience design to businesses are many. Chief among these is customer loyalty. The authors describe in some length what they call The Long “Wow!,” or a continued series of offerings that “wow” users. This means reaching beyond typcial measurements of customer satisfaction or creating things like loyalty programs. Instead, look deep into the lives of your users for opportunities to amaze and delight them through design. Make experience design a strategic advantage for your organization to bring value to your business. Win over your customers’ hearts.

On a more tactical level, the authors also propose agile developments methods as an important way to deal with fast changing projects. But it’s not just the process or steps that formal agile methods offer which are important. For sure, agile methods aren’t really structured to accommodate user experience design: they tend to focus on implementation. Still, there are aspects of agile methods than experience design can directly benefit from. You should therefore focus on the agile ideals: iterative design, open communication, and experimentation are all critical in melding agile development and experience design.


Overall, three themes emerge as the key elements in experience design throughout the book: strategy, empathy for users, and organizational transformation. This mirrors the main points made in Jared Spool’s recent keynote speech at the 2008 IA Summit in Miami entitled “Journey to the Center of Design.” His company, User Interface Engineering (UIE), investigated what development teams that create great experiences do differently than those that don’t. Their evidence shows three distinguishing elements: vision, feedback, and culture. In other words, teams that consistently create great user experiences have a clear vision of the final experience, they have proper channels of input from users that build empathy, and they have a company culture that truly supports Design. Teams that are not so successful lack these traits.


Subject To Change repeats many common themes found in the user-centered design literature from the last three or so decades. User research? Of course. Task analysis? Yes. Personas? Also good. But this book goes beyond the tenants of user-centered design to present a framework for understanding experience design. Start with a vision of the experience, gain empathy for users, and work in a culture that supports creativity and innovation. And above all, let your paths naturally adapt as needed.

The real value of this book is that present a case for experience design that makes good business sense. In fact, Subject To Change shows why experience design is critical for businesses in today’s market. The user-centered design community has come up short on this point: for all of user-centered dogma and research studies out there, we’ve failed to tell businesses how to get value from their products or to tell engineers how to build products. As a result, Subject To Change is not just for designers and should appeal to managers and developers alike.

Subject To Change paints a broad picture of user experience, but it also goes beyond that. It’s really about how to enable an organization to engage in Design Thinking, which isn’t only for designers. To effectively and consistently innovate and create compelling user experiences, everyone in an organization needs to be involved in Design in different ways. So, at its core, this is also a book about innovation and the mindset needed to create a culture of innovation.

This is a slim volume with eight short chapters over about 170 pages of text. The writing is compact and clear. And there is no mincing of words. Some may actually find it too emphatic at times, with very direct imperatives. But given today’s heavy engineering-oriented or feature-oriented product development approaches, such a tone is needed.

Subject To Change is a much-needed wake-up call for businesses looking to stay competitive in the 21st century. This is an excellent, well-written book packed with great advice from veterans in the field. It’s highly recommended and essential for anyone currently trying to innovate products and services in just about any field.


Quotes from the book:

“The key to succeeding in the contemporary marketplace is to fundamentally change your relationship with customers. Once you stop thinking of your customers as consumers and begin approaching them as people, you’ll find a whole new world of opportunities to meeting their needs and desires.” (p. 3)

“We live in an increasingly uncertain world, where the tools that served us well for so long no longer do. Technology isn’t sufficient; we can’t simply add features to attract an audience. There is no more efficiency to squeeze out of our operations, nor defects to remove from our products.” (p. 14)

“The experience is the product.” (p. 14)

“Strategies of parity are low value and short-lived. Strategies of delivering new offerings for novelty’s sake won’t survive much further than the infomercial. These approaches center on features and technologies rather than focusing on the one thing that really matters—the experience. But even though experience matters to everyone, we almost always lose sight of it in product development.” (p. 25)

