The better question: Innovation vs. Refinement

(This article was also posted on The Tech Block.)

Schools of design thought move back and forth like pendulums. Handmade vs. Mass-produced. Local vs. Global. Minimal vs. Expressive. Tradition vs. Future. Every generation believes we have figured out what the previous generation didn’t, only to later realize that even older generations were doing it that way long before us.

Innovation vs. Refinement. Innovation being loosely defined as new products or features. Refinement being loosely defined as improvements to those products and features. These feel like new terms, but years ago they may have been known as Revolution vs. Evolution. Which is more important?

Right now, the pendulum has swung heavily in favor of innovation, to the point where I believe we are placing too much emphasis on it. I know that sounds like sacrilege coming from an industrial designer, whose very profession seems to be founded on the idea that everything should be innovative, but hear me out.

I love reading Fast Company. Try reading an article or two and not get excited about where the world of business, design, and technology are going. It’s impossible. 

I like to think of innovation as a Fast Company word, which are words that can be used as breathless descriptors for companies featured in the magazine. You read them and instantly want to apply them to your own work. “Oh shit, Square is innovating. We got to get some of that or we’re dead.”

(Also good Fast Company words: Cloud. Social Media. Crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding. My new favorite is Disruption, which has the potential to be an even more confusing word than innovation.)

The promise of innovation has been so amped up over the past decade (and obviously, not just by Fast Company) that we want to apply it to everything that we do. Try this: In your next meeting, just attach “innovate” to anything you’re working on. Anything. You’ll have the room in the palm of your hand. 

Everyone from CEO to entry level grunt, wants to be regarded by their peers as innovative and only wants to be working on innovative things. (Does anyone reading this NOT want to be innovative?) In the process, it’s become one of the most overused and misunderstood words we throw around. Everyone gets what innovation is, but at the same time it means something different to everyone. 

New. Different. Change. Cool. Better. Design. Engineering. Research. Strategy. Thinking. Ideas. Brainstorming. The Future. Creativity. Exciting. Outside the box. Disruptive. Breakthrough. Process. Invention. Novelty. Revolutionary. Game changing. Progress.

Because innovation means everything, it can also mean nothing. Which is where the problems start. The expectation for everything to be innovative, when no one is on the same page of what that means exactly, creates lots of problems in product development.

The other downside of innovation: new, different, change… don’t always mean better. Being genuinely better than what came before is the most important part of innovation. 

I had the opportunity to work on a consulting project for a very large company that had the full complement of product development tools. Design, Engineering, Research, Marketing. Everyone we worked with on the client side was whip smart. They had the financial resources to do their jobs well.

The consultant team that I was a part of had the same makeup of disciplines and a track record of doing great work. Our job was to lead the consumer research on one of their product lines and then turn those findings into a roadmap of where the product could go over the next five years. Really fun stuff.

On a project like that, part of my role as a designer is to understand what the client is both capable of and willing to produce the ideas we come up with. For example, if we propose cold fusion when they specialize in furniture, the idea won’t align well with their business. That said, we always include ideas that we feel are out of reach, because they help expand their thoughts to new possibilities. Ultimately if they can’t or won’t do what we propose, the whole exercise is pretty pointless.

This particular company, had a pretty wide competency of what they could do, but at the same time we found that even small projects needed a long period of internal gestation before they could hit the market. Once on the shelves, new products could either meet a quick death or stay on sale for years or even decades. That meant that an ideal roadmap for this client would have both short and long term goals. The long term goals would be built on the learnings gained from the short term successes.

Research went phenomenally well, with tons of great insights the client had never seen before. We took that data to a “Innovation session” (brainstorm) that we held with a large team from the client. That session lasted a full day, was super productive, and we ended up coming away with over 300+ ideas that they could be working on. They were jazzed.

The next step was to work with the client to combine, filter, and whittle down those 300+ ideas into something that resembled a five year product roadmap. For a week all we did is what you probably suspected product development people do: We moved a lot of Post-it notes around. Sketched. Refined. Stared at a wall full of ideas for hours on end. 300+ became 30 focused ideas that ran the range from near in improvements to radical new things that would take several years of R&D to bring to market.

Our side was convinced that if the client was able to pull off even 25% of what we had jointly come up with, they would have a strong source of growth for years to come and be insanely busy just trying to make it happen. The ideas fit their market, fit their brand, responded to what we saw their consumers doing, and were both within their realm of production possibilities and big leaps for what they were currently capable of. We felt supremely confident that we nailed what they were looking for.

