How does it happen – the creation of really innovative products and brands? Not the ones that are slightly better than their predecessors. The ones that redefine their category, redefine the very activity of using a phone, buying groceries, playing video games … In Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean, released last month, Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano, covers this subject and reaches some interesting conclusions.
The problem with much product innovation, according to Verganti, is that is largely user-driven – changes are done to products in response to what consumers say that they want. This will create incremental changes; when asked about what more they want from their phone, say, few people will think up a radically new use for it. Rather, they will talk about small nuisances with their existing product that they would like to have fixed. More radical innovation has traditionally been driven by the emergence of new technologies, it’s technology-driven. Technology has created some groundbreaking products, but is it the only way?
No, Verganti argues, really radical innovation should be design-driven. With this term, he’s not referring to design in its everyday meaning but in its etymological essence, as “making sense of things.” The really interesting point Verganti makes, I think, is that innovation needs to be centered around the meaning of things. People don’t buy products or services – they buy meanings. They use things for various emotional, psychological, and sociocultural reasons, not just utilitarian ones. Companies should therefore look beyond the actual product and its technicalities, and instead try to understand the real meanings given to it by consumers.
Understanding these means being able to innovate radically, by redefining such meanings. This can not be done by standard consumer research. Instead it takes a broader approach to getting to know both the context in which the product is used and general trends in society (I’m thinking that ethnography, anthropology, possibly semiotics are the methods for this?). Additionally, it demands an analytic, creative mind – an interpreter – that can come up with a way to create a new, appealing, meaning.
Verganti uses some very well-known brands as examples of this type of innovation. For example, when asked what they wanted in video game consoles, users said more power, more virtual reality … Enter the Nintendo Wii, a product that doesn’t give you those things, but instead redefines how video games are used. Or, in the service sector, who would have thought that they could see shopping organic, healthy food as a pleasant pastime, pre-Whole Foods? Well, now they are. As these examples show, this approach to creating innovation is not detached from what the user wants at all. It aims to find what he or she wants, but doesn’t know yet. And who doesn’t like to be pleasantly surprised?
You can also hear Roberto Verganti speak about the main ideas in his book in a recent Harvard Business Ideacast.
- Holiday Reading on Design, Information, Culture
- Design + Ethnography Intersections Pt 2
- Design + Ethnography Intersections Pt I
- A Definition of Design Thinking
- What Can Branding Learn From Service Design? (And Vice Versa)