In previous writing about design innovation, I posited that “innovation done right is less about change for its own sake and more about understanding the soul of a thing — an object, a process, a piece of software. Furthermore, it is about using new technologies, contexts, or approaches to more effectively express that soul.”
In other words, design innovation is actually the deepest layer of the product design process, not some act of creation or “disruption” that happens apart from it. At the top of the product design process, you have the surface-level work of designing the interface — the visible manifestation of the design process in layouts, colors, styles, and interactions. Organizations that only focus on the top layer won’t succeed because the underlying structure, function, and features haven’t been considered thoughtfully and systematically.
More success comes when you dig to the middle layer — designing the experience. This means applying design thinking to understanding the problem, goals, and users, and then designing the right set of features and product architecture to meet those needs. There are plenty of products that do reasonably well by only addressing the top two layers.
But the products and companies that have true success, the ones we look to as revolutionary, are the companies that go one level deeper and apply design innovation. I think of this layer as designing the opportunity.
Designing the opportunity means understanding the system itself, the people who use it, and the external landscape in which that system exists. By comprehensively looking at all three of these factors, one can start to identify hidden opportunities and gaps.
Given that design innovation requires synthesizing a set of complex systems and weak signals, my process for approaching innovation involves the following steps:
1. Building a deep understanding of the existing system and its users
The first step involves learning as much as possible about what’s happening now and the scope of the current system. That means understanding not only the technical scope, but also what problem the product is trying to solve, and who it’s trying to solve that problem for.
2. Gathering information about emerging technologies or behaviors
It’s easy to get stuck in step one, to become so absorbed in the world of your organization or product that you can’t properly understand it in context. The critical step for design innovation is to maintain perspective, to look outside of your own context to see the broader changes, technologies, behaviors, and expectations in the world around you. Develop information habits that routinely expose you to new developments not only in your industry but in indirectly-related fields as well. The best innovations often come from applying an approach from one context in a new environment.
3. Identifying the gaps or places where a new possibility is emerging
As you spend time in steps 1 and 2, getting to know the people, the system, and the landscape, gaps and opportunities will arise that seem ripe for innovation. Work to tease out those opportunities with structured explorations of the internal and external trends you’re identifying. For example, you can map affordances of new technologies to user needs, or do concept mapping and other strategic foresightexercises to help you think into the future.
4. Articulating a vision of how to design for those opportunities
From there, you can work to articulate the vision of how to best innovate and take advantage of those opportunities. What is the experience we’re introducing? What needs does it serve? How will we strategically experiment and what metrics can we use to know if it worked? How does it intersect with the development of our existing products? This work is all about getting everyone aligned on not only the goals and vision, but also the functional expression of how we get there.
Two organizational roadblocks to watch
Innovation requires developing pathways to change, and change is always hard. It took me a long time to fully understand that design innovation isn’t just about coming up with great product ideas, but also about managing the organizational impact of those ideas. So first, mind the humans. Consider the people who would most be affected by proposed changes and collaborate to find workable paths to transformation at the human level, not just the product level. Second, experimentation needs to be strategic to be successful. Many companies either have a graveyard of promising but abandoned experiments or, on the other hand, “experiments” that continue to be supported, maintained, and paid for without a clear sense of whether or not they’re successful. Strategic experimentation should be accompanied by a hypothesis that is being tested, a clear set of metrics (qualitative or quantitative) to gauge success, and a process for when and how you will evaluate that success. That evaluation should lead to a conclusion as to whether the experiment should be expanded, iterated on, or stopped. Regardless of the outcome, good experiments yield insights and lessons learned. The more those lessons can be effectively shared and communicated, the better equipped everyone will be to grow and build upon them for future success.
Alexis Lloyd is a design and UX leader whose work focuses on creating experiences that push the boundaries of how we engage with information, currently as the Head of Design Innovation at Automattic, and previously as Chief Design Officer at Axios and Creative Director of The New York Times R&D Lab. She is also an accomplished writer and public speaker who can skillfully convene conversations amongst diverse groups about the future of design, technology, and UX.