The Cult Of Innovation

Consumers don't need purple ketchup or Crystal Pepsi. They need meaning

By Dan Saffer

A flood of recent articles, books, podcasts, and blogs offers the following advice to businesses in today's global marketplace: To remain competitive, you must innovate, innovate, innovate. You must spread innovation throughout your company like fertilizer, the experts exhort. And everyone within the organization—custodians and executives alike—had better embrace innovation lest they imperil the company itself. The I-word is everywhere, becoming this generation's "efficiency" or "Total Quality Management." Indeed, BusinessWeek's newest supplement calls itself in: Inside Innovation.

It's not hard to see where this deification may lead: innovation for innovation's sake. For proof, simply walk down the aisles of any supermarket and take note of all the "New and Improved!" labels. What it gets us, in other words, is purple ketchup and Crystal Pepsi—products that no one needs and few actually desire.

The problem is a widespread misunderstanding of the true meaning, or benefit, of innovation. Innovation is traditionally understood as a combination of insight and invention, with insight being the "Aha!" moment and invention being the company's muscle to make it happen. This is all well and good, but one crucial aspect of the definition is missing: the ability to judge the inspiration and determine whether it is worthwhile to spend the company's resources on the invention. Without this judgment, innovation is just The New, and new isn't always better. It's a louder sizzle, not a juicier steak. For innovation to be truly important, it needs to resonate with consumers. Insights need to be derived from the unmet needs and desires of people, not simply the company's feeling that it needs to innovate.

The reason we covet certain objects has little to do with how "innovative" they are. Instead, we favor certain products because they meet our needs, even if they are needs we didn't know we had. The reason so many of us love our iPods, the No. 1 example cited by innovation gurus, isn't because they are innovative. We love them because they allow us to listen to music and manage our music collections as never before. TiVo (TIVO ) offers a similar benefit to television viewers. Finally, I can subscribe to my favorite TV shows and watch them at my leisure. I didn't know I even wanted—no, needed—TiVo until I had it. In other words, it has real meaning for me and for millions of other consumers.

Innovation-obsessed companies can fall into another trap: that of discarding or neglecting perfectly fine products to seek out new ones. Some products, especially breakthrough products, often take time to reach mass adoption. (Remember when critics claimed "iPod" stood for "Idiots Price Our Devices?") If you are constantly seeking the new, then the established, no matter how useful or usable it is, will seem dull by comparison, in need of sprucing up. But this is false innovation, driven by the company, not by customer needs.

What's needed isn't always the new or the unique, and it certainly isn't always more, as in more features, more gizmos, more newness. Sometimes it's less. Nintendo's Wii, for instance, has far fewer features than Sony's PS3, and yet the Wii is such a joy to use that it has been far outselling the PS3. So, sometimes it requires answering the simple but all-important question: Do people really need this? Or, more important, would this product enrich someone's life?

This is where Design comes into play. As a designer, I'm pleased by the recent move by business to involve designers in the innovation process. I'm worried, however, that Design (with a capital D, which is more than just product styling) will conveniently be labeled as innovation, only to be relegated to the bench once the I-trend has subsided, as all trends do.

Design as a discipline and as a way of working has so much more to offer—methods for research, brainstorming, conceptualizing, making products, and, yes, thinking. Innovation, at least in its popular usage, has none of these. Most important, it has no history, only a present and a future: the never-ending quest for the new and the unique, and, only occasionally, the better. But without context for consumers, the cult of innovation will eventually be forgotten along with any important lessons learned, including the most important one: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Rather than simply making novel products and services, we should strive to make better, more meaningful ones. Now that would be a true innovation.

Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.

Dan Saffer is an interaction designer at San Francisco design and user-experience consultancy Adaptive Path.

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