When I was creating my Good UX to Great UX course (subtitled Ten practical ways to take your product’s experience to the next level), I was surprised to discovered that innovation didn’t make the list. It didn’t make the top 12 list either. Perhaps if I had gone to 15 ways… *
My explanation is that a great user experiences and an innovative user experiences are orthogonal concepts. Sure, an innovative UX can be great, but it can just as easily be lousy. A design isn’t inherently superior just because it’s innovative. The definitions help explain why.
A great user experience must go beyond the ordinary. It’s about love and delight, not about satisfaction or acceptability.
What’s remarkable about my omission is that we talk about innovation so much that you’d swear it was an absolute requirement. World-class industrial designer Dieter Rams seems to think so, as innovation made the top of his Ten principles for a good design. Apparently Steve Ballmer agrees.
Somebody is wrong here and I don’t think it’s me. It could be that leaders like to talk about innovation because it sounds impressive and inspirational. Innovation is a design management MacGuffin—it drives the plot but is otherwise unimportant. Perhaps they use innovation as a code word to mean something less impressive sounding such as good design (just as people often say intuitive to mean consistent or simple.)
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that people really mean what they say. What could possibly be wrong with innovation?
Don’t get me wrong, I love great, innovative products as much as the next guy. I get extreme pleasure from their ingenuity of their design and the naturalness of their mechanics. Zero turn mowers—amazing! A multi-touch mouse—brilliant! Suspension packaging—pure genius!
But notice that I said great and innovative. At best, innovation is a supplement to greatness, not a substitute. To think otherwise makes you vulnerable to mediocrity. On their own, great ultimately beats new every time.
Not all innovation is good. Shocking to say, but it’s true.
Unwise innovation can lead to complexity, inconsistency, confusion, unintended consequences, and even danger. One way to do something is good, two ways might be OK, but five can be a mess. It’s fortunate that the basic operation of a car hasn’t changed much since its invention. Imagine the turmoil if the accelerator and brake pedals weren’t consistent across makes and models. As for unintended consequences, we learned from the housing bubble that financial and innovation should rarely be used in the same sentence.
While at Microsoft, I saw the Windows 7 team deal with downside of years of innovation on the Windows desktop. Over time, each element of the Windows desktop evolved to provide yet another way to launch programs, access commands, and show status. Consequently, each element had a mishmash of features, commands, and status instead of a clear, distinct specialty. The Windows 7 desktop was redesigned to address this. The purpose of each feature was sharpened and any excess baggage (such as the Quick launch bar) was removed.
Great innovation needs a high bar for quality and a strong motivation. We innovate best when we must, not because we can. Innovations need to solve actual problems, not just do things differently. And to handle the scale problem, introducing a new way to do something suggests that you should retire some old ways too.
Fact is, innovation for the sake of innovation isn’t all that hard. Here’s a few chapters from Product Innovation for Dummies:
These are actually pretty easy to do. What’s much more challenging is to adapt a solution that’s been used a thousand times before and somehow doing it better than anybody else. That’s really hard to do.
Turkey and gravy flavored ice cream might be innovative but difficult only in the technical sense. By contrast, creating the world’s best vanilla would be a remarkable achievement.
Surely Apple is an innovative company, right? For starters, they’ve invented many successful product categories, such as:
Actually, Apple didn’t invent any of those. But what they are really good at is innovating great features, such as:
OK, so they didn’t invent any of those either. But nobody can say that Apple doesn’t have great, innovative industrial design. Perhaps not.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Apple—they do design great, innovative products that their customers love. My points are simply:
Now, you might be thinking: OK, perhaps Apple isn’t the first in many areas, but that’s not what matters. Rather, they are often the first to really nail a design, and that’s what matters most.
My point exactly!
If you do only one thing:
Remember that innovation for its own sake is a distraction that does not guarantee success. Better to nail the basics instead and innovate as required to do so. Innovate because you must, not because you can!
Give two teams—one focused on innovation, the other focused on great design, my bet is that is that the team focused on great design will win. And ironically, customers will perceive them to be the innovator.
* Perfection also didn’t make the list. People often give the impracticality of achieving perfection as the reason for not pursuing great experiences, but I think that’s just a cop out. Greatness is about being extraordinary, not about being perfect. Any product has practical potential for greatness.