For a word so sacred within the designer's lexicon, you'd think "innovation" would be a lot easier to define.
From smartphones to self-driving cars, coffee pots to the curves of a laundry detergent bottle, products across today's market claim ever-more innovative design. Consumers hear about it in commercials, read about it online, see it flashing across billboards and product packages and in the promotional materials sent to their addresses and inboxes.
For designers, innovation still seems to lie somewhere in a mythical land of creative diligence and artistic musings. It is as indefinable as it is imperative to producing quality work for clients, time and time again.
Yet what is the true innovator's manifesto? What does innovation in product design really mean, and how can designers break it down to deliver better end products to their targeted consumers? We set out to answer these questions with real, concrete — and maybe even some innovative — answers.
WHAT IS INNOVATION?
For the designer, creating a product's end-user experience is to mix and match of technology, consumer psychology, cultural imperatives, aesthetic forecasting and more. It's a lot to balance, yet something that's pursued with every project.
So what does innovation mean? Where does it fit in the push and pull to make a product objectively, inarguably worthy of being called innovative?
For starters, here's what it's not:
Innovation is not a product that's brand new or the first of its kind. Just because something is "first" does not mean it's "best," poised to revolutionize the market.
Innovation is not merely a product revamp. Lists of extended or improved features and affordances certainly make a product more effective, but not necessarily innovative.
Innovation is not aesthetics at all costs, with functionality sacrificed for eye-catching looks. Any design that puts novel appearances over solving a problem is one that's misdirected.
While these concerns are instinctual in their appeal, innovative design methodologies go above and beyond. In fact, innovative design has little to do with the final, tangible product itself — and more to do with reshaping the way designers approach, explore and manage the very ways they ideate designs.
Innovative design, therefore, means curating connections. In the context of general design, it changes how designers advance their ideas across the numerous design phases, prioritizing and then linking previously unexplored aspects about humans, cultures and technologies to create a genuinely interconnected, innovative idea.
BEYOND BUZZWORDS — HOW TO BE MORE INNOVATIVE IN DESIGN
If the ethos behind innovation is to connect previously unexplored dots, there are three tangible ways to get there — ways that go beyond the abstract, poorly defined design buzzword.
1. Ask the Right Questions
Don Norman summed up this notion in a popular Core77 industry think piece:
"One of my concerns has been design education, where the focus has been centered too much upon craft skills and too little on gaining a deeper understanding of design principles, of human psychology, technology and society. As a result, designers often attempt to solve problems about which they know nothing."
This is hardly meant to insinuate design school inadequacy but rather points to the broader notion that innovative people are always asking questions. Not just any old question, either — ones that cut to the core of a problem, a need and a solution. If you want to connect innovative design dots, then you need to start asking critical questions about consumer behaviors, about desires, about society and more.
2. Peel Back the Pain Points
It is not enough to just solve a consumer's problem. True innovative design methodologies dig deeper — exploring the real psychological wants and needs that drive a targeted consumer's decisions.
Often, people aren't consciously aware of these motives in the first place. We as humans are shaped by a myriad of overlapping needs. Innovative design begins and ends in the motivational gray areas, sifting through to find what really makes the individual tick.
3. Redefine What a Consumer Thinks They Need
If you design a product that leaves a consumer wondering how they ever lived without it, then you have landed within an elite circle of innovation in product design.
This achievement goes by many names — groundbreaking, influencing, quality-of-life enhancing. However, what a designer has actually accomplished here is changing consumer behavior in a meaningful way. You've potentially altered their sense of self if they no longer have access to this innovative product — reaching beyond the traditional merit of mere problem solving and into the realm of human-centered innovation.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF INNOVATION WITH CONSUMERS
Guessing what drives a consumer can be a lot like guessing the depth of a lake just by looking at its surface. Humans are complicated. We make decisions based on surprising yet varied impulses that range from the universally hardwired to the culturally contemporary.
It's what makes answering "what does innovation mean to the consumer" such a difficult process. Luckily, research over the past decade has helped turn consumer instincts into consumer insights. The results are pretty clear — people want innovative products, and they'll pay more for them. Yet how do people come to gravitate toward certain "innovative" products over others — and why do they consider them innovative in the first place?
1. An Innovative Product Appeals to Their Desired Self-Image
Self-concept congruency is the study of how a consumer's self-image matches with their brand opinions, purchasing behaviors and overall brand recall.
An innovative design method that frames new, consumer-first questions alongside solving targeted pain points can directly align with these self-concepts. For design innovation, this means designers need to study, test and understand not necessarily who a targeted consumer is — but who they wish to be perceived as.
When you understand how an individual wants to come across, you make them more susceptible to "aligned requests." Translation? Your product suddenly becomes the key to their perceived and practiced self-image, which in turn inspires the sort of connection and loyalty that sets your product or brand apart.
2. An Innovative Product Aligns With Their Adoptable Environment — Yet Still Seems New
It's a bit of a consumer paradox — people want unique products with fresh or novel characteristics that fit their perceived lifestyle. Yet they also won't adopt those very products — even if studies prove they're interested — if they're hard to implement in their immediate environment.
While it's a frustrating challenge for designers, this paradox does fit the broader misconception of what innovative design means.
