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Okay – I should probably apologize for using such a strong word. But truthfully, that word, coward, captures the viscerally negative feeling I get when someone says the word “innovation”. The word innovative has become like most buzz-words; their overuse convolutes their meaning ad absurdum. Buzzwords are totally ineffectual because clever people develop mental masking tape for them in order to get through a meeting.

I’m certain that is my primary issue with the word “innovation”. It is that it has no real meaning anymore. The term is passed around like zigzags at the Denver October-fest (honest, I’ve never inhaled). A friend told me that he was a consultant at a company that was paid six figures to “quantify the underlying psychological reasons people like chocolate in order to create a platform for candy innovation.”  If that doesn’t strike you as just plain silly, self-important language than you probably shouldn’t read on.

My second issue is when I hear leaders tell their employees “we need to be more innovative as a company”. That’s like telling someone that they need to be more funny – an impossibly hyperbolic and subjective request with no tactical application. Saying you’re “innovative” is like saying you’re “cool” – if you have to say it, you’re defiantly not “it”.

The definition of innovation that resonates with me the most is that innovation is the combining of things that are already invented ( via pbs ). If you agree with that, than innovation is quite simple. And, the more things you combine, the more innovative you can call yourself. How about a mobile charging, key locating, pill splitting, clamshell busting, letter opening, paper cutting, box opening, bluetooth, usb connecting, flash-drive screwdriver? (Seriously, it exists.)

We are now in an era where innovation is the easy way out. It is the intellectual’s boredom cure because the things we should do are mundane, like product improvement, or better yet, feature reduction. Sometimes just plain, old-fashioned product maintenance is the best course of action we can do to serve our customers. How about, we just make better chocolate? I have worked with departments that have over 200 apps deployed. Each app was an attempt to be an innovative “silver bullet” to a customer’s complaint or an executive’s tangent idea. Most of them are complete junk as they were more about departmental motion rather than company movement.

As I was discussing this post with a colleague, he asked me “are you calling Steve Jobs a coward?” Actually, Mr. Jobs never called himself an innovator – he preferred to think of himself as a discoverer. He had customer problems he would try to solve and would have his eyes wide open, looking for ways to solve them. He didn’t innovate for innovation’s sake – he discovered and created for his customer’s sake. I believe innovative is a title you earn after success, not a process you take to be successful.

The best products I have been a part of would not be categorized as “innovative”.  The great product leaders of today are methodical, feature frugal, and customer empathetic. In short, they are brave leaders committed to the “boring” and methodical aspect of their job: continuous improvement towards the way they serve their customers.

I don’t try to hide it – I’m fairly vested and a true believer in Apple’s products and business philosophy. Every once and a while I try and predict what they will reveal next. (here, here, and here are examples)

This is a bit early for me as Apple’s announcements aren;t expected until September – but I think I have enough data to make some good guesses as to what is next…

iPhone 6

  • Offered in 2, larger sizes as compared to the 5s –  4.7″ and 5.5″ ( this is nearly a lock )
  • Thinner than 5s
  • Apple will launch both with immediate availability and will not have initial supply issues
  • New haptic feedback (dynamic vibrations based on what you are touching on the screen)
  • Processor upgrade
  • Touch ID improvements
  • Sapphire Glass
  • Available in the same 3 colors as the 5s
  • Thinner
  • Modest battery improvements, larger battery improvements will be attributed to iOS8
  • $100 and $200 price increase for the models from the 5s
  • Drastic camera improvements
  • Water resistant
  • New, faster A8 processor
  • No major industrial design changes outside of size

iPhone, older models

  • 5s price will drop $100
  • iPhone 4 goes to “free” on contract

iPad

  • Touch ID
  • Camera improvements
  • Inclusion of M7 chip

Mac lineup

  • Apple will talk about “amazing adoption” of the new mac pro
  • Modest improvements to MacBook Air and MacBook Pro
  • iMacs will have modest improvements

Apple TV

  • Major announcements here, mostly software related
  • Apple TV store
  • Totally redesigned UI – tighter integration with iOS for gaming
  • A8 Processor
  • 1080p video gaming will be heavily showcased, showing off graphs comparable to serious console games
  • iBeacon receiver to associate individual’s “home presence”
  • Will act as a HomeKit hub
  • Announcement of a partnership with major content providers to stream media

iWatch

As much as I would like to see an iWatch this year, I’m very skeptical that Apple will announce the launch of an iWatch The most we may see is a sneak peak of something they will launch mid-next year. We haven’t seen any leaks of hardware on the device, nor does it appear that Apple is finished making key executive hires for the wearables team. My bet is that Apple is taking its time on the launch to get the function (a ton of health sensors and long battery life), as well as the fashion (women’s and men’s styles), perfect. However, I believe the iWatch will have:

  • Sensors for heartbeat, glucose, and motion
  • A somewhat flexible graphene or sapphire glass display
  • Easy to customize bands
  • 4 day battery life with normal use
  • Wireless charging (perhaps even solar cells in the display)
  • Waterproof to 20M
  • Companion only to another iOS device (not a stand-alone device)
  • Integrated with HomeKit
  • Priced in many variations from $400 to $4,000

 

Competition:

Given Samsung’s recent plateau in the mobile space, I believe they will see a dramatic decline in their market share once Apple articulates their iOS ecosystem in September. Apple’s focus on device and software integration will prove to be at least a decade ahead of any competition.

