XI.1 January + February 2004
Page: 24
Digital Citation

To innovate or not to innovate…

Lyle Kantrovich

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Usability practitioners love to preach about the merits of "standards and guidelines"; we seek out and destroy "inconsistency"; and a recent trend is to try to use "patterns" when designing products and user interfaces. If you were to ask someone in business to describe the usability field as a flavor of ice cream, we'd likely be characterized as "vanilla." We tend to play it safe and stick to what's tried and true. We do this because it works. It works by saving our clients and end users millions of dollars and an untold amount of pain.

In order to save money and pain, user-centered design (UCD) practitioners often caution teams against "reinventing the wheel." They cringe if project team members start talking about designing an "innovative," "fresh," or, heaven forbid, "cool" user interface. We've learned that "cool" in developer lingo means "let's use every new flashy technology you can imagine and, if it works, it'll be really nifty." "Cool" in marketing or graphic designer lingo means pretty much the same thing, but with better graphics. To twist Jakob Nielsen's words [7], "cool" is 99 percent bad.

Of course I'm stereotyping and exaggerating a bit; yet, I suspect our current external "brand image" as a field reflects our collective penchant for reining in the "unbridled creativity" of marketers, graphic designers, and art directors. As a field, we've worked to establish and promote design standards, guidelines, and style guides—drawing the "lines" for future designers and developers to color inside of. In design sessions and post-evaluation recommendations, we often advocate safe, "tried and true" design choices. We play the role of critic, bringing an attitude of skepticism toward anything new or innovative until it has been properly tested. Of course, these are appropriate and legitimate positions, but we pay a price when our professional image becomes that of "creativity police," not "trailblazers" or "innovators."

We risk branding ourselves in ways that separate us from the key concerns of business leaders. ISO 13407 contains a standard definition of UCD that is widely cited. This definition cites, as the benefits of UCD, that it "... enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human working conditions, and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance" [10]. These are certainly laudable goals, and the fact that a globally recognized standards body has noticed UCD lends us credibility as practitioners. But these are not the most exciting goals for business leaders, who focus more on increasing market share and revenue, cutting costs, or improving key business metrics like customer satisfaction, and staying ahead of the competition—all of which depend on innovation.

UCD is not inherently opposed to innovation. Indeed, by effectively applying UCD, we consistently help our clients create innovative products, processes, and services. But we don't properly collect credit for our contributions to innovation in the many industries in which we work. We need to do much more to help industry and clients see UCD as a force that can actually drive innovation.

back to top  Definition of Innovation

Definitions of innovation vary widely; according to a 2003 survey of 500 senior U.S. business executives conducted by Cheskin and Fitch, the definition of innovation is changing. "Twenty-six percent of companies define innovation as 'a solution' that identifies and addresses the unmet needs of consumers. Very few associated innovation with a more likely term such as 'discovery' or 'revolution.'" The same survey found that more than half (54 percent) of executives had increased investments in innovation over the past two years—a time when most budgets across the United States were held flat or being cut because of a sluggish economy. The companies of executives surveyed tended toward a "practical and customer-focused approach to innovation" where "success is judged by sales, revenue and customer satisfaction" [3].

To businesses, innovation is a concept worth investing in, even during an economic downturn. In a 2002 interview, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt explained: "In the global economy there's going to be pricing pressure in every business. The only way you're going to grow and keep your markets growing is through innovation. Innovation is not just a nice-to-do, but also a real priority" [5]. Like other innovative companies, GE sees innovation as a way to grow and be more successful.

Interestingly, governments also think of innovation in much the same way. The Canadian Economy Online Web site [2] explains that the Government of Canada sees innovation as a factor that, as it increases in an economy, can lead to improved productivity and competitiveness and even result in a higher standard of living. Innovation therefore is not only good for companies, their customers and other stakeholders, but also for economies and the citizens therein who benefit from the resulting changes in standards of living. Innovation is recognized as a powerful force in the world.

back to top  Types of Innovation

Experts who study innovation classify innovations by the amount of impact they have. "Incremental" innovations involve a relatively minor improvement of a product or process. A "radical" innovation involves a more dramatic improvement, and a "disruptive" innovation represents a major paradigm or technology shift. Disruptive innovations can change the way consumers think about a product, change their expectations, and even create entirely new industries or markets [9].

