Designing Innovation: Something old, something new

Apple’s new iTunes music store feature, iTV, is an attempt to revolutionize the video distribution world in the same way that iTunes disrupted the music industry (and created podcasting). And Apple did it in a beautiful and–as to be expected–customer centric way.

The danger with all radical innovations is that customers’ understandings rarely change as fast as the technologies do: Natura non facit saltum (nature does not make leaps)–and this rule applies for human nature as well.

Apple’s designers have developed (or at least borrowed) a beautiful web interface for presenting consumers, used to buying their DVDs from Walmart, with a look and feel that mimics the familiar experience of roaming the store shelves (pictured above). It’s a beautifully analog display disguising the digitization of the product. As you move the scroll bar, each new video takes center stage, just like it was in your hand.

Yellowlees Douglas and I wrote about this (Robust Design) in describing Edison’s efforts to domesticate the electric light by making it as similar to the incumbent gas lighting as possible. From the street, one positive New York newspaper reviewer write, the electric bulb was indistinguishable from a gas lamp. The same must be done for any drastically new technology–not set it apart from what’s already there but the opposite, make it look as similar as possible.

7 things every environmental entrepreneur should know

A lot is happening at the intersection of environmentalism and entrepreneurship these days, and it’s creating a hybrid form: the environmental entrepreneur. Some are coming from the entrepreneurial community. Many more are environmentally driven and, realizing that “commerce is the engine of change,” are starting new ventures. Here’s some quick advice based on having a front row seat at the intersection for the past few years.

  1. Solve the right problem first.
    That problem has to be the customer’s. Your project will, by definition, benefit the environment and coming generations (you’re an environmental entrepreneur, right?). But if it doesn’t also benefit the people who have to pay for it in the first place, it will die. If the first slide in your presentation doesn’t clearly describe a living customer and a real pain they are feeling now (and you could solve), then you’re not ready. Don’t lead with global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, or wetland protection unless you’re talking to the people who feel this pain directly (like foundations and policy makers). Instead, talk about how your solution will help the customer–help grow market share, reduce costs, improve quality, increase margins, reduce weight, grow hair, or get their kids into Princeton. Solving the customer’s problem first focuses you on the here and now, forcing you to be the one person who understands better than even your customers, what they need.
  2. Always solve more than 1 problem.
    Good ideas solve someone’s problem. Great ideas solve more than one problem. Don’t waste your time pushing one-dimensional solutions, the successful ventures, green or otherwise, that you hear about solve multiple problems at once. That means solving the problems of suppliers, distributors, retailers, and regulators, and investors. Powerlight developed a solar panel system that clicks together, has a layer of insulation underneath, doesn’t require penetrating the existing roof, and is durable enough to walk on. This reduces the efficiency of their panels (as they don’t tilt toward the sun) but it makes installation easy, and installers recommend them. Whose cooperation do you need? What do they get out of the deal? Run the numbers. If everyone doesn’t win, go back to the drawing board until you find a solution where everyone does.
  3. Embrace style.
    Somewhere along the way, style became the antithesis of substance. Nearly 100 years of Madison Avenue advertising has made style a cheap substitute for substance (just look at the US auto industry). But you can’t blame them. Consumption is as much about identity as it is about performance. Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, and Chevy all sell identity as much as the products their names are on. The Prius was helped by images of celebrities filling the gas tank; Willy Nelson’s name scored style points for biodeisel among truckers; even Gore is revamping his style to great effect. Think about your new venture: Style has a substance all its own. What’s yours? What’s your company’s identity and who wants to share it with you?
  4. Don’t make leaps.
    Most environmental entrepreneurs have visions of fixing entire systems–after all, that’s what’s broken–and design solutions that promise wholly new technologies enabling (and requiring) wholly new behaviors. Think hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which require innovations in fuel cells, fuel, fueling stations, fuel companies, and fuel distributors, to mention just a few. But that’s where most promising ideas fail. Innovations succeed when they offer evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in behavior. Create a design that provides small steps, easy changes, for your customers. Edison designed his electric light to look and act just like the gas lighting existing customers were used to. Only later did people start using electricity for other uses. Natura non facit saltum: Nature does not make leaps. Neither will customers.
  5. Know when good enough is good enough.
    You will always have two choices: keep working on the product or get it into the hands of customers and see what happens. Hundreds of millions have been poured into perfecting the Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, all based on what people think the automobile industry will want in 15-20 years. Jadoo Power Systems, on the other hand, found a way to put hydrogen fuel cells into the hands of customers today. How? By taking the technology that exists today and designing products that people need now. Jadoo sells power solutions to video crews, rescue workers, and the military–all of whom will pay right now for something than provides the same power for less weight. And by doing so, they are learning dramatically (doubling performance while halfing costs). Get to the market as soon as you can–there is no substitute for learning what people will pay for, and how they’ll actually use it.
  6. Forget the better mousetrap.
    Emerson had it wrong. Build a better mousetrap and the world will not beat a path to your door. The better mousetrap–or whatever your solution–is the beginning, not the end. Once you have that, you need to market it. You need to get the word out to your customers quickly and effectively by building a website, sending out a press release, writing an editorial (or better yet, an article describing the problem, the market, and the opportunity better than anyone else has yet). Who needs to know about your product? How are they going to hear about it? How can they reach you? The light bulb was 40 years old by the time Edison started marketing his version. The steam engine was over 100 years old before James Watt found the investors, distribution channels, and manufacturing partners to bring it to the mass market. We remember Edison and Watt because they built successful business around existing mousetraps.
  7. Remember, success makes you the new problem.
    Careful what you wish for–you just might get it. Any company that succeeds grows, and any company that grows needs to worry about managing cash-flow, making payroll, paying creditors, and staying around in the long-term. Compromises start to creep in, waste starts to add up, and pretty soon you’re part of the problem. For environmental companies, this is especially challenging. A world filled with electric cars would be a world littered with lead-acid batteries and darkened by coal-burning power plants. Look to companies who, like Patagonia in the last decade or Hewlett-Packard in the 1950s, turned away from growth in order to remain the companies they wanted to be in the first place. Just remember, when you succeed, why you started in the first place.

