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How to come up with Breakthrough Ideas

Brilliant, wildly creative people can pull breakaway ideas from thin air. The rest of us need tools. EQing is the tool we used to design the Head First series, and we've been using it ever since.

Bert, Eric, and I are all audio freaks -- we lust after the giant mixing boards at live shows, confident (and delusional) that we could do it so much better, if only we could get our hands on those sliders. So, an audio equalizer was a natural metaphor for us, and this is my first attempt to explain how we use the concept of EQing to brainstorm new designs.

(If you aren't familiar with how audio equalizers work, click here for a nano review.)

In our EQ model, when all the sliders are in the zero/middle position, this represents "the norm" for whatever that product, service, industry typically does. In other words, a slider turned down to -4 means that it's way below the norm, and a slider at +4 means way above the norm. But the slider says nothing about the actual absolute value of whatever that slider is for. (The number "4" means nothing -- it's just an arbitrary number that matches the graphic -- I could just as easily used "1" or "10" or "42".)I'll start with a simple example to give you a feel for it, before working our way to the good stuff. You'll have to read to the end to get to the "breakthrough" part. ; )

Example One: Typical, non-breakthrough EQing

Equalizer for a typical computer hardware product:


In the graphic above, the zero represents what is average/typical for that kind of product. Assume there's more than one source for the product... The problem with computer hardware (as with so many other things) is that there's too much competition. Too many companies clawing and biting for their slice of the market for that product.

How do they compete with one another? The typical--and usually worst--way to gain an edge is by tweaking one or more of the standard sliders. For example, a low-cost computer's EQ might look like this, relative to the norm:


This product sacrifices features and service in order to lower the price, but this works only while:

A) The features and service aren't essential to a large enough part of the market
B) They are the only vendor doing it this way (i.e. the only low-cost vendor with this kind of EQ)

But if this particular EQ is successful, other companies (new and existing) will eventually make the same tweaks until the lower prices simply become The New Normal. In other words, the zero EQ point for the price and feature sliders now represent a lower absolute number, and now there's a viscious downward spiral of competition at the low end...

Another company may take the price slider down, but keep all the features at the middle/zero point (i.e. the norm). But then they're probably cutting somewhere else -- either by using cheaper or less-skilled employees, cutting employee benefits, and/or cutting customer service. A company might do just fine for a time, but quality will slip eventually, and customer happiness will drop. From a systems thinking perspective, this is not a sustainable strategy.


The big point is this: trying to compete with existing products, services, or ideas by tuning the SAME set of sliders everyone else uses is a painful path. The breathrough ideas usually come from adding new sliders! There are exceptions, though -- if you tune an existing slider in a dramatic or counterintuitive way, you might end up with a breakthrough edge, at least temporarily.

37signals, the folks behind the wildly popular Basecamp and Backpack, did that when they tuned the features slider way, way, way down. Their art is in knowing which features to leave out, of course. But turning down the features slider wasn't really their goal. The goal (I think) was User Bliss, an entirely new slider, and one that was partially tied (inversely) to the Num Of Features slider. Turning down the features turned out to be one of the most important ways to achieve User Bliss.


Knowing which sliders to include is just as important as knowing how to EQ them. When we say "typical sliders for this product type", it means that these sliders reflect the areas of focus for companies who make those products. And that's the problem. Breakthrough ideas come from "thinking outside the sliders." ; )

Example Two: Beginning Breakthrough EQing: adding new sliders

When we set out to design a new computer book series, we looked at the typical industry-standard sliders for a tech book. Most computer book formats make adjustments within these main sliders, although some topic categories (like digital photography or web design books) add a slider for color, another might use a slider for including a CD-ROM, etc.

When we thought about our first book--on Java--we wondered how the hell could we compete with 2000+ Java books still on the market? No amount of EQing the typical sliders would give us a breakthrough book. In fact, when we look at the EQ for our book against the typical sliders, the Head First format doesn't look good at all:


We needed to add new sliders.

Our first new slider was "Pain". We wanted to reduce the pain associated and assumed with learning a tough tech topic. Some books do this by lowering the number of topic and topic depth. To reduce pain, you could simply make an easier book. But that was not our goal. We didn't want to simplify or "dumb down" the topic--we wanted to make a tough topic less painful. (A big distinction for us.)

We added two other related sliders as well ("metacognitive" and "engaging"), and the combination of the new sliders plus the tweaks we made to the standard sliders gave us our edge. Again, we certainly aren't the only ones to care about these things--but it DOES mean that we considered them far more important to users than had been previously assumed by most of the books in our category.

And here's where we started to use the EQ-it to model our ideas... the graphic below shows our our book compared to the norm. You can see that when we added the new sliders, we developed a very different EQ pattern from the other books. On the new sliders, we went way above the norm in "metacognitive" and "engaging". We reduced the "pain" slider. We also reduced the number of topics, but did not reduce topic depth.


Adding new sliders--especially the "engaging" slider--was the key. But the sliders we added were not very innovative, they were simply NOT TYPICAL for a tech book. You can often make a breakthrough product simply by changing the weighting (i.e. adjusting the slider) of things that competitors have taken for granted. Look at things your competitors don't consider important enough to warrant a slider, and imagine what would happen if you promoted some of those things to first-class slider citizens and tuned them dramatically up or down. If--and this is a big if--these new sliders reflect previously unsatisfied user desires, you might have your edge.