Consider a product like the electric car —many hailed them as "innovative" for their radical revolution against gas-fueled transportation, taking something that's familiar but fundamentally reimagining it. Yet electric cars proved hard to adopt for consumers who do not live in cities with convenient and abundant charging stations. What's more, the spirit of innovation behind them proved vapid, as these cars' market newness turned out to be part of their very commercial downfall.
Innovative design is not merely a barrage of the new. It can't just be products or ideas, even ingenious ones, separated from qualitative cultural and environmental research. In fact, this kind of product aligned with real, functional and culturally informed lives is so important, many design firms dedicate entire branches to its development.
Otherwise, designs fall prey to concept carelessness — products that are genuinely interesting or novel but carry no marketplace or infrastructure to thrive in. Without a researched product environment, innovation is adrift.
3. An Innovative Product Is One That's Continually Refined
In a 2015 consumer survey, participants were asked an array of questions to gauge first-hand what they think an innovative product means.
From a list of a dozen qualifiers, they ranked the following as the three most important factors to innovation:
Coming up with brand new ideas.
Acquiring customer feedback.
Improving new products based on that feedback, time and time again.
Innovative product design isn't static. Such an innovative design methodology means not only predicting what a consumer wants — but actually asking them. It is serious about real-world perceptions and active about exceeding them, with designers and practitioners taking this into account across a product's lifecycle.
HOW TO INCORPORATE INNOVATION IN PRODUCT DESIGN
Designing products with an authentic, innovation-first mentality is different than traditional design. Both in terms of approach and outputs, innovative design truly blends consumer psychology with cultural research and real-life problem solving, mapping a larger environment for a product to exist in that directly aligns with target consumers. It creates points of connections that previous design thinking may have overlooked — or missed altogether.
Most importantly, however, is the way innovation in product design shifts the onus from results to methodology. As the 2015 consumer survey from above notes, real people define innovative products as those which continually evolve. This should stand to encourage designers to embrace a kind of active, studious engagement with their designs stemming far beyond product specs.
1. Adapt the Way You Approach Design Thinking
Innovative design is so revolutionary because it reframes how you fundamentally execute a design project.
When designing innovative products, you aren't focused on the merchandise itself. Instead, large swaths of your time and resources are spent chiseling away and connecting previously unexplored avenues and questions. These early explorations set the tone of your approach to design thinking, in ways that have you pulling inspiration and design clues from untapped avenues.
Innovative design lets you see the "bigger picture" by approaching projects in new, non-linear ways:
You and your team set aside preconceived preferences, biases or assumptions about an end user.
You research the social and cultural influences of a targeted consumer, framing early questions and pain points through that informed lens.
You assess larger movements and evolving norms in the consumers' life, from the technological to the financial to the aesthetic.
You practice authentic yet business-savvy empathy to drive decisions.
2. Prioritize How You Consider User Experience
Most designs don't exist in a bubble. They are informed by designers' and firms' research, brand aesthetics and future forecasting. Yet many still struggle to center the end user and create a product that gets to the heart of who the consumer wants to be.
This is because, too often, designers remove the "human" from the "user." Language lets us down in that we focus too much on our expectations and prototypes, on framing products around our deliverables rather than framing them from a real, human perspective.
Both the user and the conditions of use are paramount here. When we focus too much on industry speak and neatly defined consumer bubbles, we lose sight of what makes an individual tick. We cannot design with innovation because we are not peeling back assumptions, framing new questions and coming up with underlying pain points.
3. Create New Pathways to a User's End Goal
In creative and innovative design, actual product ideation happens only after empathetic and consumer-centered problem statements have been tailored. It lands there for a reason.
To design a product that users perceive as new yet still consider accessible and adoptable, you must first unlock how they use current product offerings. Then you must understand those products' emotional shortcomings, lifestyle misalignments, cultural irrelevance or social lags. Only then can you synthesize ways in which a new or updated design addresses these exact pain points — creating a "pathway" that better speaks to how a consumer wants their life to be.
If you think this sounds too grandiose to be practical, think again. Enhancing end-goal pathways has helped improve everything from luggage to glassware to smartphone designs.
REMEMBER — INNOVATION IS NOT THE BE-ALL END-ALL
Innovation isn't a self-contained word. It only makes sense when applied in measurable methodologies that don't detract from the overall goal — developing a design that provides the best function to the targeted end user.
In other words, don't overdo innovation just for innovation's sake. Within the design industry, it is something to practice if it helps your firm more productively frame design questions, perform consumer research and ideate real user solutions — not a buzzword to blast across marketing materials or in a portfolio of work.
While it's a valuable tool to enable creative thinking and a word that helps us think outside the box, innovation that exists only for itself doesn't do anyone any good. Like most things, to see success in innovative design you have to first know who you're designing for and what they need solved in their current environment. Everything else is secondary.
DESIGNS THAT ARE MEANINGFUL, DESIGNS THAT ARE MANUFACTURABLE
By curating designs that are meant for a specific market, products are made more adaptive, appropriate and culturally significant — plus fit readily into the consumers' real, everyday life.
Get in touch with Y Studios to discuss what culture-centric design work and consultancy can mean for your product innovation.
Banner Image Credit: Mervyn Chan on Unsplash
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