“If earlier reductionist models offered ways of avoiding or reducing the complexity in people’s lives, these new approaches are our attempts to acknowledge and embrace that complexity. By doing so, we are able to understand people more honestly and completely. We gain the potential for greater insights because we see and account for things left out of the old models. We build empathy that gives us the ability to provide a truly great product or service experience. This greater understanding also allows organizations to handle uncertainty and reduce risk.” (p. 58)

“Stop Designing ‘Products’” (title of Chapter 5, p. 79)

“So there you have it: the secret sauce is to focus on experiences by delving into the complexities of people’s lives, and then to create elegant systems to support them.” (p. 105)

“Anything elevated to level of an organizational competency has to align with both the organization’s strategy and its system for doing business. Without this business perspective, design fails. Strategy, systems, and design are all innately about tradeoffs.” (p. 116)

“Design can and will fail when it’s practiced outside the context of systems and strategy. […] When applied well, strategy provide useful boundaries to the design activity.[…] Sam Lucente, head of design at HP, has also shared his take on the effectiveness of such constraints: ‘For the longest time, ideation was about throwing out as many ideas as you can. We’ve realized pretty quickly it’s really not about a bunch of ideas; it’s about really good strategy, alignment with business, diagnostics, and deep customer understanding. And when you’re ready to talk about ideas, bringing people to the table who are informed is what it’s all about’.” (p. 118-119)

“As markets, people’s lives, and the world are becoming more complex, many of the old, easy answers to business problems are insufficient. Developing creative, agile, and experience-focused approaches will be a key business practice for small and large companies alike.” (p. 176)

Exploratory Search

26 April 2008

Mark Nolan has a nice article in the April/May 2008 issue of the ASIST Bulletin called “Exploring Exploratory Search.”

Citing an article by Gary Marchionini (“Exploratory search: From finding to understanding.), Mark points to three larger classes of behavior: Lookup, Learn, Investigate. Each has subclasses of behavior. These behaviors, however, aren’t linear. Makes sense: we can bounce back and forth between them when searching information.

This recalls Allan Foster‘s nonlinear model of information seeking he proposed in 2004 in an ASIST article. “The behavioral patterns are analogous to an artist’s palette, in which activities remain available throughout the course of information-seeking,” says Foster. He identified three large phases as well, which he calls Opening, Orientation, and Consolidation. Not quite the same, but similar.

Mr Nolan gives the Investigate mode of searching the most attention in his article–and rightfully so. It’s the hardest to understand and to design for. How can people find things they don’t know they need? How can a search system support unknown information needs?

Of course, Donna Mauer describes this mode of searching “don’t know what you need to know” in her Boxes and Arrows article “Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them.”

The article ends with some high-level areas to consider in supporting exploratory search. I must admit I was hoping for more than a focus on improved search retrieval systems and better content. What about text analytics and automatic extraction techniques? What about semantic analysis of tagging and the like? Seems we’re still thinking in terms of an active information seeking model for the user when maybe passive models may be more fruitful in exploring information. In other words, people shouldn’t have to find information; the information should find the right people.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, you can add graphs to your Google Docs spreadsheets. Particularly cool is the Gapminder motion graph. I couldn’t get the attributes on the right of the graph to show up from my spreadsheet, but it’s still cool.

Managed Q Search

11 February 2008

Just came across Managed Q, a search application the inventors describe as “dedicated to helping you manage your entire Search Experience: from the keyword, to results, to previewing, to refinement and repeating with a new query.”

The entity extraction around person, place, and thing seems fairly good. But I’m particularly interested in how you interact with the entities. Just by rolling over any one of them, you can see the precise locations in the found documents where that term appears. Niffty.

Of course, to do this they also only show images of the pages found. That’s right–no text list. Even the paging navigation show thumbnails of the next or previous pages. There are a few interaction problems here and there, but overall it’s quite an interesting experience. I like the thumbnail browse view–it’s helpful for somes types of queries and information seeking.