Although UCD can enable all three kinds of innovations, most innovations are incremental. Most effort across industries is to evolve products gradually. The incremental approach involves less risk, less effort, and usually less deep expertise or more readily available skill, so it is found more often. Whereas singular incremental innovations have less impact in a market or product space, cumulatively, incremental innovations have a huge impact. Incremental innovation is estimated to be responsible for approximately half the advances in technology and productivity and half the economic benefits from new technologies [9].

back to top  UCD as an Idea Engine

It is not difficult to show that UCD is essentially a process for innovation. It is not the only process for innovation, but from my (albeit biased) viewpoint, it is an innovation process that is well suited to almost any type of company or industry, and it's been proven to work time and time again.

Notice that I am not speaking of usability, which is too often equated with purely evaluative testing, but rather with UCD defined broadly. It enables the design and development of fresh new products but can also be used to develop existing products so they become highly differentiated from the offerings of competitors. UCD embodies a wide variety of methods that can be used as required by the needs of a given product, project, or client. Practitioners can make use of ethnography, interviews, surveys, card sorts, prototyping, cognitive walkthroughs, usability testing, and many other techniques in order to gather insights that help develop ideas into innovative designs. All of these methods can serve to generate new ideas, rather than to simply evaluate existing ones.

bullet.gif User Research and Field Studies

Usually the explicit reason for conducting user research is to learn about users' needs. Methods such as interviews and surveys can provide information and ideas, but ethnographic studies can be goldmines of ideas. Not only do they often yield direct ideas—offered by a user or plainly evident in the course of the field study—but they can also help shape, refine, and prioritize ideas for future products, features, or enhancements [8]. Observational methods are rich sources of insight into latent customer needs, the solution domain, and context of use. They can suggest new metaphors or analogies with other domains. Furthermore, unexpected findings, which are common in field studies, can challenge design assumptions in ways that elicit novel solutions from teams.

User profiles are a proven, useful way of helping a design team put on a different "hat" and approach design issues from another perspective.

back to top  Evaluations

Usability testing and expert reviews expand the number and types of people who have input into the design process. Usability test participants often offer ideas and insights, and expert reviewers bring their own diverse backgrounds and experience to their work. These are additional sources of ideas—usually from perspectives that are quite different from those of the typical design team. Sometimes, usability evaluations show that the "conventional" design does not work in a particular case, thereby forcing teams to find novel solutions. Unexpected or puzzling responses from users in usability tests don't only raise doubts about the current design, but can often provide clues to solutions.

bullet.gif Personas and User Profiles

These design tools remind team members that "they are not the user," but user profiles also help the design team stretch their creativity. Innovation classes that cover creativity and brainstorming often teach techniques for breaking out of one's typical line of thinking about a problem to help generate more diverse ideas. User profiles are a proven, useful way of helping a design team put on a different "hat" and approach design issues from another perspective. Not only can this help generate more ideas, but the product that benefits from those ideas is also more likely to work better for the intended users. Done properly, the exercise of creating a user profile can help teams recognize where they have gaps in their knowledge of users.

bullet.gif Prototyping

Prototypes, by definition, embody a set of ideas to be tested. When a design team builds prototypes, they find where concepts need more thought and detail; they often find out why a certain idea won't work; in the process, they learn what needs to be addressed in the next design iteration. By promoting early low-fidelity prototyping, UCD helps to encourage the generation of alternative solutions and concepts, a key factor in creativity and innovation, and one that is often bypassed in standard development approaches.

back to top  Examples of UCD Fostering Innovation

Described here are summaries of two case studies in which UCD was used to create innovative solutions. The first example shows how UCD can be applied to design of a new, non-technology-based product that I think represents more of a radical innovation than an incremental one. The second example shows an incremental improvement to an existing computer-based product.

bullet.gif Gatorade EDGE

Starting in 1994, a team at Metaphase Design Group spent two years working on a new bottle design for Gatorade. Researchers observed people drinking, measured mouth and gulp sizes, and made plaster casts of hands. From their research they learned the following:

  • How athletes preferred to drink—either by squeezing liquid from a bottle or by sucking it out of the bottle.
  • How much liquid it takes to quench a typical thirst-24 ounces, about 20 percent more than what was previously in a regular bottle of Gatorade.
  • How fast someone can drink a 24-ounce sports drink—46 seconds on average for a 25- to 35-year-old male.

From these findings, the team tested prototypes and ultimately came up with the "EDGE" bottle. EDGE stands for "Ergonomically Designed Gatorade Experience." The bottle is narrower than most other bottles, for easier gripping, and will accommodate hand sizes between the 5th and 95th percentiles. The mouthpiece is a "mirror image" of human lips and fits a person's mouth comfortably and prevents dribbles.

This beverage package design was very innovative. In an industry that traditionally used bottles designed by bottle manufacturers on the basis of what was easy to manufacture, Gatorade focused on creating a better consumer experience based on a better understanding of target consumer behaviors.

