Innovation is a word steeped in cynicism. We’re probably all guilty in part perpetuating the negativity surrounding this word. But innovation should be a task of hope and joy and rigor, approached with the accuracy and discipline of a scientist, the optimism and curiosity of an explorer, and the empathy and humor of a user experience designer.
Innovation has had the unfortunate burden of being the "it" buzzword across many industries (and especially ours) for the last five or ten years. Compounding the issue of overuse is that of misuse. Utter "innovation" in a room full of designers and see if it is not met with groans and eye rolls. I completely understand this reaction and believe me, I’ve rolled with the best and groaned loudest of all, but not too long ago I found myself in a place that changed my thinking: Japan.
Of course Japan is full of wonders for any user experience designer, but one place in particular got me thinking in a new and positive way about that tired word, innovation. On the Tokyo waterfront on the man-made island, Odaiba, there stands a very large building of metal and glass. This is Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The museum houses numerous geek delights: a giant LED globe displaying real-time maps and weather data, various robots, 3D dome and virtual reality theaters, and a huge marble-run physical model of the internet (to name just a few). But my favorite exhibit was on "Innovation and the Future" in which the visitor is presented with the "Spring of Wishes" out of which flow "Five Rivers of Creativity."
Through this exhibit, I was re-introduced to the idea of innovation from a fresh perspective. As I explored the various "rivers," I found them at once strange and familiar. I recognized in the five approaches to creativity some of the methods we use every day, but I began to see them in a more holistic way. Our practice at Punchcut is to look to the natural world for inspiration. We call it Experience Systematics and it is all about relationships; between people, their devices, the spaces through which they travel or reside, and the services that help them achieve their tasks. At its core, Experience Systematics applies principles of biomimicry and service design to gain insight from observing the world around us, and then seeks to understand conditions that allow life to thrive in natural spaces and apply them to digital spaces. By achieving acute awareness of all the "organisms" in a digital ecosystem and the relationships therein (systematics), opportunities for innovation emerge at Punchcut as we design new solutions, create new services, and identify new ways that people can connect.
If we look to nature and apply Experience Systematics to the case of innovation, nature provides a fantastic example: evolution. While the details of Darwin’s theory of evolution are complex the basic prerequisites for evolution are actually quite simple. There are just three essential elements for evolution to take place in a population of reproducing organisms: heredity, variation, and selection.
Heredity is the requirement that when organisms reproduce, the subsequent generation resembles its parents. Variation is the requirement that this resemblance is not perfect — either through mutation or sexual recombination, the new generation is somehow different. Lastly, selection is the requirement that these new variations have some influence on the likelihood of the offspring’s survival and reproduction.
I thought about Punchcut and about evolution as I explored the exhibit on innovation and what follows is an examination of the Miraikan’s "Five Rivers of Creativity" as viewed through the lenses of an amateur interested in organic evolution and a designer striving to improve user experiences:
One of the most frustrating misconceptions is the idea that innovation comes from nowhere. Terms like "clean slate" and "flash of genius" are not only misguided but actually harmful. Perhaps the most valuable tool for achieving innovation is the examination of what has come before. Heredity is the first requirement for evolution; the same is true of innovation. One of the most freeing things you can do as a designer is admit to yourself that there is no such thing as pure originality. To say nothing is new is not quite right, but it is fair to say everything that is new is also old.
Consider the Nintendo Wii. It is often lauded as a prime example of successful disruptive innovation, but how different is it really from the 1980s NES? The Wii may be white, but it’s still a box connected to the TV through a series of cables; The Wiimote may be wireless, but it’s still a plastic rectangle with A B buttons and a four-way D-pad; players may not have to blow on the cartridges, but it still uses physical media to house games with titles like Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart. Don’t get me wrong, the Wii is definitely an example of successful innovation, but a big part of that success is what it inherited from its own past. Innovation, like evolution, is a cumulative process. We all stand on the shoulders of giants; never believe your contributions to innovation are not allowed up there.
If the first step of innovation is selective inheritance from the past, the second is the search for something new. In evolutionary terms that’s variation, of which the most basic cause is mutation. Genetic mutation may be induced (caused by radiation, chemicals, viruses, etc.) or spontaneous (caused by errors during replication). Either way, the result is an imperfect copy of the original. Again, there’s an interesting lesson here: random chance is the simplest way to ensure variety. Taken another way: mistakes are an integral part of the creative process.