I read The Myths of Innovation a while ago and am now just getting around to reviewing it. Originally, I wanted to review it for Boxes and Arrows, but James Robertson beat me to it. See his review on Boxes and Arrows. (Ironically, but not coincidently, I edited that review for B&A).


The Myths of Innovation, by Scott Berkun (O’Reilly, 2007) ISBN: 0596527055, $24.99 ($16.49 on, 162 pages.

Innovation is the new black. It’s on the lips on many companies these days, regardless of industry or sector. Just look at the slogans, mottos, and company values out there. You’d think everyone is innovating. Many self-proclaimed innovators, however, are actually higly risk-averse organizations fiercely protecting the status quo, whether they know it or not.

Sure, these companies are well-managed and successful. But that doesn’t mean they are innovators. In fact, Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard, might say that many established companies are in what calls an “innovator’s dilemma”: The same management techniques that have made them industry leaders also hinder them from developing disruptive technologies that ultimately steal away their markets. See his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Delimma.

In The Myths of Innovation, author Scott Berkun also points out that many traditional companies aren’t motivated to change:

“It’s both a psychological and economical phenomenon: as people and companies age, they have more to lose. They’re not willing to spend years chasing dreams or to endanger what they’ve worked so hard to build. Attitudes focus on security, risk aversion, and optimization of the status quo eventually become dominant positions, and even become organizational policy at companies that were once young, nimble, and innovative. Even its success enabled it to grow into mainstream business, diminishing their interest and capacity for new ideas.” (p. 62).

He also writes: “Few managers recognize that their training and experience, designed to protect what exists, work against the forces needed for innovation.” (p. 96).

But by definition, innovation means being open to new ideas: something has to change for an innovation to take place. Innovation also requires taking some kind of risk. Of course, risk isn’t a bad thing—it brings opportunity as well. The problem is that not everyone likes new ideas or risk, and that’s a problem, which the Berkun discusses in Chapter 4.

More importantly, there is a prevailing oversimplified view of innovation fueled by myths. Myths, in general, provide compact, uncomplicated ways of understanding the past. And the field of innovation it is no different. “We want innovation explained in neat packages.” (p. 71). People like romantic stories about the secret magical moment that spawned a new innovation, for instance. As a result, misconceptions about innovation arise.

Berkun makes it very clear throughout the book that innovation doesn’t happen this way. Instead, there many processes involved, and the road to innovation is rarely a straight line. This view of innovation is refreshing, and it’s a true strength of the book. Berkun clearly takes a holistic view on innovation, describing it ecology rather than a single method or process.

Innovation is like a complex puzzle, he says, filled with trial and error. And like a doing a jigsaw puzzle, rarely are you able to pick up a piece and have it fit on the first try. A good example of this (one not mentioned in the book) is the development of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. The inventor, Sir James Dyson, is reported to have gone through 5126 prototypes before getting to the final product on the market today. (See: “Failure Doesn’t Suck”). This also recalls a saying by Thomas Alva Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So generally you don’t have a single, lone innovativor who then has a moment of epiphany. The idea of the apple falling on Newton’s head–an apocryphal tale at best–is nice for grade school classes, but has little to do with the years of hard work and trial and error he went through, not to mention the hundreds of influences from the outside. Berkun illustrates the complicated road to successful innovation with many compelling examples throughout the book.

The problem is that many organizations aren’t set up for failure and creative exploration. There are often very clear objectives with a high price tag associated with them, as well as many jobs riding on any business initiative. Most work environments simply don’t foster creativity and innovative thinking. This is a loss of potential innovation. “The truth is that we all have innate skills for solving problems and finding ideas: we’ve just lost our way.” (p. 83).

Another myth: we believe that good ideas will look their part in a very obvious way, and we expect to recognize an innovation on sight. The first computer mouse, as Berkun points out, was an ugly block of wood with a wheel and cord. No one saw it and thought, “Wow. This is going to help revolutionize the accessibility of computers to non-computer specialists.” Or consider this: how many people said after the Wright brothers’ first short, wobbly flight, “This invention is clearly the beginning of a multi-billion dollar industry that will change the world”? There were no crowds in Kitty Hawk that day to cheer on the innovation. In fact, it took six years before they even sold the first airplane.

