Innovating for humans

Innovation is an obsession and a watchword throughout the software industry, and it’s been widely adopted as a core business goal. But from the consumer’s perspective, innovation is only valuable if it solves a problem or provides a new benefit. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, but any product that innovates without adding human value will eventually be displaced by one that gives power and pleasure to those who use it.

Before starting to innovate, it is important to reflect on how different flavors of innovation are perceived by the people who will eventually use a product and what risks and opportunities are associated with each. Then comes the hard part: figuring out what the right innovations are and how to implement them.

Innovate or die

All too often, once someone has finally mastered the intricacies of some complex software package, they are irritated to discover that the next "innovative" upgrade adds features they don’t need and makes it harder to do the things they want to do. So why do we keep trying to innovate?

For some companies, innovation has become the core of their corporate image, and they’re stuck with it for good or ill. In entertainment software like video games, people expect constant innovation to satisfy their need for novelty. And in some very rare cases, an earth-shattering innovation manages to redefine an entire industry.

In general, though, software demands constant innovation for two reasons: to differentiate one product from another and to justify upgrades. If an innovation sets your product apart enough to increase its market share, others will imitate it and the differentiation will slowly disappear; to keep your software distinct, you have to constantly innovate. And to keep generating profit from existing customers, you work to improve your product in a way that is compelling enough to make people want to go out and buy it again. Innovation becomes a careful, strategic game in which everyone tries to innovate enough to distinguish their product and justify upgrades, but not so much that they alienate their installed base or step too far away from the familiar.

What is innovation?

For better or worse, software companies need to innovate. But there are many ways to be innovative. What are some of the flavors of innovation, and what are they good for?

Application vs. Invention

It’s easy to equate innovation with invention, but there is a subtle difference between them. Invention is the creation of something new; innovation is the creation of "newness." An invention is usually an innovation: the invention of the telephone, for instance, was an innovation in the way people communicate. But you can also innovate by applying existing inventions, either by putting them to new uses or by combining them in new ways.

In the software industry, there is a very blurry continuum between application and invention. All software invention uses existing elements, either in the sense of code reuse or, more generally, in the sense that most programming is done using the elements available in the chosen programming language. Still, there is a distinction between applied software innovation, in which familiar interface elements are combined and inflected in new ways, and inventive software innovation, in which completely new widgets and methods are created. The former can often result in a product that can be developed more quickly and is easier to learn to use. The product might not be ground-breaking, but if the applied innovation helps fulfill human goals, the product will delight the people who buy it.

On the other hand, invention can make it easier to design the "right" interaction by granting the freedom to create new tools when old ones prove inadequate. Invention can also, on rare occasions, result in a ground-breaking new product that launches a new market or completely redefines an existing one. Such products are difficult to create, though, and must be very compelling in order to overcome most people’s natural resistance to sweeping change. And no matter how wildly inventive a product may be, it still has to support human goals if it’s going to succeed.

Pure innovation vs. pragmatic innovation

Pure innovation is done for the sake of innovation-to create a new thing of unknown utility. Pure software innovation shows up in two places: theoretical work and aimless products. Neither tends to be a big moneymaker. Theoretical work is the raw material of invention; it’s a wonderful thing, and essential to scientific progress, but until someone figures out what it’s good for it doesn’t benefit consumers. Aimless products are the regrettable ones that incorporate puzzling changes for no apparent reason in what is usually a misguided attempt to appear fresh or dynamic. They are innovative, but the innovation accomplishes nothing of value—they serve no real human goals.

Pragmatic innovation, on the other hand, is purposeful innovation that solves an existing problem or fills a perceived need. It sometimes generates new tools, methods, or ideas, but more often it makes use of the ideas generated by invention and pure innovation by applying them toward a practical purpose. Well-designed, pragmatically innovative products have the advantage of a ready-made market; if the problem precedes the product that solves it, there are people out there who are ready to buy a solution. Pragmatic innovation may not result in ground-breaking scientific discoveries, but it can provide the practical edge that sets a product apart from the competition in a crowded market.

How do you innovate?

This is really the hard part. Innovation of any kind must be designed, and the design has to support human goals if it is going to be of any lasting value to the people who use it.

In the software industry, it can be very difficult to innovate for humans. A common approach is to generate a list of features based on market data or other quantitative research, then implement those features in a specific order, a few for each new release. Unfortunately, this process often leaves out human goals, so many of the innovations end up solving the wrong problems. Having hot new features listed on the package may sell a few more copies of the software at first, but it won’t generate real customer loyalty or elevate the product to legendary status.

At Cooper, we approach this problem using persona-based scenarios, part of our Goal-Directed® methodology. We start with qualitative research, interviewing actual and potential users of the software and use the results of that research to create user archetypes called "personas." Using the personas, we generate interaction scenarios that highlight sticking points in an existing product and illuminate opportunities for pragmatic innovation. The resulting design innovations advance the personas’ goals.

It is possible to consistently and dependably produce successful, innovative software without resorting to guesswork, genius, or luck: Acquire an accurate vision of how your product actually fits into the lives of the people who use it, and use that vision as a roadmap for innovation over time. Focus on the goals of specific end-users, and use scenarios based on those goals to drive design decisions.

This approach doesn’t just create innovation—it creates successful innovation.

Ernest Kinsolving

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