That is until we presented the roadmap and were greeted with blank stares. You never know what blank stares can mean, so we started probing the room. Someone responded that they thought the roadmap was going to be about one thing, when it turned out to be another. Another thought we pushed the envelope too far. Another said they already had some of these ideas in pipeline. Finally a VP spoke up to say that the work didn’t feel innovative enough. Expectations were in a thousand different places.

All of these people had been with us since the kickoff, observed the research, took part in coming up with the ideas that we presented to them that afternoon, and yet they all arrived in different places. Why?

As everyone filed out of the meeting, we cornered that VP to ask them to help us better understand what they had meant by not being innovative enough. They couldn’t articulate it. They just knew that we hadn’t done it.

As we stared into our beers after the meeting, we theorized what we could have done to be “innovative” enough to satisfy the VP’s innovation expectation. Jet packs? Sky elevators?

They thought something *magic* was going to happen. When we didn’t pull a robot out of our hats, we were screwed. The big, scary, and unknown expectations of being “innovative” can get in the way of actually being innovative. Since everyone in the room had a different expectation of what innovation was to them, the obvious, expected things they should have been doing, didn’t seem as important as being “innovative”. Sometimes doing the obvious thing, is not so obvious.

By the way, this happens all the time. And yeah, the project died shortly thereafter.

Besides the disagreements over what exactly innovation is, overemphasizing innovation undervalues the benefits of refinement.

Take two successful smartphone competitors: Samsung and Apple. Between the two, Apple is generally seen as the innovator. I would argue they are also better at refinement.

Apple are relentless refiners. John Gruber described their refinement process as “rolling”. Start with a small tight idea (the core innovation) and slowly, thoughtfully roll improvements into that core when they are ready (the refinements). 

Apple is so committed to refining that an entire version of OS X, 10.6 Snow Leopard, was marketed as a refinement over 10.5 Leopard. No new features just refinements, the biggest being that the size of the OS decreased by several gigabytes. They’re so committed to refinements that the industrial design of the MacBook Pro they sell today (the non-retina version) is practically unchanged since the end of the George W. Bush administration, receiving only minor spec bumps since then. 

Apple currently has three versions of the iPhone for sale. The 3GS, the 4, and the 4S. Each builds on the work of the previous model. The 3GS may have not been seen as a big innovation when it was released, but it improved on the iPhone 3G. The 4 was seen as a major release when compared to the 3GS, but the 4S was an incremental update.

All three of these phones build on Apple’s original vision of the iPhone. The hardware, software, specs, branding, marketing, and overall user experience gets a little better with each release. This refinement strategy helps generate actual profits. You get better at making the same thing year after year. You reduce parts. You streamline production. You make the messaging clearer. Consumers understand the narrative thread you have created and can follow along when you push new innovations.

Compare this with Samsung. Besides Apple, Samsung is currently the only successful smartphone manufacturer. (Don’t believe me? Look here.) Still, Samsung seems to me that they overemphasize innovation. They continuously release new form factors with new ideas about what the smartphone is. 5” screens, 3” screens, styluses, keyboards, projectors. Rarely does it feel like the thought process from one release carries over to the next release. They currently sell 148(!) models of both traditional cellphones and smartphones. If you take just their touchscreen Android smartphones, you’re still left with 43 individual products. 43! (Look at this post from Andrew Kim comparing the Apple and Samsung phone lineups. You’ll get dizzy looking at the Samsung offering.)

The advantage to their continuous innovation strategy is they can try out many ideas and let the market decide what they want in a phone. This disadvantage is they are confusing the hell out of the market. Is the Galaxy S II better than the Galaxy S Aviator? Why does the Galaxy S II for AT&T have a different GUI than the Galaxy S II for US Cellular?

It also causes them to divide the attention of their workforce, makes their supply chain overly complicated, and forces them to reinvent the wheel every time they bring a new phone into production. They never get a chance to fix the problems of the first gen products because in a sense, they only produce first gen products. Look, Samsung is very successful and they make good products. If they emphasized refinement more, they could be even more successful and make great products.

Refining and building on what came before leads to better products. Simple refinements may not always yield the most exciting results, but you end up making a genuinely better product both for the end user and for your company.

Matt Buchanan wrote a pretty good piece for BuzzFeed the other day which could basically serve as my last thought on Innovation vs. Refinement. I’ll paraphrase: The lack of emphasis on refinement has led to a permanent beta culture in technology with the promise always being that someday it will get fixed. Someday you will be able to upgrade to Android 4.0. Someday RIM will make the PlayBook better.

Innovation is important, exciting, and necessary. But so is Refinement. We need to celebrate refinement more than we have. However we shouldn’t be asking ourselves which is more important. Innovation and refinement are not goals. They are methods and strategies.

The question we should be asking: Is this Better? Thats the only question that matters.