The Magic of Innovation

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
November 25, 2013

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done—then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

When I was a child, my mother never could understand my desire to read my favorite books over and over again. The number of times I’ve read The Secret Garden alone must be in the hundreds. And that doesn’t include the times I’ve watched various movie versions of the story. As a teenager and an adult, I’ve also seen and performed in numerous productions of Midsummer’s Night Dream. You may ask whether I get bored with these stories? Never!

A great story can captivate us emotionally again and again, no matter how familiar we become with it. In fact, if a story truly grabs our emotions, our familiarity with it is actually a motivator to continue to engage with it. In my case, I was motivated to read The Secret Garden again and again, even though I could recite 80% of it from memory by the age of ten. I was also motivated to read sequels to that story, which other authors wrote long after the original book came out. And to see every movie adaptation ever made. When a story resonates with you, you’ll always have a connection to it.

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Because of such connections, variations on a story that may present a different perspective on it are exciting and surprising. Seeing how the story plays out piques our curiosity. We crave new insights into the familiar. The more grounded we are in a story, the more we can explore its nuances in a second, third, or even a hundredth read. Expanding upon something that we know so well makes us feel good about ourselves—makes us feel smart. Since we grow and change over time, our new experiences since the last time we read a story can give us new insights into it on a reread. New interpretations can provide exciting, new innovations in the telling of a story.

Similarly, innovation in product development may similarly be nothing more than recycling and rehashing what already exists. Innovation can occur when we go back and revisit something we’ve known well for a long time, looking for new insights. It’s just a matter of finding a connection that already exists and employing it in a new way. Not every innovation has to be as exciting as the next iPhone. You can succeed in innovating even in the realm of the most mundane of things—for instance, home technology.

Innovation for Products That Don’t Usually Inspire Love

The people at Nest have figured out how to innovate and are quickly becoming the Apple of home technology. Granted, they have had some help. Their CEO, Tony Fadell, has a track record of bringing us must-have items like the iPod. Still, I was a little torn when I heard that Nest has a new product: a smoke/carbon monoxide detector. Nest has so successfully innovated on the thermostat that I wondered whether they could pull it off again with the same level of excellence. Lo and behold, it appears they have!

I believe the basis for Nest’s success lies in these facts:

  • Nest is determined to engage with its customers by appealing to their emotional connection to their basic need for comfort and safety in their homes. This is their overall mission as a company. They have a clear vision.
  • They can reimagine existing technology in people’s homes—the place where this emotional engagement takes place—showing their true comprehension of that context.
  • They take their ideas to the next level by adding logical features that extend and build on the emotional connection that already exists—while making their products look cool.

Let’s look at these concepts in a bit more detail. First, Nest chose well in developing a smoke detector as its second product. They are continuing their tradition of taking everyday devices that have a small functional scope, but a big impact in people’s homes, and transforming what it means for those devices to do their job well. As Fadell says in an article about the new smoke detector, he wants to bring magic to products that are unloved and often overlooked. Sticking to this agenda has built Nest’s credibility. Customers trust that their new product will be as exceptional as their first without even knowing much about it. There is a lesson we can learn here: Focus on what you do—and do it well.

But exactly how can a smoke detector engage us emotionally? How might we come to love it? This is especially challenging because this is not a device that we think about on an everyday basis. We may realize that it’s in our home only subconsciously, but knowing it is there provides a sense of comfort and security that every human being needs. If a smoke detector has ever alerted you to a true emergency, you know what I mean. The device’s value is immeasurable in that moment—even if that is the only time you’ll ever need it. It can be a lifesaver, and its presence gives us peace of mind—plain and simple.

Sadly, though, we all know that smoke detectors can be a big hassle when they’re not saving our lives. If you told me you’ve never pulled the batteries out of a beeping device in frustration, I wouldn’t believe you. And it’s that frustration that detracts from our having a positive experience that engages us in the way the manufacturer of a smoke detector intends. For much of its existence, the smoke detector has been a nuisance more than a lifesaver—up until now.

Nest has conquered the deficiencies of smoke detectors with their brilliant take on a device that had remained unchanged for decades. Turning your smoke detector off is no longer a hassle. Instead of requiring you to climb on a chair and hit tiny buttons with a broom handle, turning off the device is now as easy as a hand wave. There’s no more wondering whether the battery is still good or having your night’s sleep disrupted by incessant beeping. A clear visual cue gives you pertinent status information. There are no incomprehensible noises when something sets the detector off. The device actually talks to you, providing a clear reason for its being triggered. It is much easier to love something when you aren’t in a constant battle with it.

But Nest didn’t stop there. Now, multiple smoke detectors in a home can talk to each other and warn us of issues arising in other areas of our home. This functionality deepens our connection with the device, and our dependency on this device is critical to our safety and well-being. We all know seconds can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. This feature makes so much sense that it makes you wonder why no one has ever done this before.

