The Design of Things. to Come

If there is one lesson from the dot-com craze and meltdown that will endure (until the next time, anyway), it was this: A great idea is not the same thing as a great innovation.

We saw some truly fabulous ideas come over the transom here at Fast Company: There was, for a few shining months, balls. com, proud 24/7 purveyor of any sports ball you could imagine, and gesundheit. com, offering comprehensive relief for the allergy suf­ferer. But these late, mostly forgotten sites didn’t deliver much in the way of value. People didn’t need this stuff—not enough, anyway, to pay the bills. Ordering pet food online and having it delivered to your home was a terrific idea, but—no disrespect to the sock puppet—it just wasn’t pragmatic.

Now consider Google, a dot-com survivor (needless to say) whose dedication to innovation verges on the maniacal. A Google engineer once explained to me the calculus behind temporarily adding a brief pitch—“New! Take your search further. Take a Google Tour”—to the site’s otherwise austere home page. Those nine words, Google knew, comprised 120 bytes of data, which would slow download times for people with modems by 20 to 50 milliseconds. But Google could also measure precisely how many visitors took the tour, downloaded the Google Toolbar, and clicked through for the first time to Google News.

At Google, an idea that provides no demonstrable value to cus­tomers just doesn’t happen. The company is constantly testing new features on its site. The ones that people use, that don’t degrade the search experience, and that fit the business strategy—those are the ones that stick. The others—well, they’re just ideas, and they disap­pear. “We don’t show people things that they aren’t interested in,” said another engineer, “because in the long run, that will kill your business.”

The gearheads at Google are pragmatic innovators—exactly the sort that Craig Vogel, Jonathan Cagan, and Peter Boatwright describe in this book. They understand that innovation isn’t defined solely (or sometimes, at all) by daring acts of technological invention. innovation is, instead, about providing advances that are valued by customers.

The difference between the two was brought home to me several years ago in Craig’s office, then (and, I assume, still) a crowded reli­quary positioned at the intersection of creative destruction and con­sumerism. The shelves were packed with old rotary telephones, radios, coffeemakers, toasters, and Coke cans.

And with potato peelers. Here was the “Rotato Potato Peeler,” a mechanical marvel that applied high tech to the low art of removing a tuber’s skin. It worked—but it was cumbersome and ugly, and it removed an eighth of an inch of potato flesh. The seven-dollar OXO peeler, by contrast, was just an incremental advance on the century – old mechanical standard. But that increment—a more comfortable handle, a curved blade, a cleaner look—was valuable. It turned the mundane into something enjoyable, even beautiful.

That’s the ballgame today. Not, What can you make? Not even, What can you make that people will buy? But, What can you make that will add enough value to people’s lives to sell profitably? That’s why one of the coauthors of this book is a marketing guy.

Pay special attention in the pages that follow to the consumer profiles that introduce each chapter. They’re important, because they acquaint us with the central players in any discussion of innovation— the people who buy and use your products. Note that they are not just wealthy, well-educated professionals. Consumers of all stripes have become, in the last two decades, remarkably savvy about design and its value in our lives. If this book is about “how ordinary people cre­ate extraordinary products,” it’s also about how ordinary people have become design nuts. Call us the Target Generation.

It’s all too easy for companies to forget about their customers— and easy as well to spot the results. (The Rotato! Just $19.99!) Do this, obviously, at your peril: A new product strategy is not complete unless you understand who these people are, how your innovation will improve their lives, and what that change is worth to them.

If you don’t, some nimbler competitor surely will. Motorola and Nokia dominated the growing Chinese cell phone market for years— until a local outfit, Ningbo Bird, became a pragmatic innovator. Instead of producing phones that were simply cheap, Ningbo Bird began studying what Chinese consumers wanted—and making phones that were sexy and easy to use. Its market share jumped from 5 percent to over 50 percent in just a few years.

So, which is it? Is your company a Ningbo Bird, or a Motorola? An OXO, or a Rotato? A Google, or a gezundheit. com? This book will help you understand your customers and then create products and services that they want, products and services that are likely to be great innovations and not just ideas.

Keith H. Hammonds

Deputy Editor, Fast Company magazine

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 1:47 pm