At Punchcut we always try to incorporate an element of chance in generative ideation. This is not a recommendation to ignore structured processes and logical linear thinking, but to augment these with a little happenstance. One way this is done is through word association. For example, we might invite participants to choose an object at random from the room and then make a list of ten words describing that object. Then we re-examine the topic at hand in the context of these random words to help us see the problem in a new light. For a slightly more controlled exploration, we frequently develop exercises with a curated set of prompts, but then choose and combine these elements at random to uncover new ideas and relationships.
Of course, as sophisticated sentient beings (and designers at that), we don’t have to rely on just simple chance to think of something novel. Another method we often employ at Punchcut is that of dogma vs. heresy. In this exercise, we play the devil’s advocate. Any given problem area can be reduced to a few basic variables. Each variable has a range of values. Sometimes, because of forces like inertia and group-think, one value is assumed to be the correct one, and it becomes dogma. As part of our dogma/heresy exercise, we distance ourselves from those predominant assumptions and explore a world that intentionally contradicts them, that proposes exactly the opposite of prevailing tendencies. For example, if most existing interfaces in this space are dimensional, we’ll make ours flat; if most use a button, we’ll use a gesture; if most are personal, ours will be shared, etc. You might think of this as a way to speed up the process of random mutation (like genetic engineering or the bite from a radioactive spider).
What this technique does really well is achieve differentiation. In a crowded market space, this can be extremely beneficial. The natural analog here might be biodiversity, or the degree of variation in a natural ecosystem (the greater the diversity, the greater the health and stability of the ecosystem). For any given element in a system, being different does not necessarily make it better, but for the system as a whole, variety is a strength. It’s also infinitely more interesting. One important thing to keep in mind when using this method of inversion is that as differentiated as your new solution might be, it’s still utterly defined by the original. This approach imposes a binary order on a system that is likely much more complex.
Another excellent method for creating novelty in experience design is combination. Similarly, the second major source of variation in organic evolution is sexual recombination. In sexual organisms, genetic material from two parents combines to create offspring with a random mixture of inherited traits from the two parents. It’s a bit like mixing blue and red paint to create purple. Under close inspection the purple paint is part red pigment and part blue pigment, but the resulting whole is something that appears altogether new.
Take another frequently cited example of innovation, Netflix, and in particular, how it brought down the once powerful Blockbuster. Though heredity is clearly at work in this example, combination plays a crucial role as well. The basic idea for Netflix might be written as a simple formula: Blockbuster + Internet + Postal Service = Netflix.
Obviously, the specifics of Netflix’s service design and business strategy are much more intricate, but the principle of combination is at the heart of its innovation. Netflix identified a number of pre-existing (and in the case of the postal service, even outdated) services and combined them to produce something new (and better). The company has subsequently evolved once more, and that equation might look something like this: Netflix - Postal Service + More Internet = Netflix Streaming.
Now at the risk of getting a little recursive, let’s take combination a step further by combining it with the previous method of differentiation. When diverse elements cooperate toward a mutually beneficial goal we call that synergy. Synergy is another industry buzzword with its own baggage, but don’t let your skepticism get the better of you, there’s real magic here. British author Matt Ridley gave a wonderful TED talk called When Ideas Have Sex, and in it he references the economist David Ricardo’s idea of comparative advantage. This concept can be explained in a fairly simple story:
Two designers, Ilsa and Thor, each make two products, Sharpies and Post-Its.
This story illustrates how specialization and exchange create mutually beneficial interactions: synergy. Another (slightly less academic) example is the Voltron/Power Rangers/Captain Planet construct. These episodes invariably end with an epic battle in which the team of five or so heroes, each with his own unique powers, fight gallantly until, at the brink of defeat, the heroes combine their powers into some new force which unites them into a single being, stronger than the sum total of their individual powers That’s cartoon synergy. The natural term for this interaction might be mutualism: multiple organisms evolving in concert forming a mutually beneficial relationship.
This combination of diverse ideas toward a single goal is extremely powerful in product innovation, but exactly how to apply this principle may seem a bit vague. Actually, it’s quite simple: collaborate. The value of collaboration is a core belief at Punchcut and every project team from the earliest discovery brainstorming session is made up of a group of individuals from a variety of disciplines with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
There’s another great TED talk from Tom Wujec in which he describes something called the Marshmallow Challenge. This is a simple twenty minute design exercise that has been conducted and observed around the world with a wide variety of groups of people. In it, small teams work together to build a structure out of provided materials which must hold the weight of a single marshmallow at its peak. The only goal is to build the tallest structure. Through this exercise, a number of insights about successful collaboration and innovation are revealed, and one of the main findings is that a heterogenous team made up of individuals with diverse specializations (especially one including a collaboration facilitator) does better than a homogenous team of like-minded members. I’d say this is synergy in practice.
