The Art of Innovation

Summary Written by Parin Patel
"You’ve got to out-innovate the innovators."

- The Art of Innovation, page 3

The Big Idea

Innovation Begins With An Eye

"It’s not even enough to ask people what they think about a product or idea."- The Art of Innovation, page 26

“Just ask them.”

That’s a common approach we take when we’re unsure of someone’s needs, wants or requirements.

What do they want for lunch? Just ask them.
Should I print in color or black and white? Just ask them.

It’s also a common approach when it comes to product development. In fact, it’s something I was taught in school (to understand end user requirements, simply ask and document as “Use Cases”).

But, as Tom mentions in The Art of Innovation, if you truly want to be innovative, it’s not enough to “Just Ask”. You have to observe as well.

“What do stand-up toothpaste tubes, all-in-one fishing kits, high-tech blood analyzers, flexible office shelves, and self-healing sports bottles have in common? Nothing actually, except that they’re all IDEO-designed products that were inspired by watching real people.”

Why isn’t “just asking” enough? Two reasons:

Reason 1: “One reason is the same factor that prevents you from learning that your meat loaf tastes like sawdust. Your dinner guests are too polite to tell you the unvarnished truth, too wrapped in trying to give you the expected answer… How many people volunteer that they’re having a lousy day? It’s human nature to put on a bright face on a dismal situation.”

Reason 2: “A second reason for the ‘fine’ response is that your guests don’t know or can’t articulate the ‘true’ answer. Maybe the meat loaf needs more salt or less onion. The problem is that your guests may like to eat, but they’re probably not food critics. In business, too, your customers may lack the vocabulary or the palate to explain what’s wrong, and especially what’s missing. Companies shouldn’t ask them to.”

Insight #1

Spend Time In The Jungle

"If you’re not in the jungle, you’re not going to know the tiger."- The Art of Innovation, page 31

Sure, you could read about the Tiger. Maybe watch a National Geographic documentary.

But you won’t truly understand the Tiger that way.
You won’t truly understand how it interacts with each aspect of the jungle.
How it balances hunting for food and protecting its family at the same time.

No. To truly understand the Tiger, you need to, as Tom says, “Spend Time In The Jungle”.

And the same is true for innovation.
to your customers’ environment. And I don’t mean go in for a meeting.
You need to go and observe them. Go “shadow” them like a fly on the wall (think “job shadowing”).

Seriously. And no, setting up a video conference isn’t the same.
You need to be in the same environment as your customers.

Because that’s the only way to truly see, and understand, how they react to, interact with, and more importantly, naturally use your product or service.

Are they experiencing the product or service as you expected?
Or are they using it in a way you didn’t think they would?

You will almost definitely be surprised at the results; walking away with new ideas to refine your product or service for the better (which can ultimately lead to faster adoption).

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Insight #2

Find The Rule Breakers & See Products In Motion

"Finding the right people to observe helps."- The Art of Innovation, page 39

Of course, not everyone is the same.

Not everyone reads the instruction or training manual. In fact, some of us barely skim it, if at all. We tend to just “get started” using the product or service without much reference or training most of the time. Trying to use it as we intuitively would.

These “rule breakers” are the people you want to observe. They’re the ones that will use your product or service in a way you didn’t imagine. And it will open your eyes to new possibilities.

“People who follow directions perfectly and can’t imagine a different course aren’t much help. You learn more from the woman who takes a shortcut, who forces the product to do something the manual says it can’t, who imagines what it might do if only… You learn from the people who break the rules.”

Tom recalls the story of a project to make common phone tasks such as three-way calling easier. They observed one of their travel agents, Sally, go around the room to grab 10 phones and place them in a circle to have a conference call because she found the three way calling system too confusing. Sally admitted that this approach was “crazy”, but it worked for her.

You might think this is crazy as well, but as Tom says, “Look for the Sallys of your business.”

They’re the ones who try to integrate your product or service into their daily life as easily, quickly and painlessly, as they can. They just use it.

Isn’t that the ultimate goal? To integrate it into their lives as seamlessly as possible?

As Tom suggests, “See products as verbs… and you’ll become more attuned to how people use products, spaces, services – whatever you’re trying to improve.”

And finding people to observe doesn’t mean you need to formally survey and gather a focus group. It’s much simpler than that actually. A common practice IDEO follows is emailing the team, and others, to see if anyone has friends that fit the profile they’re looking for, and ask if they can be observed while using the new product or service.

Keen observation is just one part of the innovation methodology Tom shares in The Art of Innovation (my other favorite is “The Perfect Brainstorm”). But, no matter what approach you use, regardless of your product, industry or position, often the best way to get better at innovating (like many things in life) is to practice, practice, practice!

Read the book

Get The Art of Innovation on Amazon.

Tom Kelley

“Tom Kelley is general manager of IDEO, the world’s leading design consultancy specializating in innovation and product development. Working together with his brother, IDEO founder David Kelley, he has helped manage the firm as it has grown from 20 designers to a staff of over 350.

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