Have you ever been involved in a “blue sky” brainstorming session, where teams are encouraged to put aside current constraints and dream up new innovations? In software, this is most common approach to innovation, and if done right, produces some results.
But an article by Uri Neren, founder of The World Database of Innovation initiative, announcing the complete opposite: the number one key to innovation is not the blue sky approach, but an approach involving constraint, scarcity, and closed-world thinking.
Neren was working in collaboration with several universities to profile the world’s innovation leaders and commonalities amongst successful innovators. What they found was that there are a number of repeatable methodologies for coming up with innovative solutions. The one thing they all have in common—they deliberately impose “subtraction”, constraint”, and “closed-world” techniques on product development teams to spur new ideas. If necessity is the mother of invention, well, let's impose some necessity!
Mobile — A Tiny Screen, A World of New Innovations
Mobile technology has been, without a doubt, the source of technology innovation of the last decade. While much of it is due to the possibilities mobile apps now afford people who are on the go, we notice a curious phenomenon—many users enjoy using their favorite iPhone and iPad apps even when they’re just sitting on the couch.
Luke Wroblewsk, a thought leader in product design, explains that the constraints a Mobile device imposes on product developers force them to come up with cleaner, more usable and less wasteful designs—or they die out quickly in the market.
“Mobile Forces You to Focus” he says “Mobile devices require software development teams to focus on only the most important data and actions in an application. There simply isn’t room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize.”
The end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish without the extraneous detours and general interface debris that litter today’s desktop-accessed Web sites. That’s good user experience and good for business.
I've seen countless examples of software vendors porting their existing complex 200-screen desktop software nearly as-is to a mobile device — and quickly being rejected by users. These companies are not accepting the challenge to innovate given the constraints of a mobile device, or are simply not sure how to go about it. The results quickly surface in the form of poor sales and customer feedback.
On the other hand, companies that do rise to the scarcity challenge of the mobile environment and develop an intuitive product that gets the experience just right end up with innovative solutions that users prefer, often over the more complex desktop version of the same product.
Do You Know Your Customers’ Constraints?
In product development, you need to be intimately aware of the constraints your users face. This is the fuel for your team’s innovation.
In the Electronic Medical Records space, 90% of physicians expressed concerns about the solutions meeting their needs. Yet the developers of these systems keep adding what they feel are more innovative features and making what they believe are improvements to the interface design.
So, where the disconnect? What we’ve seen is that vendors are often out of touch with the context in which their users use their solutions. Physicians are a great example because they are subject to a tremendous amount of constraints:
When software developers work directly with physicians, or any users for that matter, to develop a solution, what we see is that they typically spend a lot more time discussing solutions—what the features and screens should look like—when they should be spending a lot more time exploring the specific problems and constraints they face.
This is where a deep understanding of your customers is critical for innovation. The best Product Management and User Experience Design professionals in my experience are the ones that will spot those constraints that specific users are under and highlight them to the rest of the team - not as a barrier but as an opportunity to improve, to re-think, to innovate.
Personal example - my team noted that physicians in smart and/or rural practices still had unreliable internet connections, and worked with a client to create and patent a hybrid online/offline solution that allowed the users an uninterrupted workflow, even when their internet lines were down.
Capitalize On The Constraints Of The Technology Itself
The software industry is fast-moving. Vendors are continually introducing new technologies, which lately include IoT, wearables, mobile devices, touch screens, digital ink, cloud computing, Big Data engines, web frameworks, semantic parsers and a host of social computing paradigms. But every new technology comes with drawbacks and limitations - another opportunity for innovation!
Anoto’s line of increasingly precise digital pens and paper gained them recognition not only for improving digital ink technology, but offering it in novel ways to the education and business enterprise domains. Websites were still largely thought of as static pages until Google unveiled its first version of Google Maps—blowing away what were thought to be major constraints of the web through creative use of Ajax technology and the XmlHttpRequest() function. Even Microsoft has pushed the boundaries of the traditional mobile OS and by treating the small screen size of a smartphone as a window to an infinite landscape.
The Pragmatic Marketing framework identifies Technology Assessment as a critical step in the product creation process, and also one of the steps that is most frequently skipped. Make time for your business and technical gurus to meet, specifically on the topic of technology constraints and the opportunities they might present if the team is not willing to accept their limitations as status quo.
Organizations need to be aware of the constraints of their industry - from the constraints their users face to the constraints of the technologies available to them. Constraint, scarcity and obstacles - these are the opportunities that teams have to go above and beyond in solving users’ problems that will ultimately skyrocket their solutions to success.
Mobile technology is living proof. The biggest source of innovation this decade has come on a 320 by 480 pixel screen! What other constraints can you think of that will generate the next big breakthrough? Remote work anyone?