“ Innovation… It’s the only insurance against irrelevance. “ Gary Hamel
Commonly referred to as the world’s largest tech company, Apple is also considered by many, a user experience company, designing experiences that people want, then finding or building the technologies that enable those experiences. Thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs, user experience design is widely understood to be an integral element of innovative product design and for years has been Apple’s competitive advantage. Despite the emergence of numerous competitors and copycats, Apple remains a leader in innovation with consumer sentiment consistently equating Apple with innovative products. Given the association between UX and innovation, shouldn’t it follow that UX professionals be innovation leaders within their respective organizations?
Whether it is designing interfaces that make users feel more confident about their decisions, looking deeply at how people use apps in different circumstances, or understanding the complete customer journey, user experience incorporates an understanding of human behavior, motivation, psychology and aesthetics into innovative products and services. While this approach can be a key product differentiation for innovative companies, frequently user experience (the discipline) is more about problem-solving than innovation. UXers spend the majority of their time in very reactive conditions and are rewarded for the speed at which they can put out fires.
Of course, problem solving does lead to innovation. As Jared Spool articulates, innovation is adding value where there wasn’t any before. A culture of innovation isn’t all or nothing, but rather a continuum. At one end is the reactive problem solving many designers do on a daily basis: responding to a customer complaint, slowing sales, a change in technology or a competitor’s new feature. This is important work, as business is fundamentally about solving problems.
A second, often more challenging step in this continuum might called moderate innovation. This is proactive problem solving or applied research where teams look at business or emerging technology problems/opportunities 6 to 12 months down the road. This kind of innovation is getting out in front of the business and looking for opportunities and ways to prevent problems. UX designers might do a broader set of exercises such as customer journey maps to find the “gaps” in the current experience. They might also look for opportunities via UX audits or competitive analysis to improve or update experiences.
The third level of innovation is “creating the new” or radical innovation. It’s what we commonly think of as “Innovation” — the big ideas that change our lives like the iPhone, the iPod, or the personal computer. Of course, these products didn’t just materialize in one great innovative explosion. Rather, they were the result of many smaller innovations — technology and UX problems that first had to be solved with great expense over many years, partnerships and failures. What we think of as innovation is the degree of newness, impact and value of each of these products as well as the vision to see them to fruition.
It is here that user experience professionals can serve as leaders by facilitating creative problem solving, synthesizing and making sense out of ideas from a diverse group of stakeholders. As leaders, UXers must not only execute ideas but also develop relationships across their organization to understand problems and invent new solutions.
When leading a brainstorm, I start by asking the client where they want to be on this innovation continuum. Every time, it has been the most radical end– where new and revolutionary results are sought. The difficulty I’ve found, is that when employees spend most of their time in a problem-solving mindset, it is difficult to make the switch to an innovation mindset. We are rewarded professionally and cognitively to reach conclusions, to know the answer, to solve the problem, and move on. This radical end of the scale requires a different way of thinking than problem solving. It requires abstract thinking, random associations,and a broader set of participants and thinking styles. For companies to be innovative, their approach to user experience must go beyond problem solving to facilitating more conversations along the continuum. UXers are ideal facilitators of these conversations.