Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Innovation comes from fuller understanding of the problem

I am still ruminating on sessions that I attended during Silicon Valley Product Camp 2013.  One remark someone made about innovation is circling around me.

Innovation comes from fuller understanding of the problem.

I don't recall who exactly said it.  Whether it was Steve Johnson or someone in the audience, I cannot quite remember.  Yet I think it captures the one aspect of how innovation happens.  That is, thinking about the problem and understanding the constraints under which a new solution needs to be proposed.

In its simplest sense, we have to understand the problem before we can come up with creative solutions that solves the problem.

This was the example that Steve Johnson gave.

Problem: I want to adjust the temperature in the room.

As one line problem, there are lots of solutions.  If we google for thermostat, we can see many solutions to this problem.  All of them let you set the temperature in one way or another.  Problem solved.

9 buttons and 3 temperature numbers.
You'd better have kept the manual handy.
Source: http://www.aaaheatingac.com/

But the real-world problem goes beyond what is captured in that one line.

Real-world problem: I want to adjust the temperature easily.  I may also want to conserve energy while doing it.

Now that's a more realistic problem.  Real problems tend to be complex.  It has many layers of constraints under which it needs to be solved.

People don't just care about setting the temperature.  They also want to do it without having to look up the manual to figure out how.  They prefer easy and elegant design over complex and crude design.  If possible, they just want the thermostat to figure out what comfortable room temperature should be given how earlier temperature settings were.  When people are traveling, turning itself off to save energy would be a big plus.  It would also be cool (pun intended) to be able to turn on A/C as you head home using your smartphone.

Reaching fuller understanding of the problem is about understanding the little details about what users are looking to solve, and coming up with a solution for each detail.  Only when the entire problem is understood, then the innovation can happen solving as much problem areas as it can.

No manual needed.  Just dial to set the temperature.
It also comes with iPhone app and learns your temperature preferences.
Source: http://firewireblog.com/

Johnson mentioned Nest thermostat as solving all of the little problems above. His experience of using it delighted him enough to use it as his example of what to imitate.  By solving not only the simple task of setting the temperature but also lots of other related problems, Nest thermostat was able to make a fan out of Johnson.

From Nest's perspective, solving the simple problem would have created MVP of thermostat.  But there are dozens of thermostats like that.  What was missing from the thermostat market, and the reason why it felt so innovative was because Nest solved the entire problem.

When trying to be more innovative, first understand the fuller problem with all of its details.  MVP does not need to include all features for a very good reason.  But in order to be an innovative product, someone must think hard about what other components of solutions can be added to MVP and in what order.

Do you have any other example of fuller understanding of the problem leading to innovative product design?

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