A recent article in Business Week entitled “The Long Nose of Innovation” by Bill Buxton reinforces this notion. I blogged this previously. He writes: “An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea’s augmentation and refinement.” Ideas sometimes need lots of time to get traction on their way to becoming true innovations.

The problem is that people judge superficial aspects of ideas and not their potential. And don’t expect management to be able to recognize an innovation when they see it. As Berkun reminds us, they very often can’t; managers don’t necessarily know any more about innovation than you do. This recalls a statement by Alan Kay, a well-known researcher at Xerox PARC, who once said: “It takes almost as much creativity to understand a good idea as to have it in the first place.”

Though The Myths of Innovation isn’t really a how-to book, Berkun does offer some practical advice at a few points. For instance, he offers five key areas for managers to focus on when managing innovation:

  1. Give ideas life. Avoid idea killers, like “we tried that” and “it’ll never work. Fund and support initiatives that generate ideas
  2. Create an innovative environment. “The Nerf toys, open architecture and fun vibe at Google’s headquarters aren’t gimmicks; the environment is supportive of ideas and collaboration, which helps innovations move through the organization.” (p. 103).
  3. Protect innovators and innovations from management and administration. Shield ideas and the people behind them from idea killers.
  4. Execute on your ideas. Ideas must be realized to become innovations. Develop prototypes and proof of concepts.
  5. Persuade others that you have the right idea. The most successful innovators spend as much time selling their ideas as they do building their inventions.

But even if managed well, the best ideas don’t always win, the topic of Chapter 8. Building a better mousetrap doesn’t mean you’ve succeeded. First, you need to convince and persuade others to encourage your idea. Innovators must be persistent evangelizers. Then, even if you get internal funding or support, you have to be concerned about whether users will adopt your innovation. Understanding your target population helps increase the predictability with which a group will adopt your innovations.

The subject of adopting an innovation is precisely why user researchers and designers should be highly interested in this book. We designers are by nature very concerned with how people will experience the new thing we are making. By definition, this underlies design work in general.

To illustrate this point, elsewhere Berkun has said:

Successful innovators spend as much time understanding the people they are designing for, their beliefs, feelings, values, and needs, as they do the technologies they’re using to build innovations, and the book offers the fundamentals on how to do this. So, the superiority of your mousetrap is sure nice in an ivory-tower setting, but if people—customers—can’t see why it’s superior, then the superiority is just your opinion. And sadly, I don’t know anyone who has made millions solely on the superiority of their own opinion.”

A key aspect of innovation, then, is the adoption or non-adoption of the innovation. Of course, Everett Rogers outlined five key factors for understanding adoption of innovations in his oft-cited book The Diffusions of Innovation decades ago. Berkun summarizes these concepts briefly, which are:

  • Relative advantage: How do users perceive the value of the new thing compared to the old?
  • Compatibility: How well does the innovation fit in with the existing values, past experiences and current needs of potential adopters?
  • Complexity: How easy or hard is it to learn to use the new thing?
  • Trialability: Can it be tested?
  • Observability: What does it look like?

Have a look at this brief essay I wrote on the five factors of adopting an innovation back in 2001.

Finally, Chapter 9–“Problems and solutions”–is one of the more intriguing parts of the book. (At least it was for me). Innovation isn’t only about solutions, but also about finding the right problems to solve and framing them in the right way. “Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions” (p. 128). This reminded me of a quote from Don Norman I recently came across in an interview with Peter Merholz. Norman advises designers:

Do not solve the problem that’s asked of you. It’s almost always the wrong problem. Almost always when somebody comes to you with a problem, they’re really telling you the symptoms and the first and the most difficult part of design is to figure out what is really needed to get to the root of the issue and solve the correct problem.

