My least favourite expression of the Information Age is:
“There’s an App for that!”
I hate it so much that I visibly cringe with each reckless utterance, especially if coming from those in my immediate workspace. And here is why:
As a Designer, steeped in the field of Information Technology (hereafter IT), I confess that I am primed, perhaps a bit more than others, to have this emotional response which to some may be a bit harsh. However, as long as I have worked in IT and Design, this expression and the acceptance of such an attitude has limited otherwise natural course of innovative discussions.
Companies, and teams, who forego the process of critical design thinking, neglect the path to finding sustainable and innovative solutions. Instead many are focused on pushing out to market, ill- thought out apps borne out of the idea only “apps,” make them innovative.
About four years ago, I chatted with a fellow designer with a reputation for frequenting new startups and an ill-placed desire to design “cool things.” This designer’s reputation is about ideation, with no interest in the preceding steps of a design thinking process. I empathize because every designer wants to leave a legacy and his situation is not an isolated one. And though “legacy” doesn’t motivate all designers, we must consider that to be consistently innovative in our thinking, there are methods to be followed and that these methods add credence to our craft.
Conversations, such as the one with my peer, have heightened my distaste for some aspects of how we arrive at solutions. The notion that all problems result in apps must be disproved. And while most Designers set their best foot forward, they are not often equipped with the toolset to do the right thing the first time around.
Innovation is no accident; it is a process driven by embracing deep human empathy and encoding it into the DNA of the solutions we create.
Years ago, I read a Harvard Business Review, Ten Innovation Myths. Since then many others have written on similar themes, but this specific post stuck with me, almost seven (7) years later.
As a Designer, then working in the mobile space, it seems everyone I met had some apps idea to solve a perceived human problem. And so perhaps primed to find some other truth about designing solutions, I consumed this article with the vigour of someone secretly relishing in three words: “I told you so.”
Two of the ten myths were:
Myth: Innovation happens in the Research & Development (R&D) lab
Myth: We will win with superior technology
The writer goes on to refute these two myths of how Innovation works in reality. Firstly, he posits, that contrary to what most believe, that everyone should look for new ways to solve old problems. Innovative does not live in a clinical lab, removed from society.
To refute the second myth, he writes
“most market disruptions rest on innovative business models and new ways to create, capture, or deliver value.”
Over the last few decades, smartphone apps have emerged as a tool to support a wide variety of perceived human problems. From apps that track how we eat to apps that manage our health to other apps that help plant lovers, like me, identify various plant species and many more. Granted they have become an integral part of the fabric of our post-modern existence. However, there seems to be a general conflation that for something to be innovative it must present itself in the form an app, for perpetual consumption. And so, it comes as no surprise that when many in IT discuss the topic of innovation, the general assumption is that the solution delivery must manifest in the form of an app.
Innovation is not an app!
As many companies seek to understand and re-define their business value proposition amidst the backdrop changing the technological landscape, I advocate for significant pauses as we think about how to design with an innovative spirit. Given this, it seems fitting to revisit the nature of “Innovation” and what it means to be Innovative in the context of everything we do.
The Business Dictionary defines Innovative ideas as those that are
“replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. Innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products. In business, innovation often results when ideas are applied by the company in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers.
Within the folds of Innovation and Design Thinking practice are many tools and methods that enable the “deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative.” At their core is the systematic process of human empathy to gain an understanding of the human context to create viable and responsive solutions that satisfy human needs and expectations. Further, solutions deemed “innovative” often become the new goal post and meets the most needs of the higher number of users, most efficiently, until new ideas/knowledge adds to, enhance or disrupts existing held ideas.
What then is the nature of Innovation and how can we foster innovation in our day-to-day life, be it as a Designer or creators looking to improve on known solutions to new and existing problems?
There may not be an app for that, BUT there are methods for that!
In the last few years, firms like IDEO and The LUMA Institute have wrapped these known Ux techniques for better consumption, but they have been around for years and form the basis for innovative thinking to solving human problems. In short, I suggest that Innovative thinking demands sensing, understanding, ideation and of course, testing and iteration.
