The Simple Secret To Unlocking Product Innovation

If you want to develop a product that will change the world, where do you start — with a new technology or a new insight?

This is the fundamental question of product innovation that people (well, designers at least) have been debating for decades. The technology argument, which has historically been the more persuasive, is that real transformations in any market or category come from new technologies. Witness how the internal combustion engine ushered in the age of the automobile, or the transistor and microchip gave us the digital revolution.

The competing argument, which only gained currency around the 1990s or later, is that product innovation comes from addressing an unsatisfied need, regardless of what technology you use to do it. Proponents of this theory point to many of the great innovations arising from Silicon Valley in the last two decades.

Inventions Don’t Immediately Lead To Disruption

There’s Apple, who didn’t make the first MP3 player, but whose iPod and iTunes store created an entire industry and changed how the world buys media. Facebook went from nothing to world-spanning in a decade, not by inventing social networking (remember MySpace? Friendster?), but by recognizing how to make it intersect with everything else.

Pick your favorite disruption story since 2000 and chances are it used an existing technology. Uber didn’t invent ride-sharing. Airbnb didn’t invent peer-to-peer rental. Toyota didn’t invent the hybrid car. Each of these seminal case studies in innovation saw potential in new technology that others didn’t see, even if they didn’t own that technology.

How they came to see that potential is where user-based research comes in.

Research Reveals the Potential

When you unleash a team of designers on a new problem, or present them with a new target user or young technology, their first inclination is to start digging for unrealized opportunities. At Bresslergroup, that usually means putting together a research effort, where our researchers and designers spend time in the field with target users and note any frustrations they experience with whatever already exists on the market. With these experiences in mind it becomes far easier to determine exactly how that new technology should be translated into a product.

Imagine, for example, stepping into a time machine and going back to 2002 to hang out with tech-savvy urbanites who are struggling with their MP3 players. (The iRiver, the Creative Zen, and so on were on the market at that time.) It would soon become apparent that the problem isn’t storage size or playback quality, but interface design and the process of getting songs onto the player. Similarly, looking at vacation-rental sites like VRBO and HomeAway through the eyes of a globe-trotting millennial reveals weaknesses in the browsing experience, and the need for a more streamlined booking process. These are the kinds of research-based insights that can transform industries.

In each case, there’s a technology or consumer expectation whose potential hasn’t been fully realized. For the iPod, it was the MP3 format and large capacity solid-state hard drives; for Airbnb, it was ubiquitous Web access and the newfound acceptability of online shopping.

The technology-vs-insight debate is actually a false dichotomy. (When we hosted an actual technology-vs-research debate at last year’s DesignPhiladelphia, we came to that conclusion.) Without the right insights, a new technology is just a solution without a problem, but without new technology, all the insights in the world won’t get you anything besides incremental improvement. It’s a two-legged process, and both are necessary for forward motion.

Technology Can Fly, or It Can Fizzle

This is why many of Bresslergroup’s projects are actually technology re-application challenges. In 2014, a company called BK Ultrasound approached us with an existing imaging technology that allowed real-time viewing into tissue up to 3cm deep, but was low-power enough that it could run on a battery-powered handheld device. Could we use it, they asked, to solve the much broader problem of improving the rate of success for IV placements?

Without the right insights, a new technology is just a solution without a problem.

On the surface, this is a straightforward request: the technology is already there, it just needs to be used in a different way. For many clients unfamiliar with the design process, it can feel like the problem’s already 90% solved, but in reality, that “last mile” can actually be 50% of the struggle or more.

In the case of the Sonic Window we eventually developed for BK, we spent weeks talking with doctors and nurses, observing IV insertions, prototyping different handheld form factors, and refining the device’s interface, to make sure it actually added value in the context where it would be used — without distracting from a highly focused procedure.

The end result was transformative, but would’ve failed without both a new technology and the insight to apply it.

Insights Are the Answer To “Tech for Tech’s Sake”

In the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) category, the need for insights is even more acute because the potential for misuse is greater. There’s a whole packet of new technologies that’ve made it possible to embed intelligence and connectivity in just about anything, from Bluetooth and NFC to low-power processors and embedded sensor arrays, but the category is littered with failed products. Certain IoT devices, like the smart refrigerator, have been rolled out unsuccessfully so many times that they’ve become a kind of running joke about the folly of tech for tech’s sake.

Yet hidden among those failures are a few gems. The Nest Thermostat comes to mind, as do certain wearables like the FitBit. What sets these devices apart, again, is insight. Bresslergroup has brought several connected devices to market over the past few years, and a few research-driven insights have been crucial in designing them successfully.

But as markets and users mature, those insights can evolve and shift. Moreover, they vary from one user group to the next: Soccer Moms and oil field workers can both make use of IoT devices, but their priorities and expectations are very different, despite relying on the same technological capabilities. Google Glass, for example, failed as a consumer product, but has been warmly embraced in some industrial and professional environments, where hands-free information access matters more than not looking silly.

Tech Needs Research Like a Fish Needs Water

There’s always a lag between a new technology and its successful adoption, but it’s rapidly shrinking. Karl Benz built the first gasoline automobile in 1886, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that cars became widespread. Smartphones, by contrast, went from early adopter chic to everyday accessory in perhaps five years.

As research-driven designers, we like to think that shortened timeline is mostly the result of improved insight-gathering, but we’re also keenly aware how much we owe the technologists and engineers who created those capabilities in the first place.

For companies seeking the next big innovation breakthrough, the “secret” lies in valuing both.