Another thing that Nest has done to make the smoke detector a more integral part of the home is to turn it into a night light when it’s not functioning as a detector. Not only did they get the context in which such devices exist right, they understood that it makes logical sense that the detector could do double duty in this capacity because of the locations in which they are usually placed. Capitalizing on the device’s ambient functionality, they gave the smoke detector an expanded purpose in our lives that is a good fit with its core story. Plus, ambient user interfaces are just cool.

The concept seems so simple when you look at it in this way, but achieving this kind of innovation takes care and thought—and not every company has the patience and diligence that Nest apparently does. This is what makes Nest a successful innovator.

When a Good Story Goes Bad

When we forget the mission that is at the heart of our story, something that was once great can turn into a disaster from which it may be hard to recover. It is easy to see that LinkedIn is currently battling this problem as they struggle through an obvious identity crisis—potentially letting their desperation to maintain relevance in the face of the success of other social-media sites show a little too clearly. What used to be a fantastic and unique tool is quickly becoming a mishmash of recruiting spam, diluted profiles, and functions that just don’t make sense in a tool that people don’t spend a lot of time using regularly.

The major frustrations for me as a user arise from some ways in which LinkedIn differs from Nest:

  • LinkedIn lacks a focused strategy and vision. They have muddied their story and made it hard for users to engage emotionally with the site.
  • They are indiscriminately throwing in new social-media functionality, without understanding whether it is right for their particular context.
  • They are not rethinking their core story or considering how to extend professional networking in ways that make sense.

If we take a hard look at their site, it appears that LinkedIn has made a major shift in its purpose. As Krista Bradford has said; “Lately, I’ve noticed that what began as a business networking site is starting to feel more like a marketing and recruiting site dressed up as a social network.” Those are two very different stories—and only one of them offers real emotional connection for a user.

When LinkedIn was a business-networking site, you controlled your profile, the professional image that you presented to the world, the people with whom you connected, and how you connected with them. Your professional network had a lot of emotional and intangible value because it represented your prestige in your professional world. Services that you could provide included being a connection point for other professionals and making recommendations. What you chose to do on the site meant something.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true. Because LinkedIn is trying to be like every social medium out there and incorporating all the functionality that other social-media sites provide, they have diluted the value of what they originally provided to users. And there are few safeguards to your network any more. There is no longer any distinction between my profile here and that on Facebook, so why do I need both?

Case in point: endorsements. Most people spend a lot of time and effort crafting their professional image and are emotionally invested in that image. That’s the reason LinkedIn was such a hit in the first place. It took a much more targeted approach than the job boards of the day and really used personal connections as the driving force for communication. By adding endorsements to profiles, LinkedIn has taken control of that professional image away from the individual who owns it.

Not a single professional who I know wants people they don’t know well or haven’t worked with as colleagues in a particular context to endorse them for skills they don’t have. Neither do they want a person who is not a qualified judge of their skills to endorse them for a skill they don’t understand. And they most certainly don’t want people to endorse them for skills that they don’t want to highlight because they’re not important to their professional success. Drive-by endorsements that are akin to Facebook Likes end up feeling much more like an afterthought than something that is truly of value.

Endorsements aren’t the only distractions either. The scatter-shot technique that seems to be popular with recruiters these days has made communications from LinkedIn less and less relevant, forcing me to turn away and disengage. I get the same messages, from the same recruiters, over and over again, touting mostly irrelevant jobs and using form-letter, filler content. I personally stopped reading all recruiter emails from LinkedIn many years ago. The next connection request that I get from a stranger with the default “I’d like to add you to my professional network” message might just cause me to scream. If you wouldn’t just walk up to me in person and ask for my phone number, without any other introduction, how can you expect me to respond to this message?

Finally, LinkedIn isn’t taking advantage of the information they have to understand how to extend their functionality logically. They have known for a long time that users don’t spend a lot of time on the site, yet they have introduced a news-feed for content and updates. This kind of functionality assumes that users actually come to the site every day. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t actually work in this context. The lure of a news-feed that doesn’t help to extend the concept of building one’s professional network is negligible. It just doesn’t fit in with the way people use the site. LinkedIn has definitely missed the mark here.

If LinkedIn doesn’t want to go the way of job boards, they need to get back to the heart of their story—and quickly. We don’t need to connect to everyone, everywhere, about everything, in every place. Our professional lives are one area where we take extreme care to protect our image and build our credibility. Linked in needs to help us do that and do it well.

The Magic of a Good Story

I know many people still think that innovation is magic and only a special few companies can achieve it successfully, but this isn’t true. What we can learn from experiencing the stories that we cherish—and from companies like Nest—is that it is possible to successfully innovate in ways small and large. On the other hand, a company like LinkedIn can quickly lose its status if it doesn’t attend to its core story with care and retain its customers’ emotional engagement by innovating in a meaningful way. Innovation isn’t magic, but it does require the magic of a good story.

“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”— Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden 

Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Traci LeporeWith over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category.  Read More

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