 

Now, if i can only get a preferred spot in the Cherry Creek Mall Apple Store line, I’ll be all set.

 

I just had an interaction with an insurance company’s website while shopping for home owner’s insurance. I experienced a very odd feeling of total frustration. I was frustrated with how the site was architected; in other words, it was difficult to get a quote in an easy manner. But what I found to be odd was that the site was no worse, from an interaction architecture perspective, than the other insurance companies I visited before it. The only difference was that this site had much better visual design. This lead me to a hypothesis that, for almost all users, a good visual design increases my expectation of the usability of the site. I expected the poorly visual designed site to be a bit awkward and clumsy. But for the great looking site, I expected it to be easier. This actually lead me to believe the better designed site was much worse.

I drew up the following graph to illustrate how I think this might play out:

Visual Design VS Interaction Design

 

For clarity, I define “visual design” as the pure aesthetics of a design. Some may argue that you can’t do good visual design work on a crappy interaction architecture. I don’t agree with that. I’ve experienced lamps, toasters, phones, computers, even automobiles that were pretty but confusing to operate. I’ve had many clients come to me to fix “apps” after their creative marketing agency designed something totally beautiful that was totally unusable. In the reverse, I’ve had many IT departments come to us and ask us to make their poorly interactive architected system “pretty” (I even had several companies specifically ask me to put “lipstick on the pig”). I can honestly say I haven’t seen a single engagement be successful under these circumstances.

If I’m correct, not only is good interaction design far more important than good visual design, but adding good visual design to a poorly architected site will actually do more damage than just leaving it alone.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – I’m considering a study to prove this out.

I honestly thought gamification has been dead for about 2 years ago, when I saw the last RFP come across my desk with a company requesting “gamification” as one of the features they wanted in their business app. But now, companies are trying resurrect the term to drum up more business. 

Gamification is an industry buzzword that some software designers use to describe the introduction of game design into apps that are business focused (instead of entertainment based.) It is a tactic provides value in very rare circumstances. The following need to be all true:

  • The people using the app are lacking motivation to complete their digital tasks and this motivational vacuum is not a systemic issue of a larger problem (like a crappy product or poor leadership)
  • There is no way to simplify the app in a way that makes it easier to use (in my experience, this is extremely rare).
  • The company using the technique has a playful culture – one that embraces “fun” as a part of their core values.
  • The primary objective of the app is either publishing or learning.

If you attempt to execute a gamification strategy to get your customers to do something that they do not want to do, you will be very disappointed in your results. In every circumstance I’ve seen a request for gamification, the primary objective was to prod people down paths they weren’t willing to naturally take. People aren’t cattle. Always keep this in mind: your job as a digital product designer is that you are here to serve your customers, not manipulate them. 

 

All great enterprises are born from a vision, and keeping that vision in focus – keeping enterprise on track – sometimes requires seeing it from a different angle. Henry Ford didn’t invent the car. He saw a better way to build it, a way which would drive down cost and increase productivity. Suddenly, the automobile was no longer an oddity; it became a defining feature of a nation. A century later, a massive infrastructure has grown up around the internal combustion engine, and while the vision may yet be intact, it has become stultified. Sometimes obstacles arise that challenge vision. And vision, however powerful in its ability to guide, eventually becomes shifty and obscure. Maintaining that vision, that direction, requires innovative thinking and tools for seeing problems from a variety of perspectives.

A Clear Vision.

Elon Musk has a powerful vision of fundamental change. Tesla Motors shook the automotive industry when they unveiled the Roadster. Electric cars were not supposed to be able to do that. How did they do it? Musk attacked a problem that experts said couldn’t be solved, and he solved it.

It was a simple question Musk asked, and it became the formative pulse for his vision: “What would the car of the future be?” First, it would be electric. The internal combustion engine is rapidly approaching the limits of its use. The new car would have to be powered by a better battery. Conventional batteries are too heavy and bulky to do the job. Second, the auto would have to be completely redesigned. Conventional cars are designed around the drive train and its weight. Third, the retail infrastructure would have to be unique to the 21st century. People should be able to buy cars online, reducing the additional costs associated with dealerships and their middleman markup. Formidable obstacles require ingenious innovation, and the strategies Musk employed to arrest these challenges speak to his acuity.

Identify the Obstacles and Approach them from Manifold Perspectives.

One does not easily shift the vision and direction of a multi-trillion dollar, century old institution. Ten years ago, the perspective was that lithium-ion batteries were not a suitable power source for cars. When they overheat, they explode. Musk believed otherwise. He identified the obstacles to converting lithium-ion batteries, researched the many companies manufacturing them, and ultimately partnered with Panasonic. They created a lithium-ion battery array encased in a cooling system. (The Model S has 7,000 AA-sized batteries powering its motor.) Was it an invention? Not quite. For years experts said it couldn’t be done, and along comes a man with a different vision, a different perspective, and the problem is solved. Great innovation can shift the vision of an industry, but industry eventually drives innovation. Imagine if the electric car had not ten but 100 years of innovation behind it. Musk had challenged the status quo and emerged with a product that would ultimately be the lifeblood of Tesla Motors.

