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Radical Innovation: a designer's drive

Being a designer, I am driven by radically different ideas. It excites me when some new product/service disrupts an entire market, and turns out to be ahead of its competitiors (Uber, Spotify and services alike). This concerns both startups and big organizations entirely reworking their services/products/strategies (remember when Xerox introduced a product-service-system?).

There is something that makes these companies so groundbreaking. As companies grow bigger, they grow towards incremental innovation instead of being radical innovators. As Mr. Chesbrough writes in "The era of open innovation", there is closed and open innovation. Closed innovation strictly focuses on internal values, and internal R&D. Open innovation keeps the boundaries of the company open; it embraces innovation from the outside (buying new startups, acquiring new talent to innovate). You see this at Apple, Google, Microsoft and many other big tech giants. Like Google acquiring Nest, Microsoft acquiring Acompli and Minecraft. For big companies with vast structures, it is a way to radically innovate, or open up to new markets.

But how about the small startups? They are operating from a purer core value, I'd say. They don't have a large number of departments or difficult bureaucracy. Next to that, they are more agile than big companies. They can change radically (or even "pivot", as it is called in the world of entrepreneurship). Like Mr. Chandy and Mr. Tellis discuss in "The Incumbent’s Curse? Incumbency, Size, and Radical Product Innovation", only the really small and really big companies are best at innovating. Small companies for their agility, (really) big companies for their massive budgets to engage into sidetracks.

Then again, what is innovation? Mr. Norman and Mr. Verganti distinguish two dimensions in “Incremental And Radical Innovation: Design Research Versus Technology And Meaning Change”: technological and meaningful innovation. These can be combined: new technologies can give new meanings to products or services. But innovation can also stick to one of them: either technological or meaningful. For me as a designer, the meaningful innovation is the most exciting. How can I change society with my concept? Is it for the good or the worse? Can I disrupt markets with new meaningful services/products like Apple did way back with iTunes and the iPod? This kind of disruption gets you ahead of the competition!

If I look at the shift is going on right now, it is that products become services, and people want to buy the value they would get, rather than the product that it contains. It calls for designers that design for the user experience, the experience people get by buying or subscribing for the values you can offer. That is currently the unique selling point that sets one service apart from the others. And if done well, it is meaningful innovation. If it different from the competition, it is radical innovation. Together, it can disrupt markets as they are. And service design as well as user experience are the key here!

We designers are able to generate wicked ideas, and turn it into radically innovatives products, services and experiences. Whether it is a small or a big company you work for, there is always a gap for radical, meaningful, disruptive innovation.

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Up your stakes, interact with its holders

Designing a service is different from designing a product for interacting with a user. It involves many stakes. End-users, service actors (service employees), partners/collaborators and of course members of a multidisciplinary team. It can make the process quite complicated as each of these stakeholders have their own view on the concept you are developing. But together you achieve more than alone. So up your stakes, interact with its holders!

Developing the concept internally can already be a challenge. From my experience as an interaction design intern at Océ, I had to work with technicians and programmers to make my concept become reality. Different disciplines see different constraints, so you will have to collaborate closely. Ideally, you brainstorm together on the ideas around the concept, you co-reflect together to critically analyze the concept and you communicate progress regularly. The process should involve all members of the team throughout the entire process, as every member should share awareness of the current state of a project.

A lecture by Liang Hiah about UX Evangelism (UXify meetup) pointed this out even more. It also showed me how to gain momentum in a big technology company. You will need “people skills”, besides skills in creative processes. Both ease collaboration, as Tom Wujec states in his TED talk. First of all, gaining momentum is easier when teaming up. The more people are in favor, and the more influential these people are, the more you will achieve. It is a matter of networking. But friendship in a team is not the goal in itself. You should not shy away from making unpopular decisions. Try to stimulate a culture of giving and taking feedback instead of lobbying for popularity. Lastly, credits for a project are not necessarily yours. This is hard for an Industrial Design student, as we are used to running projects on our own, and get full credit of what we do, rather than giving credit to people who help us throughout the process. In that sense, I see how management/leadership skills are relevant here, for gaining momentum in technology-driven companies and making sure a concept becomes reality.

You can achieve great depth in development of a concept as a team, but at some point, you have to involve the context. Are you developing the right thing? You will need to validate this. You can test ideas by means of Wizard-of-Oz, you can test early prototypes, you can involve the context in co-reflection and co-creation. This is already becoming part of my routine. But Margaret Gould Stewart points out that some ideas can’t be validated, as they are too ground-breaking. They are hard to imagine, accept or hard to regard effective (who would have accepted a mobile phone in the 80’s?). I think persuasive technology can help here, as it provides various models for changing behavior, easing acceptance and stimulating commitment. Involving the users is a soft skill of designers, and it can be backed by various models like persuasive technology.

Conclusively, I see that a designer introduces user perspective into multidisciplinary teams. But we are also trained to maintain a holistic overview of a concept when working into detail with multi-disciplinary teams. It involves people skills (sometimes close to management), and involving many stakes. But with many stakes, you achieve more than you can on your own.