The example from The Myths of Innovation I particularly like comes from Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, the makers of Quicken. He apparently realized that the greatest competitor wasn’t other software programs, but the pencil. Reframing the problem in this way (i.e., to compete with the pencil) allowed them to develop one of the most widely-used personal finance software packages out there.

So, what does it mean to be innovative, then? Maybe nothing. Maybe companies should just focus on creating great customer experiences and, if innovation happens—even disruptive innovation—then let it. Berkun himself encourages us to stop using the word in a blog post (see: Stop saying innovation—here’s why). “It doesn’t mean anything anymore,” he writes.

Overall, in The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun dissects and debunks the perceived simplicity of innovation and reveals its true complexity. This short book paints a broad picture of innovation from a historical perspective and includes many great examples—real eye-openers.

It is a well-written book with a sprinkling of good humor to kept things interesting. His style is accessible and conversational to just about any target group. The small, bite-sized chapters let’s you move quickly through the concepts without getting sidetracked.

With 150 pages of text at a price of about 16 bucks, you have no excuse for not buying and reading this book. It’s well worth it.


Quotes from the Book:

“Technology prowess matters much less than we think in the diffusion of innovation.” (p. 65)

“[Innovators] grow so focused on creating things that they forget that those innovations are good only if people can use them.” (p. 66)

“All innovations today are bound to innovation of the past.”

“Einstein said ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’ but you’d be hard-pressed to find schools or corporations that invest in people with those priorities.” (p. 83)

“The dirty little secret—the fact often denied—is that unlike the mythical epiphany, real creation is sloppy.” (p. 86)

“Talent is only as good as the environment it’s in.” (p. 96)

“It’s easy to assume that the manager has a better perspective on the viability of an idea, perhaps from her superior experience and knowledge of the industry. But these are exactly the factors that also work against innovation: high experience and confidence make people the greatest resistors to new ideas as they have the most to lose.” (p. 98)

“Good managers of innovation recognize that they are in primary control over the environment, and it’s up to them to create a place for talented people to do their best work.” (p. 103)

“The idealism of goodness and the notion that goodness wins is tempered by the limits and irrationalities of people’s willingness to try new things, the culture of the era, and the events of the time.” (p. 124)

“No one asked Galileo to explain the solar system, Engelbart to invent the mouse, or Bell to create the telephone. They saw unidentified problems in the world and dedicated themselves to defining and solving them.” (p. 127)


13 December 2007

The best talk I saw at the Web 2.0 conference in Berlin this year was from Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Software Architect at Microsoft Live Labs. He showcased the latest updates of Photosynth, a new technology from Microsoft Labs that stitches photos together from any number of sources to create (the illusion) of a 3-D model of a building or landmark. If you’ve not seen this yet, do so. Here’s a brief video of Blaise showcasing Photosynth at the TED conference.

Basically, the software recognizes unique points on photos of a stationary geo-location and is able to align them with other photos. If you get enough photos in a collection, you effectively have a 3-D version of the original location. Take Notre Dame in Paris: you can point Photosynth at a collection of photos on Flickr, forn instance, and Photosynth compilies a 3-D rendering of the building. Sure, there are some ugly seams, but it’s a pretty amazing results nonetheless. With the ubiquity of digital cameras these days, we could potentially have every place on earth represented in 3-D on the web in the future.

The interesting thing would be to apply this principle to tagging. If you have a rich, complex folksonomy, would you be able to pick out unique descriptive points, and then be able to “sew” the terms together to get a clearer semantic picture of the objects being described? I suppose that’s  what things like Twine are trying to do, in a sense.

Check out Blaise’s TED talk.

Larry Lessig on Copyright

17 November 2007

Larry Lessig’s great talk at TED called How creativity is being strangled by the law is now available as video on the TED site. His points and his presentation are really compelling. The bottom line is that law and culture are out of synch so that on the Internet we are violating the law as a rule of thumb. This is corrosive, he says. It’s only 19 minutes long, so see it for yourself.


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