Here ends the ride down Miraikan’s series of rivers, but there’s another aspect of innovation to add to the mix, and that’s context.
Thus far, the five approaches have focused on defining the intrinsic qualities of the product or service. However, a product is defined not only by its inherent qualities but by the contexts in which it’s used. In evolutionary terms, the sum total of an organism’s observable traits is called its phenotype. This is made up of the organism’s genotype (its heritable genetic traits) as well as its interaction with its environment. For example, I may have the genetic makeup that causes skin to produce melanin when exposed to UV light, but I won’t actually be tan unless I live in an environment in which I get a lot of sun. Changing the context of a product, like changing the environment of an organism, will change the product itself.
At Punchcut we believe strongly in the role of context in the design of products and services. As devices become more mobile and more connected, and as cloud solutions begin to enable multiple experiences driven from a unified remote source, properly understanding context and crafting well-tailored interfaces becomes all the more crucial. To understand the subtleties of a product’s use, we apply methods of Experience Systematics to analyze context along four dimensions: people, devices, spaces, and services. This approach helps us see beyond the individual product at hand to the larger ecosystem of its use. No one uses a product in a vacuum; don’t design it in one either.
The real magic of these methods is seeing them all come together. Using them in concert will achieve the greatest degree of novelty and differentiation. However, new does not equal good. In fact, the opposite may be true more often than not. While novelty is indeed a major component of innovation, that novelty must also add value to be truly called innovative.
At this point, you may remember the final requirement for evolution: selection. To restate, selection is the requirement that new variations in an organism’s offspring have some influence on the likelihood of that offspring’s survival and reproduction. This last aspect is the evolutionary equivalent of added value. In nature this is achieved through iterative in-market user testing. It’s trial and error, and much of it is error. Studies on variation-causing mutations in the fruit fly (Drosophila) show something like 95% of these mutations to be harmful to the fly’s ability to survive and reproduce. Of the remaining 5%, many have no effect on the organism’s fitness at all. Only a small percentage of mutations are actually beneficial.
One of the primary features of natural selection is the fact that organisms produce more offspring than can survive. The same should be true of design ideation and concepting. To put it bluntly, you’re gonna have to kill some babies. Going back to the Marshmallow Challenge, Wujec found that there was one method that improved success more than any other: iteration. Teams that naturally practiced iterative attempts over the course of their twenty minutes built taller structures than those that worked on one concept for the entire time. Additionally, teams that were given a second chance at the exercise dramatically increased their rate of successfully completed structures and the height of those structures. Understand that you’re gonna fail, but when you try again, you’ll make something better.
Finally, whether or not you buy my take on evolutionary innovation or apply these six methods in your work, what I took away from my visit to the Miraikan and what I hope you take away from this article is not just the content but the tone. The character of the exhibit was one of scientific rigor balanced with humor and joy and an overarching tone of hope. This seems to me the ideal mindset for innovation. What better spirit for exploration? What better attitude for the search for something new and better? And how can we ever hope to find it if we aren’t open to its existence? I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the exhibit’s introduction. Its translation lends it a child-like innocence that perfectly captures the mood I’m trying to describe:
"Long ago when our ancestors first devised tools from stone and bone, human beings have also wished to live with greater abundance and convenience, and so they made all sorts of things that help improve their lives. Knowledge and technology accumulated, developed, and formed civilizations.
Out of Darwin’s theories was also borne one caution: evolutionary forces have no direction or purpose or greater cause. The result of these forces at work is not meant to imply one species is better than another. Perhaps then, it is here that we as designers must diverge from the analogy. At Punchcut, we believe in our ability to conceive of a digital ecosystem that is better: one where humans and technology work in concert, intuitively and in ways that support the human condition. We inspire companies with the ideas that provoke the evolution of their products and services. We empower brands to take an active role in pursuing the next generation of mobility. Guided by the natural habits of the mobile lifestyle, Punchcut collaborates with leading brands to make ideas that make a difference.