“Innovate as a last resort.”
— Charles Eames
I was almost ready to tear this quote apart when I first heard it the other day while watching a panel of designers and researchers discuss the future of experience design (7:36). But first, I wanted more context. After all, Eames was a renowned furniture designer and one of the great innovators of the 20th century. Surely he knew what he was talking about. I didn’t find much commentary online about it, but I did find the quote in its entirety – which only served to aggravate:
“Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.”
Why would anyone encourage us not to use new ideas to better ourselves? After all, no one successfully grows by maintaining business as usual.
I went back to the video to see what the experience design panel had to say. Talin Wadsworth, a Senior UX Design Lead at Adobe, takes a more inspirational message from Eames. On his desk, he keeps a poster with the quote as a reminder to ask, “What’s the real situation on the ground? How are people actually using software [and] engaging with experiences?”
It got me to thinking: I might have a much different definition for innovation than others. Here at Electronic Ink, we are trained to build our solutions based on our observations of people as they complete actions and prioritize what they need to accomplish. To these people, innovation can take the form of small changes that make their jobs a little bit easier or a little bit faster. This is true both in both personal and professional contexts.
Vaulting Over the Low Bar of Customer Service
I love GrubHub not only for their convenient online food ordering, but also for their excellent customer service. I once ordered some Chinese through GrubHub and waited over an hour without it showing up, so I wanted to ask someone about it. GrubHub doesn’t offer restaurant phone numbers in the app, but they have a customer service number. I called and promptly tuned out, dreading the process of connecting to an IVR and undoubtedly being placed on hold.
But someone answered. “Hi Danielle, this is Katie from GrubHub, how can I help you today?”
She knew my name! I didn’t have to give a robot any of my personal information – Katie already had it thanks to the app. She had my account and order details in front of her and quickly figured out why I was calling. The result was a win all around: GrubHub resolved the issue quickly, earning my loyalty while saving time and money; and I had a refreshingly pleasant experience, with the added bonus of receiving a discount code for my next order.
I found this “innovative” in that GrubHub provided a new and surprisingly favorable experience with a call center. Katie was personable and helpful, GrubHub used its own technology to speed up the process, and I didn’t agonize over pronouncing the letter Z for an outdated system that wouldn’t understand – a small thing that made a huge difference.
Look and Listen Before You Leap
We can spot similar innovation victories within the business enterprise.
A while back, we were tasked with helping a client’s corporate procurement department be a better partner to the business. We interviewed and observed procurement employees first. We learned about their process, discussed their hopes, fears and frustrations with the business, and observed how they went about their very busy workday.
Then we interviewed their business counterparts. As it turned out, they wanted a partner in procurement but didn’t know how to go about it. They were confused about when and how to engage procurement, and, to make matters worse, had heard horror stories about bad procurement experiences – often a result of miscommunication and misunderstandings.
To transcend its bad reputation, the procurement team needed to adapt, aligning more closely with businesses processes and educating counterparts on when and how to engage. We had the idea of a “procurement concierge” – someone to liaise between the business and procurement, guiding them through the upcoming process.
This client didn’t need grand, sweeping innovation to achieve transformational results. They just needed their process to work. A few small changes, based on insights from the design research process, allowed for a significantly smoother and more productive experience for everyone involved. What’s more, we only needed two weeks of qualitative human-centered research to reveal key flaws and identify innovative solutions.
Small Innovations, Big Outcomes
We frequently hear from Fortune 500 clients who ask questions like, “How can we be more innovative?” and “How can we disrupt the marketplace?” Those things sound extreme and risky, but they really don’t have to be. You can deliver your employees and customers delightful “innovations” and “disruptions” in simpler and more effective ways if you take the time to observe their actual needs and behaviors and design solutions based on them.
So when Charles Eames, and then Talin Wadsworth, said to “innovate as a last resort,” they were talking about those mostly uninformed, grand gestures that can deliver impressive outcomes, but more often than not create “more horrors … in the name of innovation.” It really doesn’t have to be that way.