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Ubiquitous computing & interacting in thin air

In the world of today, computers are getting smaller, they disappear from the eyesight, and the number of computers per person is increasing. This allows for interacting with any computer of any size, at any place, any time: ubiquitous computing. We can even “subconsciously” interact with them in the periphery of our attention. Computers are increasingly becoming an integral part of our living environment. So when will the computer become a necessity like electricity, central heating or water?  

The gestural projection interface from Minority Report. Designed by John Underkoffler. © 2002 Steven Spielberg, 20th Century Fox.

There are numerous examples in cinematics, like the ubiquitous personal assistant from the movie “Her” or the way Tom Cruise enters the scene and starts interacting with empty space instead of a keyboard, mouse or touchpad in “Minority Report”. The technology is there, but it is going to be hidden from us.

I think that another interesting way of interacting with computers is through any arbitrary physical object. This does not necessarily have to be an interface for a computer. As James Patten describes in his TEDx talk, you can be the interface itself, as the computer could be anywhere and it could respond to your movement in space.

But the presentation of Sixth Sense, performed by Pattie Maes shows that computers don’t need a mouse, keyboard or touchpad. They show how you can interact through thin air. The computer starts interpreting your movements, all the objects you interact with in your proximity or who you interact with. This makes me think about how we should design new interfaces in the future. Should they be part of the periphery of our attention instead of demanding full focus? And should we step away from known interfaces like a mouse, buttons or keyboards?

I see how this could change the way service is provided in a physical store as well. Could you simply walk by a store and virtually fit clothes while window shopping? Or walk through a service, interacting with the building it is housed in, rather than with computers? Can our houses become the computers, and should this be part of the architecture of new houses: embedded ubiquitous computing? I think it could make a designed service more intuitive and it could lower the threshold of interacting with the service. I also think this gives an experience which is closer to the current traditional stores, which provides a richer service experience. 

Demonstration of the Microsoft HoloLens, a device for augmented reality and gestural interaction with this augmented reality.

The technology being used in the talks are sensors, cameras, projectors and big screens. Computers are behind the scenes, and the users are on stage. Some interact with arbitrary physical objects that are recognized by the ubiquitous computers. But what about the HoloLens by Microsoft? It provides a very intimate layer of augmented reality (though the “lens” is quite prominent type of shades), whereas projectors display information and media in public space. This has to be considered, for example for privacy reasons. And how about interacting in thin air if nobody sees what you’re doing? It looks like you’re dancing, which might seem a bit awkward. This shows to me any of these solutions require an extra thought: which of the two is most suitable for which situation? Without a doubt, it is a very interesting development, and I think it has potential for the future. But it might just need some change in society, the way of interacting is not always understood or accepted. Who’s going making the first move in making use of this augmented reality of ubiquitous computing? I am curious!

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The value of experiences

Are you using a product, or a service? Are you using the Spotify music player, or the enormous music base which connects artists with listeners and marketers? Are you simply drinking at Starbucks, or are you undergoing an entire customer journey, possibly even using the app they provide for paying, earning rewards and finding the closest Starbucks to where you are?

I read an article by designit about how the value of experiences is changing the way we provide products and services to our customers. I liked it so much that I wanted to reflect on it. There is a shift going on from product-centered companies to service-centered companies. What I like about that, is that companies not only provide a product and charge per upgrade, but that they rather invest in the relationship they have with the customer. This can be seen as smart marketing, but it can also be seen as a complete different way of providing what you have to offer as a company.

The fact that selling a service rather than a product works, can be seen from the example of the article: Google extended their Maps service with turn-by-turn navigation. This had big consequences for the established market of GPS-navigation (product-centered) companies. Suddenly, everyone shifted to the service of Google. It provides automatically updated maps, not being constrained by the "downloaded region", but rather any region in the world. It became less attractive to pay for a new map-package, or to buy a new navigation device for extended map storage space.

The article describes some pointers to design for a service, which are useful to consider when staring up a service, or converting to a service-centered business model. As you will have to focus more on the entire relationship with the customer, you will have to design all the “touch points” with the customer. This means designing an app, website, storefront, reception, the presentation of the products and how the customer interacts with each. In this “omni-channel” setting, the customer likes coherence (the service runs smoothly across channels and is recognizable) and simplicity (too many steps in the service or difficult steps should be avoided). It goes without saying that if a company invests into making sure the brand comes across positively, and maintains a positive relationship with the customer, it is more likely to keep its customer base. Making sure the needs of a customer are fulfilled throughout the customer journey adds to the richness of the experience (mints by the exit of a takeaway provide fresh breath, which is quite convenient).

It may seem like we are striving for receiving Michelin stars, but by investing into the customer experience, you make customers more satisfied with the service. You invest in a lasting customer relationship by designing a service over a single product. Designing the service to be omni-channel (making use of computers, smartphones, commercials and physical stores to make a unified service) makes the service more accessible. In the end, you want your customers to stick with you. That’s why you should make their stay as comfortable and useful as possible.