The downside of open innovation

There’s been a lot of writing lately about the valuable role that a firm’s customers (and others) can play in generating innovations. Chevrolet tried this recently, and found out what happens when you ignore a large part of your (potential) customers and then, finally, give them a voice in your innovation process. Autoblog just posted a very interesting set of videos created by “users” for GM:

As part of a creative new ad campaign for the new Tahoe, General Motors has teamed up with Donald Trump’s ‘The Apprentice’ franchise to create a website that allows prospectives to make their own commercials online. The website allows readers to select backgrounds, video shots, and input text in an attempt to win prizes ranging from a Jackson Hole Getaway to a trip to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Some of the videos created can be seen here…for as long as GM doesn’t notice them. At which point, we’ll see where they turn up on the web. one two three

The iPod Ecosystem

The NYT (The iPod Ecosystem) has an interesting description of the “ecosystem” surrounding the iPod:

An entire ecosystem has emerged around the music player, introduced by Apple in October 2001. Other manufacturers had produced MP3 players earlier. But the simple design of the iPod, plus Apple’s iTunes store, quickly helped Apple to dominate the market. And that simple design — some might even call it bland — encouraged people to personalize the machine.

Then numbers are quite impressive:

Apple sold 32 million iPods, or one every second. But for every $3 spent on an iPod, at least $1 is spent on an accessory, estimates Steve Baker, an analyst for the NPD Group, a research firm. That works out to three or four additional purchases per iPod.

Call me an academic, but here’s why I prefer the language of networks to ecosystems. Ecosystems infer evolutionary (and relatively unintelligent) design while networks are, in most cases, intelligently, or at least intentionally, designed. Jobs and Co. have done a remarkable job designing the iPod network. Granted, Apple should be able to by now, having failed to build effective networks around so many of their previous products–from the original Macintosh to the Newton to the failed clones market. Nevertheless, they have succeeded brilliantly here–by focusing first on the consumer experience but then, second, on the entire set of related products and services that bring value to that experience:

That obviously makes accessory makers happy. It thrills retailers, whose profit margin on the accessories is much higher than on an iPod. And it delights Apple because the racks of add-ons made just for the iPod — 2,000 different items at last count — send a strong statement to consumers that the Apple player is far cooler than a Creative or Toshiba player, for which there are few accessories.

So far, Apple has managed to limit their greed this time and, in the process, get a smaller slice of what grew to a large pie. However, it’s not too late for them to revert back to their old ways.

