10 Ways for UX Designers to Innovate

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I cringe when I hear a request for an innovative solution. Innovation should be fully integrated into every design process. Asking a team to design with innovation seems just as silly as asking someone to take a shower with soap.

OK, I actually have asked my kindergartener to take a shower with soap. So, perhaps the request to design with innovation is nothing more than a helpful reminder.  Perhaps. But, more often than not, it is a request for something different, noticeable and cool.  And that’s a problem.

What’s so bad about designing something that is different, noticeable and cool? Well, if your objective is pure research or winning awards, then probably nothing. But, most of us are employed to create useful, usable, enjoyable and profitable products that need to go to market quickly. At the end of the day, we should not be measured by our ability to deliver cool, but rather by our ability to deliver something that achieves business goals and delights customers. Innovation is about problem solving, not shock and awe.

Here are 10 ways to ensure you are always innovating in the right way.

1. Don’t Confuse Creativity with Innovation

Creativity is generally understood to be the ability to create original ideas. Creativity can be powerful when incorporated into a problem solving process. It begs us to abandon shallow approaches and encourages us to stretch, think, search, and open ourselves up to the possibility of new or inconspicuous ideas.

Creativity is an important aspect of innovation, but it is just an aspect, not the end goal. Unfortunately, when many people hear the word innovation, they think new and different and often forget to focus on the needs of the user or the goals of the business.

2. Start with Needs and Insights

You cannot find a solution until you define the problem. The primary goal of innovation is to solve problems. If you can innovate in a way that is unique and difficult for other competitors to replicate, then you’ve hit a home run. But if we are not solving somebody’s problem, then what’s the point?

When design teams are asked to be innovative, they often run off to explore the latest design trends. That’s an important step, but it should not be the first step. Would you want your initial doctor visit to be focused on her asking questions about your problem or exploring the latest medical trends online?

If you want to innovate, run, jog or walk to your nearest customers and learn about their pain points. Leverage third-party research produced by reputable companies. Locate and digest previous studies and analytics that may already exist.

One caveat: You cannot rely on customers to tell you how to innovate.  You can not even rely on them to tell you their pain points. This is why it is important to also conduct research that allows you to observe.

3. Understand Business Goals

I recall an employee becoming frustrated with me when I explained that being an “advocate for the user” was not a good description of her role. We are only advocates for the user to the extent that it is beneficial for our company.

Now, do not get too upset. We know that most companies increase ROI when they improve their customer experience so there are rarely conflicts.  Luckily, there is almost always an intersection of convenience and conscience. However, there are too many designers who believe their job is to take functional requirements (assuming they exist) and then create a user-centric information architecture and visual design. That’s good, but not good enough.

Great designers are passionate about understanding the goals of their business.  We need to understand how different business models and strategies might help us achieve those goals.  We need to understand industry trends, competitive positions and design techniques that are appropriate for the business (e.g., persuasive design for e-commerce sites). All of this will open up possibilities for innovation.

4. Look for inspiration

Make all the online connections you need to keep abreast of the latest trends and inventions. You do not have enough time to read every tweet, status update or blog so spend time finding the sources that are most likely to be relevant and enjoyable.

Think about how the processes and solutions you encounter can be applied to your world.

5. Think

If people did not need to be reminded to think, then IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr. would not have chosen this one-word slogan to motivate his employees. There is no paint-by-number approach to achieve innovation. Great designers not only understand their business, their users, technology capabilities, and trends, they also know how to synthesize this information to come up with solutions.

Several UX managers have told me they have team members who are educated and versed in the latest trends, but unable to apply that information to solve problems. Information is only useful if it can be applied.

6. Obsess

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s once said, “I think the harder you work, the more luck you have.”  One thing that you’ll notice about people who innovate in any profession is that they care deeply about their work. They are consumed with achieving greatness.  This obsession doesn’t necessarily prevent them from leading a balanced life, but it allows the rich fabric of their lives to contribute to the process. It is this obsession that allows great ideas to seemingly pop out of nowhere when they are walking down the street, riding on an airplane or drifting off to sleep.

7. Collaborate

On more than one occasion I have said to an employee, “Wow! I really like that. How did you come up with that idea?”  They respond, “That was your idea!” After a confusing conversation we realize that I asked for X, but they “heard” Y. It all worked out in the end because Y was actually better than X. If collaboration with bad communication can produce great results, imagine what could happen in an optimal situation.

Because there are so many variables to consider and design is such a subjective activity, it can be extremely helpful to work through designs with a smart, diverse and collaborative team. The more you include stakeholders from different parts of your business, the more informed your design will be and the more likely they will be to support your efforts moving forward.

As I discuss in 7 Ways to Keep Your Design Ego in Check, your goal should be to create the greatest design possible. You’re selling the design short if you think you need to come up with all the ideas.

8. Concept

Many designers skip the conceptual modeling step and miss an opportunity to innovate. Before you land on a design approach, it is always a good idea to force yourself to consider options. The first approach that pops into your head is not always the best.  Innovators play around at a high-level before digging in too deep.

In What Designers Can Learn from Musicians I mentioned that while I was in the middle of a feature glut war at Motorola, Apple was innovating at the conceptual model level. Rather than adding items to the voicemail options menu, they added a visual component to what had previously been completely auditory.  In doing so they drastically improved the usability of voicemail. Of course Apple’s most important conceptual model shift was moving from a 5-way controller to a touch screen.

9. Prototype and Iterate

Prototyping opens up innovation possibilities in many ways. First, it allows you to see, touch and play with your creation. This feedback provides you with a better understanding of what works and what does not.  Second, prototypes provide a great vehicle to engage your peers and stakeholders. It is the fastest way for users and stakeholders to understand your intent and the most productive way to get feedback. Third, it is a cost-effective way to iterate on your design.

My high school English teacher once asked me why I had not contributed to a book discussion. I explained that I read the entire book, but did not understand it. He replied, “Why didn’t you read it again?” It was a break-through moment for me. It had never occurred to me that it was physically possible to read a book more than once. You too should take Mr. Curtain’s advice.  Iterate until you run out of time.

10. Drive it Forward

The only thing harder than coming up with a new idea is making it come to life. Bringing great ideas to life usually requires a lot of hard work and collaboration.  Here are some tips for driving innovation in your organization.

  • Your co-workers need to see the benefit. You have to take an empathetic approach. What benefit will resonate with each stakeholder most? Are they driven by the possibility of doing something great or by the fear of doing something wrong?
  • Be prepared to help your co-workers mitigate risks that are most likely to affect them.
  • Get the right people behind the idea. Figure out which players are most likely to make things happen and figure out how to get them on board.
  • Play nice. All the time. Not just when you want something. Make people want to work with you. Help people when they need it.  Give credit when credit is due. Do your part to contribute to an atmosphere of collaboration.

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