Thoughts on Innovation

In this post I would like to share parts of a conversation I had with a client on our approach to innovation. While the context of the discussion was improving the design of garage hooks, the ideas are applicable to most types of products.

Understanding the Problem

Whenever we design a new product the first step is to explicitly state the problem that we are solving. This part of the design process is easy to gloss over, but is a crucial step to creating an original product that is truly needed on the market.

Product development interview
Talking to the target user in person is often the quickest way to understand the problem

How would you go about designing an improved version of garage hooks?

In the example of garage hooks my first impulse would be to say that the problem being solved is “people lack a fixture on which to hang things in their garage”– however this response is based on a surface level understanding that is unlikely to lead to significant product improvements.

A deeper analysis of the problem might show that people are in fact looking to show-off how tidy their garage is to friends when they buy garage hooks. If that was the case, hooks might not even be the right product to investigate. Perhaps shelves are a better way to go. Or tags that neatly label where things are supposed to be placed.

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt illustrated this idea nicely by stating that “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

Designing a Solution

Once you feel you have captured the problem on a non-trivial level it is time to think about solutions. My advice would be to take as little as possible for granted and work your way up from first principles.

Example of first principles reasoning

To illustrate this process let us look at a hypothetical problem. We imagine that we have found that people are unable to wind down after work because of too much harsh lightning in the home. As a result of this finding we set out to design a lamp that provides soft lighting.

In this case I would say that one ground truth is that the user should not see the light bulb directly. Seeing it would be harsh on the eyes and would create feelings of unease. This means that we need a material around the light bulb that blocks direct light from hitting the user but allows diffused light to pass. In other words– a lampshade.

The effort necessary for innovation

While this might seem like a long-winded way to think, it is the only way I see substantial innovation happening.

Following this process often makes me understand why things are the the way they are. In our design work we often start out with a far-out concept that then morphs into something closer to already existing products. This usually happens as we learn more about the target customer and technological limitations in play.

Concept Car
Concept car

real car
Real car

If the goal is to quickly design a product this approach will take longer than iterating on solutions that are proven to work. However if we want to innovate in substantial ways I believe the need to reason from first principles is unavoidable.