What were the benefits of Gatorade's application of UCD? According to Gatorade, these included increased Gatorade sales (as much 25 percent in the first eight months after launch), millions of dollars in additional revenue, and a patent on the bottle's mouthpiece [4, 6].

bullet.gif Ebay

At the Usability Professionals' Association conference in 2003, Laura Borns, an eBay usability team member, presented an account [1] of a recent redesign. Ebay users who wanted to sell something on the huge auction site were having difficulty listing their items for sale. The team focused on helping new sellers, who had never sold something on eBay before, but the team also recognized that they might be able to help experienced sellers who were experiencing some issues with the site's design.

The eBay team conducted user research and gathered data from customer support, a bug tracking database, and online "community boards" where eBay users share information and discuss problems they have with the site. The team then went through a redesign process, creating mockups and prototypes along the way, and testing iteratively to continuously improve the new designs until they were ready to implement.

The new design was beta tested and in areas of the site where it was tested, resulted in an immediate "spike" in items listed. Total time to list an item for sale was reduced by 75 percent for new sellers and by 55 percent for experienced sellers. User errors committed during the listing process were reduced by 85 percent and users able to complete the listing process went up by 23 percent. Not only did user success and performance improve, but new sellers also preferred the new design 20 to one over the old design; experienced sellers preferred the new design nine to one.

Ebay did not discuss the financial impact of their work, other than to say that the number of sellers and items listed increased "significantly." Since they make money whether or not an item sells, you can be sure these improvements resulted in a sizable increase in revenue. Unlike the Gatorade example, the eBay redesign work was completed rather quickly: in just three months with only a three-person team dedicated to the effort.

back to top  Calling All Innovation Advocates...

Clearly, UCD practitioners can help companies be more innovative; we can facilitate the process for them to design products and services that create customer value and separate companies from their competitors. Yet, even though we have what those companies want and need, I think we've made it too difficult for them to recognize and access our expertise. We don't speak their language well enough.

Our approach to our clients should relate to the things they are involved with and care about. Businesses are focused on innovation, value-added solutions, and being customer centered. Just a quick review of UCD consulting Web sites and marketing materials shows that, as a field, we don't provide enough evidence that we care about the same things our clients, sponsors, and employers care about. Rather, we confuse them with our lingo—words like "usability," "heuristic evaluations," and "contextual inquiry."

If we are going to be "user-centered" in our own activities, we have to change our approach. The focus that businesses have on customer satisfaction and their willingness to invest in designing innovative solutions provide fertile common ground where we can plant the idea of UCD as a process for innovation that helps to facilitate the desired business outcomes.

I think we also have to demonstrate not just our willingness, but also our desire and ability to innovate and be creative. We have to focus on the aspects of our work that do create "coolness." Innovation is "cool." Creating new markets or redefining existing ones is very "cool." We need to talk more about "innovation" and "ideas" than we do about "standards" and "guidelines." Our brand image should portray us not as critics and "creativity police" but as highly skilled professionals who can help companies unlock the doors to innovation.

back to top  References

1. Borns, Laura. Gathering Usability Data for Mission Critical Projects: One Method is Not Enough. 2003 Usability Professionals' Association Conference. Presentation at Usability Professionals Association Conference UPA 2003: Ubiquitous Usability, Scottsdale, Arizona, June 23 -27, 2003.

2. Canadian Economy Online. Economic Concepts: Innovation. Updated July 29, 2002. Available at english/economy/innovation.html

3. Cheskin and Fitch:Worldwide. Fast, Focused & Fertile: The Innovation Evolution, Sept. 2003. Available at pr.asp?mlid=32&prid=23

4. Drinks that are fit to grip-and chug. BusinessWeek Online (May 29, 2001). Available at may2001/nf20010529_825.htm

5. GE always has innovation on its mind., USA Today (Nov. 20, 2002). Available at

6. New bottles carry drinks with a twist. The Cavalier Daily (Aug. 27, 2001). Available at

7. Nielsen, Jakob. Flash: 99% Bad. Oct. 29, 2000. Available at

8. Rogers, Yvonne and Bellotti, Victoria. Grounding blue-sky research: how can ethnography help? Interactions 4, 3 (May-June 1997), pp. 58-63. Available at

9. UK Government, Performance and Innovation Unit. Resource productivity: making more with less, Nov. 2001. Available at

10. UsabilityNet. ISO 13407. Human-centred design processes for interactive systems, 1999. Overview available at tools/13407stds.htm

back to top  Author

Lyle Kantrovich
User Experience Architect

Susan Dray & David A. Siegel
Dray & Associates, Inc.
2007 Kenwood Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55405, USA
612-377-1980 fax: 617-377-0363

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