BA 850
Sustainability Driven Innovation

Truths of Research and Innovation


Truths of Research and Innovation

image of opening aluminum briefcase
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A Common Conflict

Allow me to tell you a tale, one which has been disguised to protect the innocent.

I had the occasion to be a party to some research on "highly designed" vitamin bottles some years ago.

In this case, these vitamin bottles were not designed by some local or regional design firm, but were four designs crafted by literally a rock star of the design world. He has been on covers of major magazines, TED Talks, the whole bit. Let's call him Jacques.

These prototype bottles were 3D printed–before 3D printing was a thing–and were delivered to the test site, by hand, in four separate aluminum briefcases. They were unveiled with reverence usually reserved for ancient artifacts and the like, as they were extracted from their custom cut foam liners with white cotton-gloved hands. The cost just to build the prototypes could have bought a decent house at the time. (This is not an exaggeration, as I had momentary thoughts of absconding to Mexico with four aluminum briefcases and their precious cargos.)

They were indeed "highly designed."

So, these bottles were then sent through usability testing with the exact types of customers who would be using these "highly designed" bottles in the real world. People poked and prodded at them, which is terrifying if you are responsible for the prototypes' well-being (they indeed had a full-time handler), and rather entertaining as the observer.

There was one design called "Oval," which was a short, squat bottle with what looked like a blunted and flared 3" diameter "crown" on top. If you twisted the crown, a little port would raise from the center of the top of the crown, and this little port had a slot exactly the width of a vitamin, plus 1 mm. If I were to estimate the production cost of this tiny mechanical marvel, it would have been in the $15 range. Just for the bottle. By general retail packaging cost rule of thumb, that would have made a garden-variety bottle of drug-store vitamins around $150. (By the way, the bottle was single-use).

A funny thing happened as person after person used the vitamin bottles. Each thought they were on a hidden camera show.

Here's why: The design would dispense 10-15 vitamins at a time through that tiny slot as if they were shot out of a Lilliputian cannon. Many times they landed loudly on the glass tabletop as they were ejected.

From here, people did what they would naturally do, which is try to put the aforementioned vitamins back into the bottle. With any conventional bottle, this entails the usual 'hand cup and shake' maneuver. Not so with this "highly designed" bottle.

In this case, the participants would place the pills carefully back onto the tiny crown, daintily pushing them round and round in the hopes that one would fit into the tiny slot and drop back into the bottle. What was hilarious was that, for older participants, this typically entailed holding the bottle about 5 inches from one's eyes, and poking with all the gentle intent of trying to make a ladybug walk more quickly down a set of tiny stairs.

So, one might think that the design house would have received the message that the prototype *might* need a little refinement for usability.

Some weeks later, the research findings were presented, with Jacques in attendance. The researchers brought video and verbatim quotes of the encounters, as well as offering their own ratings, based on the participants' encounters, on a variety of facets. Without saying as much, it was clear the designs, in the presented iterations, scored between a C and an F- in the eyes of the participants. (The scores were actually presented on a soft scale, using descriptors instead of letter or percentage grades.)

Remember that by "participant" we are referring to a significant cross-section of the people who could conceivably be in the sweet spot to purchase this bottle. If you are prone to capitalistic dreaming, replace "participant" with "wallet with feet."

Jacques grew more and more agitated as the researchers presented, until, about 10 minutes in, he leapt up screaming, "Who are you? Who are you? You have no idea what you are talking about! You have no idea about design! These people (pointing at participant video frozen on the screen) are idiots! You chose them to insult me! I will not have this!" With this, he stormed out of the room, and his Senior Handler scurried after him. This left Junior Handler 1 and Junior Handler 2 in the room, who looked helpless for a couple minutes as the presentation continued, until they both decided to leave as well. Jacques was never heard from again.

Why do I tell you this story? Because in developing new offerings, there is a Jacques in all of us.

There is a natural tendency for us to protect what we create, and this is not a tendency that ever serves us well in innovation.

Truths of Research, Creative, and Innovation

As we begin to test early-phase innovations, we indeed will have at least three personas or roles at play within ourselves, namely, the researcher, the creator, and the innovator. It is a conflict that really plays out no differently within each of us as it does between people, but when it happens internally, it is quiet and especially dangerous.

Here's what can happen, and we see it time and time again:

  1. You do the research and critical analysis, and find a space for sustainability-driven innovation that is exciting both for yourself and the organization.
  2. You get early buy-in, early project is greenlighted.
  3. You then take ownership of this fledgling innovation, both operationally and emotionally.
  4. There are no clear answers, so you have some initial research performed on the early-phase prototype.
  5. The research has warning signs interspersed with promising findings.
  6. Warning signs are not heeded or minimized due to emotional engagement.
  7. The offering suffers significantly in Beta (or in the market).

There is also a pervasive belief in the "creative genius" archetype, one that tells us anyone who is truly "creative" should be able to lock themselves in a room and just create. This is what we pay creative or innovative people to do, correct? To work in "genius isolation" and rely on only their flawed personal perspectives to create offerings which will be sold to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of individuals? We should believe in creative genius, but great research can make average people perform like creative geniuses.

I would suggest a shift in mindset as we embark into the joint acts of creating and trying to find flaws in our creations.

The Insight Mindset

The following are a few mantras I have relied upon over the years and tend to come back to when in the thick of research and gathering insights.

  • Real artists love constraints. Igor Stravinsky was once quoted as saying, "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution." Rest assured, many constraints will be revealed as we research the offering, from cost to timing. These are simply design constraints working to focus and refine the offering to better fit the market.
  • Every result is a victory, and brings us closer to truth and innovation. It can serve us very well to take the "detached scientist" approach in all of our innovation work, but especially in early phase research. Those who are over-protective of the offering see negative results or feedback as a defeat, those who take the detached scientist view see every valid result, positive or negative, as valuable. Taking this view is actually extremely freeing, as it allows you to concentrate more on ultimate success rather than being temporarily "right."
  • Save emotion for when it is a strength, not a weakness. Much of this comes down to introspection, but know when you are getting in your own way, or when you are trying to make excuses for the findings.
  • If you aren't failing, you're either lying or not trying. Many of the greatest inventors in history failed miserably for years before finding success. If you are attaching your personal pride and ego to the success of a first draft offering, you're going to see failure as terminal, as opposed to a gateway.
  • Untested intuition fuels ego and little else. Everyone wants to be "the guru" or "the rainmaker," with knowledge and experience so vast that they can predict the future. They don't exist. If you want the offering to fail, go with untested intuition.
  • Sometimes creation is destructive. You may find that the second prototype is vastly different than the first, and so you have to start over. You may also find that the new offering cannibalizes the first. It's OK. Remember that innovation is neither clean nor a defined path.
Five word summary - Inner Jacques: Hit the road