Improving Slowly? Meh. Here Are 3 Keys To Making Giant Leaps In Product Dev

There's nothing wrong with improving an existing design. But if you're interested in designing a truly innovative product, read on.

Technology designers shout the famous Einstein quote with the same frequency and urgency that a puppy relieves itself on your favorite rug: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." But how frequently do they actually achieve this noble ambition? Almost never.

Of course, the problem with Einstein’s quote is not in the words used to craft it, but in its application. Tech designers, almost as a rule, and without even thinking about it, use what they know now as the starting line for their designs. Good design, after all, comes from incremental improvements based on old standards. But there’s a catch: On rare occasions, a disruptive design comes along that establishes a paradigm so far beyond the current that competitors spend the next year with their jaws on the floor, struggling to catch up, and that kind of design doesn’t come from incremental improvement; it comes from an outright assault on the status quo. This is no time to be shy, or tame. If you want a great design, you have to go Samuel Jackson on the thing.

Smartphones, if you’ll recall, were downright awful until the iPhone set the new standard. Prior to that seismic event, the Motorola RAZR was the best-selling cell phone. Using the web on that thing was almost as confounding as making a phone call. The iPhone’s biggest innovation wasn’t in the aesthetic, the hardware, or even the introduction of the app model (though both certainly played a part). Its biggest innovation was its extreme degree of usability, plain and simple. The phone represented an advance in usability significant enough to be considered a re-imagining by customers and the media. The product was so much more usable by all accounts than others on the market that all Apple had to do to make it fly off the shelf was show a disembodied hand using it to do all the same things we struggled with on every other phone. It took the competition well over a year to produce something that even compared.
[As Hoekman points out, the real innovation starts at your 11th idea, not your first.]

Apple’s iOS devices may be among the most advanced pieces of engineering in history, but that isn’t their purpose. Their purpose is to be among the most usable pieces of personal tech in history. iOS is arguably the most approachable computing platform ever invented, and the extreme degree of usability it offers is the reason every parent in America right now has a story about a three-year-old who picked it up and intuited its use. And although Apple is certainly playing catch-up now on a variety of features (such as wireless delta updates, something other phones had for months prior to iOS 5), it set the bar, and that bar has made the company billions of dollars.

The lesson to be learned here: Good design may come from small steps, but important design comes from giant leaps.

So what’s stopping us?

Part of the problem is that the technology, which tech companies have more than proven can now handle impossible things, has outpaced our thinking. We’re still thinking in clicks when the tech is giving us gestures. We’re still tying our users to desktop computers when the tech enables us to go wherever our users go. What will push personal tech into the future now is figuring out how people will use all that computing power. Once and for all, we need to stop making technology usable and start making usable technology. The goal can no longer be merely to improve peoples’ experiences with technology; it must now be to use technology to change their experiences in life.

It’s the plainest message, the most explainable scope, the most intuitive usage model, the most appealing aesthetic, and the clearest purpose that compose a design of superior usability. It’s when these things are at their absolute finest and working in concert that a user’s experience is truly great. And it’s the person who becomes giddy in the face of such a challenge that stands the best shot at realizing a product, or even a feature, that matters as much.

If you’re such a person, here are a few mantras to consider tattooing on your forehead:

1. Stop designing solutions

Creating a Flickr knock-off to address users who want to organize photos is a solution. Creating Flickr in the first place? That wasn’t about solving a problem. That was about reinventing the act of photo-sharing to create something that had global reach and could be used by the masses.

Stop making problem-solving your end goal. Don’t just solve the problem; solve it in a way that leaves your customers astounded and your competition dumbfounded.

Achieving this means developing a strong product vision and making sure everyone knows it by heart, and writing up a set of design criteria—specific, actionable guidelines that describe the eventual experience of using the design—that help you envision a product that pushes the boundaries established by your competitors (and likely even yourself). Setting up those criteria isn’t about laying out what you know is possible, but laying out what you want. The proof will be in the execution, of course, but great execution starts here.

2. Start at number 11

Make incremental improvements and you get a design that’s incrementally better; make significant improvements and you get a design that’s important. Never accept the first idea you have—or even the tenth. Start with number 11. Whether done through back-of-the-napkin sketches, wireframes, blueprints, or engineering schematics, keep designing wilder ideas until you’ve reached so far into the abyss you’re not sure the thing is actually possible. Most of the time, it is—you just haven’t yet pushed your team far enough to discover they can accomplish it. Technology is no longer a serious limitation for most products. The only thing stopping you is your desire and willingness to push yourself and your team toward something more extreme than you previously thought possible.

3. Extreme usability is the goal

Usable products are those more convenient than the current alternatives (including your own), which is to say they’re more understandable, more approachable, more accessible, often (but certainly not always) cheaper, and frequently more beautiful. Touchscreens made using the web more convenient than on older smartphones. Contextual virtual keyboards made data entry (an email address, for example) more convenient than on a tactile keyboard. Video streaming made face-to-face meetings more convenient than driving to and from an office. These are not solutions; they’re the product of the pursuit of extreme convenience.

