Only your customer gets to call you ‘innovative’


Affirmative guidance for successful innovation: “make the product more adaptive to the user,” says Salesforce’s Peter Coffee.

Peter Coffee
Peter Coffee

Many goal words only describe a desirable side effect, while being opaque as to what behaviors might yield that result:

  • Lose weight.
  • Get rich.
  • Innovate.

In response to any of these, what is step one?

Yes, these words describe measurable outcomes: they qualify as “objectives.” Your bathroom scale will tell you what you’re losing; your tax man will notice what you’re gaining; your company’s P&L will reflect new initiatives that “create new wealth-producing resources, or endow existing resources with enhanced potential for creating wealth” (to borrow Peter Drucker’s definition of what innovation actually entails).

What’s needed, though, in any of these pursuits is a sense of underlying mechanism: a clear understanding of process and effect. Without that guidance, weight loss can descend into malnutrition; pursuit of financial gain can cross the line into fraud.

Unguided efforts at “more innovation” can lead to costly but irrelevant “invention”: novel, perhaps even capable of useful results, but not adopted and therefore not world changing.

Adoption by whom? By the customer, without whom there is no business. The abyss of mere invention is carved by effort to make “the product” work “better”; the road to consistently successful innovation is paved with a passion to make “the customer” more successful, as defined by the customer’s experience.

Useful examples

Are there useful examples of “true” innovation? To be a useful example, it’s not enough to say that “this must have been innovative, because it was successful in the marketplace.”

Examples are only useful if they have a “before” as well as an “after”: without an experience of doing it wrong, there’s no way to be confident of knowing what was the key ingredient in doing it right. Ferraris on racetracks are red, but painting a car red won’t make it win races.

With this in mind, we can find one useful “wrong and right” example in almost any home or office: the thermostat. Appearing in a recognizable form as an electrical home-heating controller in the 1880s, the thermostat offered an operating model (turn a knob, change the set-point temperature) that changed hardly at all for the next 100 years. At that point, however, manual or simple clock controls began to be replaced by devices with “programmable” operation.

Regrettably, not enough designers seem to have asked, “are most people ready to become home-control programmers?” The result, as documented by a UK study in 2011, was a bevy of multi-button devices that were found to “exclude people due to the demands placed upon their capabilities in terms of vision, reach, dexterity and thinking.” In 1995, the United States Department of Energy found “no savings from programmable thermostat (PT) installation,” adding that “Some studies indicate slight increased consumption.”

Only in the past few years has this perversity been resolved by making the thermostat program itself. A device like the Nest thermostat observes, if one may anthropomorphise, the behavior of the user and adapts to deliver what seems to be desired. Multiple studies, several of them entirely independent of Nest sponsorship or control, consistently show energy savings in the range of 10-12 per cent compared to other means of temperature control.

This is a measure, not of product capability, but of real-world customer success, and it offers actual affirmative guidance for successful innovation: “make the product more adaptive to the user.” Less costly sensors, improved machine-learning algorithms, and new connectivity protocols (for large-scale pattern analysis) are all then recognizable enablers for this approach to innovation – not merely inventions.

We can learn in a similar way from aviation, where early “flight director” systems showed a pilot what was wrong (too high or too low, off to the left or off to the right) – but did not provide clear guidance to correct the problem (fly the plane like this). More recent designs show how to make the situation better, instead of just showing how bad it is. “Make it more assistive” is another useful tactic for would-be innovators.

A next chapter

We’re now in the early stages of another distinct chapter of innovation, as we move from devices on walls or on dashboards to devices worn by people. As in the earlier examples, first attempts were disappointing in their results: the first generation of “fitness band” devices reported measures of activity, such as steps taken, but did not inspire enduring change in users’ behavior.

tech_innovation_2_banner2More current “wearables” do better by telling a story in which the user feels like an involved character: “Today, you have walked twice as much as the average person your age,” or “You have climbed more stair steps this week than any of your friends.” We can generalise this to another specific tactic: “Make it more narrative.”

We can then further generalise these generalizations into one compelling insight: success comes from seeking to make the user of the product more successful, instead of merely improving the most obviously measurable function of the product or lowering its cost.

There may be a difficult cultural challenge to overcome, especially in the most engineering-driven organizations, before “the product” can be reconceived as a platform for customer success – but only that customer success can be the meaningful measure of whether innovation is achieved.