Obstacles Sometimes Require Leaders to be Directly Involved.

Musk had calculated the price of his first car, the Roadster, to retail at $95k. The pieces were set in motion, but before he had built even one car, and internal audit revealed that the production cost would be $140k – a far cry from his initial production estimate of $65k. This was completely unacceptable, and Musk knew the gravity of this obstacle required his direct involvement. He hopped a plane to Europe and personally visited the manufacturing plants and suppliers. Woefully inefficient machinery and an outdated supply infrastructure lay at the root of these elevated production costs. So Musk ponied up the funds to update equipment and increase the efficiencies of his supply chain. He knew that sometimes you have to see for yourself in order to bring the problems into perspective. An executive submitting a report might not have had strength of character to paint an accurate picture. People have a hard time asking for more money.

Push People Outside their Comfort Zones.

Musk wanted a luxury sedan that could seat seven. A laughable concept at the outset, Musk soon partnered with a designer at Mazda, and when the designer realized that they were creating something entirely new, the wheels began turning. The passenger compartment of a conventional car is built around the drive train and its ancillary components. With those things removed, a vast amount of space became available to the designer. Also, an incredible amount of weight had been eliminated, so this car of the future could do more with less energy. Ultimately, Tesla’s Model S would deliver on its promises with surprising ease. With less vehicle weight, the additional weight of people did not affect the performance. Also, since there was no drive train tunneling down the center of the car, they designed the bottom of the car to house the battery array. An unintended effect of this design was that the Model S produced a smoother, firmer ride with substantially less noise. The concept of what defines a car had been completely rethought, and the effectiveness of the innovations surprised even the designers.

Challenge Conventional Thought.

Musk had promised the Roadster and pre-sold many of them at $92,000. In reality, the production cost was around $95k. In order to honor the quoted price and literally not have to pay people to drive his cars, he knew that the traditional marketing model had to be fundamentally changed. The days of strolling the car dealership would have to come to an end if Tesla had any hope of keeping costs down. Musk wanted to sell directly to consumers via a showroom. Consumers would go to the showroom, see the cars, and then go online to personalize the car of their choice which would then be delivered to them. The battle is still waging. The automotive retail industry has considerable political clout, and they are lobbying very extensively to prevent Tesla from selling directly to consumers. Consumer advocacy groups are heralding this change. Really, who likes to go talk to a car salesman? Musk recently vented at New Jersey Governor Christie over his decision to not allow Tesla to sell in that state, seemingly flip-flopping on a verbal promise made to Tesla just months prior. Musk’s rant on his blog (two of them to date) gave his lawyers sleepless nights and showed an uncharacteristic loss of perspective. Does that mean that Tesla will fail? Hardly. It shows that Musk has passion for his vision, and political doublespeak will not be the end of Tesla. His rants did accomplish one end. The media latched on to the story, thrusting the debate into the fore, and people began asking why can’t I buy directly from manufacturers?

Attachment to Vision can be Debilitating; Perspective is not Threatening

Is Musk the innovator who redefines an entire industry? Time will tell. Musk’s electric car may go the way of all its predecessors, but that was never Musk’s vision. His vision was to move the automotive industry into the 21st century, and it required radically new perspectives and ways of approaching problems. The innovations at Tesla Motors caused a revolution in thought. The existence of the Chevy Volt is a direct result of Musk’s achievements with the lithium-ion battery array, and the doors are now wide open. Daimler in Germany, a major investor in Tesla, is working on an electric version of the Smart car, and Toyota wants to use the lithium-ion battery array to make a plug-in hybrid.

So what is a Visionary? Does Musk have a magic ball the allows him to see into the future? A visionary is person who can grasp the entirety of a construct and deduce the only logical direction it can proceed. Nikola Tesla, the namesake of the company, emigrated to America, and when Edison met him, Edison immediately recognized Tesla’s gift. Edison and Tesla disagreed on a fundamental point; Edison believed that Direct Current was the future of electricity, and Tesla believed Alternating Current was the only form that could sustain a power grid. If not for Tesla, we would not have the massive power grids that make electric cars even remotely possible. History remembers Edison as the founder of electricity, but it was Tesla and many other innovators just like him whose perspective shaped the current vision we have today. There may come a day when the automotive world owes a debt to Musk in much the same way as the energy industry owes a debt to Nikola Tesla for developing the alternating current.

Too often, shifts in perspective and vision are seen as threatening and hostile and are thus resisted with great diligence and force. The question remains then, why not embrace these views? Why not seek them out? It might be that the corporation of the 21st century not only seeks new views but actually creates divisions whose sole purpose is to challenge the status quo – to maintain healthy perspective. Only then can the Vision of a company remain clear, relevant and intact.

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