Regardless of whether you aim for advanced technology, make it a priority to aim for advanced usability. Your new end goal should be to design things more usable than anyone has ever imagined—than even you imagined. Don’t bother with anything less.

The best version of the same old thing isn’t the best version of anything. So forget what you know. Design like what you’re doing has never been done before and it’s up to you to become the person who sets the standard.

Look far enough and hard enough, and you just might.

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  • Amanda Boyle

    The most profitable inventions were solutions to problems that didn't exist.
    They changed people's experiences of life - and that sells.
    Great mantras!

  • Graham Sear

    Great article. The innovation example of Apple reminds me a lot of the Kodak example Merholz, Schauer et al give in the book Subject to Change.

    In my opinion, Kodak were a similar company to achieve the level of innovation that Apple have with the iPod and iPhone but with the camera. Before George Eastman launched the Kodak camera and roll film in 1888, photography was something only for professionals requiring 20 different steps and a lot of patience to take a photo. Kodak released the original Kodak camera with the tagline 'You take the photo, we do the rest'. Bringing something from the edges of use into the mainstream. Something Apple have successfully done with digital music and mobile internet.

  • John Young

    Great Article, hitting on innovation and strategy in product design dead-on.  Much better than the typical articles here.  The additional twist is to bring in economics, what is your price?  We all want to drive a ferrari and wear Panerai watches, but the price is a huge factor in product design. The ideation process you have that down very well.  Sometimes in my job, the cheapest product wins (my cheap customers), and not the best features, mind-blowing market shifts etc.  I love this article, since it cleanly summarizes years of experience and heartache! 

  • Gadget4Apple

    A nice elaboration of, again, the difference between incremental improvements and transformational innovation. Most people kind of know the idea. Yet seeing real example is always helpful to get us a bit closer to it :-) 

  • Makabusi

    The ios  is a virtual communication device an will accompany travelers worldwide as they board the system. The website will give you an understanding of movement reality. Just become a licensee and gain all the information you will need to advance the achievement of global travel 

  • Frank Dale

    Excellent post.  I would love to hear your thoughts on how you
    get to advanced usability. The iOS device family is clearly intuitive and
    that is not easy to achieve.

  • Makabusi

    The next leap in global transportation was invented in the mid fifties at MIT. There have been incremental improvements all of which ended in China.  
    However the addition of something simple to move people and goods far less expensively then ever before to all continents is here in waiting. We are suffering from a disbelief in science and technology that we have engineered and manufactured for space travel.  All the components necessary to apply this new transportation future for earths inhabitants are lying underutilized. This may be extreme in your mind but we have finished #11 have the financing and need to implement immediately. Your response will be enlightening for this universal solution.The Da Vinci Institute has just awarded ET3 with the best commercial 2011 innovation.

  • Robert Hoekman, Jr

    Perels — let me clarify:

    1) Like much of the work Fast Company presents, this is an op-ed (an opinion piece), not a reported story. What I've posited here is based on my observations and knowledge as a user experience professional.

    2) While it's plausible that Windows Phone 7 is indeed a very usable device, iOS has been around for several years now and has been the driving force behind much of the innovation in the space since.

    3) I *often* hear stories from people whose young children were able to pick up an Apple device and start using it with little or not struggle. These stories usually come from people who are themselves intimidated by technology and who do not necessarily understand that iOS was designed for people just like them (and if you question that, see the keynote during which Jobs announced the iPhone; in it, he literally lists the things it's designed to be best at, all of which address the needs of most typical computer users).

  • VW

    Love it Robert. While so glaringly true for technology, these principles apply universally to creating solutions in all sectors and industries. Too often solutions are found for old problems or without thought to what is or what is the ultimate need or desire. Many organisations could do with reconnecting back with these 3 matras. Taking my own advise, off to play with these right now...

  • perels

    Robert Hoekman:
    "iOS is arguably the most approachable computing platform ever invented, and the extreme degree of usability it offers is the reason every parent in America right now has a story about a three-year-old who picked it up and intuited its use"

    - I guess you have not tried one of the newer platforms like Windows Phone 7 - or simply do not want to? I understand your points that usability was the main driver for gaining ground, but your article sounds very biased by the whole "Apple-sphere". Lastly do every single parent in America really has a story about three-year-old picking up an Apple - or do you just want that?

    Com'on, this kind of journalism is not well-suited for FastCo.

  • Panoptika Partners

    Just read a blog lauding manual typewriters. When I look around and see my iPad, laptop, printer...I have to wonder if modern conveniences are really more convenient than self-powered, self-printing, portable and self-repairable. Hmmm.

  • Carol S.

    One of the reasons I do not yet own a cellphone, dumb or smart, has been the "user unfriendly" experience I have had with the models I had tried to date. Clearly I'm the user the iPhone was made for!

  • coachrahul

    Push the boundary and you get incremental change. Start by stepping outside the boundary and you may get a revolution. Where you start, what you aim for and what you finally settle for are interlinked. Like this post a lot. Thought provoking.