1. Innovation Demands Sensing
So how do we sense? What are the methods that lend themselves to understanding issues before devising solutions? As User Experience (Ux) practitioners, they fall into three main classes and include:
a. Ethnographic Methods — Methods in this category focus on observing human behaviour in their natural setting (Interviewing, Fly-On the Wall, Contextual Inquiry and Walk a Mile). These practices have been the staple of many UX teams and form the bedrock of any design thinking, seeking to solve real-world problems for real people in their context.
b. Participatory Methods — Some designers also rely on more hands-on ways that allow them to observe and learn from users, through cooperation. Immersion, using such techniques as What’s On Your Radar, Build Your Own or Journalling invites users into the design process as co-designers and adds a dimension of real-world usage and application to the process.
c. Evaluative Methods — These methods allow us to examine how useful and usable solutions are before we roll them out. For many of us we are have used these more than once at it allows for hands-on contact with users or using our selves as proxies to inform the process. Some common Ux methods include Heuristic Evaluation, Think Aloud Testing and System Usability Scale. The latter is also a staple in many larger firms that also allow for self-service by all stakeholders who may require a ‘quick and dirty” way to move a project along.
2. Innovation Demands Understanding
How do we truly understand the scope of human problems, in a given context?
Once we have correctly looked and sensed a problem space, we can need to analyze the challenges and opportunities surrounding our problem. Many designers are eager to get to the fun of the Ideation and omit this step; it serves to hinder the potential of arriving at more viable solutions. It is at this stage we can begin to think of the systems, priorities and patterns that can drive creative thought. The traditional Ux methods used can also be classified into three distinct groups
a. People & Systems — Methods that allow us to summarize and synthesize what we have sensed. Commonly used, but not limited to these are Concept Mapping, Personas, Experience Diagramming and Stakeholder Mapping that all lend themselves into allowing for this necessary synthesis.
b. Patterns & Priorities — As part of discovery and understanding, it is critical to moving towards structuring the priorities that will inform ideation, as well as discerning the patterns that enable the process of design to advance to optimal completion. This step is vital as it is here we begin to see relationships and their relative significance in the problem — solution ecosystem. Some of the better-known methods include such activities as Card Sorting (aka, Affinity Clusters), Vote Visualizations, and Bull’s Eye diagramming, to name a few. Such methods, can, of course, be used in combination, depending on the problem demands.
c. Problem Framing — Some of the methods used to help frame problems are the ones most often missing in design thinking activities. They are essential in that they allow users to characterize the problem space. Problem Framing techniques may include Problem Tree Analytics, Abstraction Laddering, and Statement Starters, that seek to invite a broader exploration of a problem space that most often is the case and keep our focus on why we are doing what we are doing in the first place and the problem we are trying to solve.
3. Innovation Demands Ideation
How do we make solutions come alive? This step is the icing on the cake — finally getting down to envisioning the possibilities of a solution. How we ideate depends on the fidelity we need to make our ideas come to life. These include:
a. Concept Ideation — enables us to think “outside-the-box.” Concept Ideation methods include such activities as Alternative Worlds, envisioning how those with different perspectives would solve the problem; Thumbnail Sketching, one of my favourites; and Round Robin reviews and Creative Matrix, which allows us to spark new ideas from visualizing the intersection of distinct categories of ideas. Taken together these concept ideation methods extends our typical thought process to think of possibilities beyond what we ordinarily would do. The list above are not limited but are some ideas of realizing the vision.
b. Prototyping/ Modeling — Many designers and other creators have their preferences for realizing ideas. Depending on the level of fidelity needed, some designers may opt for Storyboarding; some for Rough Prototypes, especially hardware design and others may prefer Schematic Diagramming, which, in the case of Software development, I have found that developers prefer.
c. Design Rationale — Last of the ideation categories are methods for illustrating Design Rationale. These require less work in execution and may include Concept posters, Cover Stories or if you are feeling creative and have the skills, Video Scenes, though not limited to these three. Whatever ideation method you select, it should convey the idea you have, without open questions of intent.
It goes without saying that once we have Sensed- Understood and Ideated on a problem space that we must test and iterate. Very few innovations hit the market running and will need some degree of corrections based on real-life performance.
Innovation is not accidental; it involves a systematic approach to problem-solving in the service of solving problems in the service of humans. The process is woven with a deep sense of Empathy and in so doing the chances of coming up with an “innovative” solution increases and likely to receive a much higher level of acceptance. And if done well we may all come to realize that the solution does not lie in yet another app but something far easier, that may be a service, a product or even an experiential offering that others can look back and say “now that’s innovation.”