• By Everett McKay on May 25th, 2010
  • Getting from good UX to great UX

Innovation: Overrated

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 design is innovative when it is new. Whether the novelty is revolutionary or evolutionary, a novel design has a form or function that hasn’t been done before.
  • By contrast, a design is great when it fulfills its purpose extraordinarily well—whether through its value, capability, appearance, elegance, simplicity, or refinement. It has to go beyond being functional and easy to use—that just gets a design to good.

A great user experience must go beyond the ordinary. It’s about love and delight, not about satisfaction or acceptability.

The software industry is obsessed with innovation

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?

Innovation is great, sometimes

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.

Change is bad unless it’s great

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.

Innovating is easy—excellence is hard

Fact is, innovation for the sake of innovation isn’t all that hard. Here’s a few chapters from Product Innovation for Dummies:

  • Find a product with problem, find a suitable solution from some other domain, apply it. Done!
  • Find a product that requires a tool to operate and redesign to eliminate the tool. Done!
  • Find a product that is large and redesign it into a smaller form factor. Done!

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.

Is Apple innovative?

Surely Apple is an innovative company, right? For starters, they’ve invented many successful product categories, such as:

  • Low-cost personal computers
  • Easy-to-use graphical user interfaces
  • Portable computers
  • Portable music players
  • App-based smart phones
  • Tablet computers

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.

Apple fan boys, relax!

I’m not trying to take anything away from Apple—they do design great, innovative products that their customers love. My points are simply:

  • Applying the definition of innovation, Apple isn’t as innovative as you might think. Rather, Apple’s true expertise lies in perfecting the innovations of others.
  • Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. If customers love your products, they’ll consider your products innovative regardless. First UX not to suck gets full innovator credit!
  • If your customers aren’t thrilled, being innovative won’t save you.

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.

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