Some creations, like Mickey Mouse for Disney or Barbie dolls for Mattel, created an enormous market for accessories, but most of those items, like the Mickey Mouse watch or the Barbie Dream House, were licensed or made by the same company that created the original product. In contrast, Apple has encouraged a free-for-all, and its own share of the accessories market remains small…That will change. Apple is aware of the power of this market and is getting more active. Indeed, at the recent Macworld conference, Apple demonstrated that it wanted more of this lucrative field. It made a splash with an attachment, the $50 Radio Remote, that plays FM radio through the iPod.

I can’t help but marvel how, in building this network, Apple could share the growth while never losing sight of the strategic high ground–those aspects of the entire network that would provide profitability and defensibility. That takes intelligent design. Let’s hope Apple can stay that way.

Designing cute

For the designers among us, a NYT article yesterday (The Cute Factor) offers some insights into the role “cute” plays in evolution, and particularly, how evolution has wired us to perceive and respond to cute.

Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can’t lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

Here’s the hard-wiring:

New studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine…

But beware the subtle dangers associated with designing for “cute,” as we may more readily respond angrily when we suspect that such cuteness was intended to deceive.

TiVo in the news again…

Not that I’m obsessed with TiVo, but they’re in the news again with another sound byte hinting they are trying to move from a product to a portal. In today’s WSJ, as elsewhere, they announced:

TiVo Inc. is partnering with several big ad firms to offer its users a system that lets them search for commercials centered around a specific topic. Expected to launch next spring, the feature comes as Madison Avenue is contemplating a number of ways to reach consumers who use technology to avoid traditional advertising.

But are they networking just for networking’s sake? In their defense, this shows an understanding of what Madison Avenue wants to see in a TiVo network, but how much value does this bring to others in their network? Consider first and foremost the viewer…when you are making a purchase decision, would you expect a commercial to provide good reference material? Especially when so many TiVo owners have the web at their disposal as well.

A better partnership might have been with, that great (and once-free) website that showcases the world’s best commercials. I’d TiVo that.

A network for TiVo?

TiVo’s announcement today, in case anyone missed the headlines (e.g., Yahoo), lays out a nice role for TiVo: enabling you to view your recorded programs on an iPod or Sony Playstation Portable. This is a big leap forward, if they can pull it off, and they’re hinting it should be ready the first quarter of 2006. As with any network innovation, there should be value in this move for more than just TiVo, and at first glance there would be. I’ve been holding off on a Sony PSP because of its relatively closed content network (it only takes Sony UMDs or Memory sticks), but a seamless connection to TiVo would break open that network. Emphasis on seamless, which may not be the case. The WSJ reports that it may take up to 2 hrs to transfer a recorded show from TiVo to your PC and then to an iPod (converting it in the meantime between formats…):

Getting TiVo to work with an iPod isn’t as simple as downloading music and videos to Apple’s device from iTunes. First, a user’s TiVo records a show onto the machine’s hard drive. Then, the program is transferred over a home network to a PC, where it is translated into a video format compatible with the iPod. Next, the video must be transferred to the iPod from the PC. The whole process of getting an hour-long show onto an iPod could take more than two hours from the time a TiVo device finishes recording it.

Worse, it sounds like users will have to buy TiVo software for the PC to accept and convert the programming.

We’ll learn a few good lessons here about network innovations–especially the difference between imagining a networked world and actually pulling it off. Making TiVo connect with the iPod and Sony PSP is more than just kluging together technical possibilities and then making announcements from the Corporate PR office. The real test is whether the engineers and marketing folks can work together (and across firms) to build a seamlessness experience for everyone involved.

But TiVo better hurry, because the other news today is AT&T’s (ne SBC) commitment to a digital future and the delivery of TV, phone, net, etc… to homes. AT&T is talking about 1000 channels in your home in 18 months. This is TiVo’s real chance to hit it big, as AT&T/SBC may find them a better partner than the Cable/Satellite providers (and their DVR knock-offs) that AT&T sees as direct competitors. A 100o channels plus the ‘net is going to need a good SW interface and connection to the rest of our digital lives. Meanwhile, Cisco’s acquisition of set-top box manufacturer Scientific-Atlanta, Inc. could put Cisco’s networking strengths inside any number of DVRs, only highlighting TiVo’s isolation.