The Conundrum of Humdrum Innovation

November 21, 2016

Imagine how user interfaces and interactions might look and feel in a future when we all have e-ink wallpaper, short-throw projectors that are mounted all around us, augmented-reality devices; and ubiquitous, cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI).

My company was asked to do just that—to develop a new user-interface aesthetic for a venerable consumer electronics brand to roll out in 2020. Needless to say, we were thrilled. This is exactly the sort of design challenge for which my students at Art Center are in training and, I assume, hope to work on in the real world. But, for most working interaction designers, this sort of open-ended brief is rare and, accordingly, highly coveted.

Today, when a designer receives a brief like this, it is quite different from the past, when designers were asked to imagine the future. Then, designers had to stretch their imagination and free themselves of assumptions about what was and wasn’t feasible to conceive of something new. But, today, the gap between the fantastical world of imagined movie interfaces and what we have in our homes, can fit in our pockets, or strap on our wrists seems to be shrinking by the minute. Recently, when Mark Zuckerberg casually posted about his project to build an AI for his home “like Jarvis in Iron Man,” that sounded completely normal.

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IDEO Model of Innovation

When thinking about innovation, many interaction designers like myself look to IDEO’s model of innovation as a touchstone—opportunities to innovate exist at the intersection of technical feasibility, human desirability, and business viability, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—IDEO model of innovation
IDEO model of innovation

However, it’s easy to misunderstand this model and assume that, if you’re working at this intersection, you’re necessarily innovating. If only this were the case! Instead, this intersection is actually where opportunities for practical innovation lie—that is, innovations that actually stand a chance of being realized. This model of innovation is most useful as a gate, ensuring that flights of fancy meet the criteria for take-off.

In the past, finding that intersection could be quite challenging for most problems. The development of the required technologies was difficult and required a lot of specialized knowledge. Communicating directly with consumers to understand their needs was challenging. Business requirements were often poorly understood when physical retail was still the rule. Innovation was hard, and people often felt daunted in trying to achieve it.

Innovation Today

Now, in contrast, each component of IDEO’s Venn diagram of innovation seems to be enlarging, as Figure 2 shows—especially in the technology sector. For example, if you’re making a digital product or service today, our maturing technology infrastructure makes many ideas more immediately feasible—technologies such as iOS, AWS, and 3-D printing. Business models focusing on subscriptions and ongoing customer relationships have created new opportunities—for example, Instacart, Uber, and Dollar Shave Club. Targeted, data-driven, experience-design approaches that support bespoke, personalized experiences mean your product can appeal to more different types of people—for example, Netflix and Amazon.

Figure 2—An updated model of innovation
An updated model of innovation

The Expectation of Innovation

The increased opportunity for innovation has fostered huge growth in new products and services that have made remarkable impacts in their respective markets—and, indeed, on society as a whole. Just consider the radical changes in regulation and policy that Uber and Airbnb have required. But, as we find ourselves deep in a VC-fueled Silicon Valley-izaton of our world, innovation has now become de rigueur—a bit of a humdrum catchphrase. A company’s focus on innovation no longer inspires a Wow! reaction. Today, it’s expected.

Given the rapid, continual innovation of today, what makes some ideas stand out from the crowd?

This question is particularly puzzling because, while some innovations are completely new inventions, many are simply sexy, obvious improvements on established products or services. Before Uber, you could always call yourself a car or taxi. Before Airbnb, you could book any number of homes on VRBO. Grocery delivery service is a very old idea. We had lightweight sneakers before Nike Flyknit. While these innovations might not be moon shots—radical innovations like artificial organs, the Web itself, IBM’s Watson, self-driving cars, and the unrealized dream of single-payer healthcare, they have had remarkable impact nevertheless.

Opportunities for Innovation

In addition to inventions that have solved previously intractable problems, there are particular types of innovations that stand out in today’s hard-to-impress world:

  • The application of a user-centered, design-led approach to innovating components of a product or service experience that were previously undervalued or taken for granted, or for which the market had assumed there was simply no room for innovation. When something improves and we hadn’t thought it could improve, that can seem magical.
  • Changing the mindset and perceptions of the user, which can make products feel radically new, even if a team isn’t creating something brand new.
  • Changing the relationship of a product to other products. We often think about products in silos, but when incremental innovation lets us integrate a product into our lives in different, new, and useful ways, that incremental innovation seems much bigger.
  • Changing the relationships between customers and a company providing a product or service. While that product or service might not be radically different, the change seems significant if the relationships also change—empowering the consumer or leading to greater transparency.
  • Changing the way people inside organizations think about their product or service—and their relationships to their customers.


The foundation of all these opportunities is the human desirability index that is part of the familiar model for innovation, as shown in Figure 2. If you consider the other factors as well—business viability and technical feasibility—they suggest many more opportunities for innovation—whether they’re aesthetic, procedural, or financial. But what kinds of innovations stand out most today? Those that affect us as human beings.

Which brings me back to our future-facing design vision project: We aimed to steer away from the glossy utopias that constitute the visions for so many of these sorts of projects. Instead, we focused on anchoring our design concepts in genuine, relatable, unromanticized moments. (I wish I could share our work, but, alas, it’s still under wraps.) We wanted to make our vision of innovation simpler and more relatable—not just because this anchored our thinking at the center of the practical innovation nexus, but also to acknowledge the increasingly casual relationship we have to innovation. We wanted to imagine a future in which all of the magical technology that surrounds us today has meaning in our lives. 

Global EVP, Experiences & Innovation at POSSIBLE

Los Angeles, California, USA

Jason BrushAs global EVP of Experiences and Innovation at POSSIBLE, Jason oversees creative and UX design for the agency’s Los Angeles branch, as well as for UX design globally. A UX, product, and interaction-design expert, Jason helps clients establish the connection between user behavior and digital experiences. In addition to the award-winning work he does at POSSIBLE, Jason teaches courses at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and at UCLA.  Read More

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