But... adding sliders for things that the competition did not consider important (or mutable) enough to warrant a slider is just a warm-up. Rather than simply adding sliders for things the competition is already doing (but hadn't considered tweaking), why not add sliders for things the competition never dreamed of? This is where the biggest breakthroughs happen--when you add sliders that make others say, "WTF?"

For example:

Netflix added several new sliders not previously associated with video rental. Nike added customization, a slider not previously associated with athletic shoes. FlickR added tagging, a slider not previously associated with online photo sharing. (And they quickly ended up with a community slider as well.) Apple's iTunes added an interesting slider--"granularity"--to the purchase of music. Before iTunes, the "atomic unit" of music was usually a CD. You had to buy the whole thing even if half the songs sucked. By adding a slider for granularity--and tuning it way down below the norm--iTunes added true user value.

Here are some examples of new sliders companies have added. Could you add any of these to what you do?


Coming up with ideas using EQ modeling

Least effective way:
- Figure out what the existing sliders are for this product or service, and change the value of one or more sliders. This is how most companies compete, and it's usually the most painful--the constant struggle to reduce price, add features, whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the competition.

More effective:
- Tune one or more of the typical sliders in an extremely dramatic way. For example, instead of cutting the price, make the product free. But this usually means you end up creating one or more new sliders for whatever business model allows you to make this drastic change.

Much more effective:
- Add new sliders for things that competitors have taken for granted, and haven't been competing on. In other words, dramatically change the weighting of things the competition had not considered changing. Example: our books.

Most effective (for breakthrough ideas, not always the best ideas ; )
-Add wildly new sliders for things nobody in that industry had considered.
Note that what's "wildly new" for one type of product or service might be standard/typical for another. A Customization slider, for example, would not be unusual for a wedding cake bakery, but was very unusual for athletic shoes.

Tips for finding NEW sliders

1) Borrow sliders from an entirely different product or service type. Customization, Subscription, Home Delivery, Entertainment, etc. -- things that make sense in some domains but have never been used on your product or service.

2) Look at the conventional wisdom--things everybody offering that product or service takes for granted--and see if you can tune a slider the others consider immutable (or unimportant).

3) Randomly add sliders and play what-if brainstorming games.

4) Ask users to come up with sliders. This is more effective (and similar to #3) if you ask users from a different domain! Remember, directly asking users what they want rarely leads to breakthrough ideas. Breakthrough ideas are, by definition, things nobody has yet imagined, but which users find compellling.

One final example:

Imagine an art gallery. Now imagine a skateboarding shoe store. Now smush those together into an art gallery/skateboard shoe store. That describes Installation, an imaginative and uber-cool store here in Boulder. While nearly ALL skateboard shops are pretty damn cool, the idea of "Gallery" as a slider was a unique idea. Or you could flip it -- the idea of adding "Shoes" (let alone skateboard shoes) as a slider to an Art Gallery equalizer is pretty strange.

[Photo by Josh Spear, who I'll have a lot more to say about very soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to click that link for his blog!]

I know I don't need to say it, but for disclaimer purposes I will--adding weird sliders just to add sliders and be novel isn't the point. The goal is to add sliders that turn out to be really important to users. And I say "turn out to be", because the most daring breakthrough products and ideas are rarely driven by user requests.

Typical art gallery goers weren't saying, "yeah, but what we REALLY want is for you to let us come here to buy high-end skate shoes." And skateboard shoe buyers (Skyler and I are both in that category) weren't asking for a gallery setting. But it turns out that the ambience and sheer creativity of the place IS compelling. It's worth the non-discount price of the cool shoes just to come away from your shoe-shopping experience inspired as you would be from, well, an art gallery visit.

It's too early to tell, though, if Installation's unique combination of sliders will be successful. Once the novelty wears off, will people still go back there for their shoes? I will, but I'm not their demographic, being about, oh, twice the age of today's young skaters. Installation is doing a lot more than just throwing art on the wall--but I'll say more about that in my next little post.

So, as an exercise, I'd like to challenge you to think about ways you can add sliders. One of the best exercises is to reverse-engineer other breakthrough products and draw out their equalizer -- showing how they differ from what is typical and standard. At the bottom of this post, I've included the blank equalizer JPEG, plus the sliders, if you'd like to try making your own. Or just draw one on a whiteboard and scan it. If you create a blog entry with an equalizer of an existing product or service (or a wild-ass idea for something new), I'll link to it--as long as you have comments open ; )

Keep in mind that there is no one correct equalizer description of a particular product, service, or idea. It all depends on your perspective, and you might have an equalizer, for example, devoted solely to the customer service aspects of a product or service. And there's a fractally component here as well. With our "metacognitive" slider, for example, I have an entirely separate equalizer JUST for EQing the various metacognitive techniques we use. Our newest book design, for example, is brain-friendly, but in a profoundly different way than the Head First books, because we made a completely different EQ of the brain-friendly elements-- turning some way down, bumping some way up, and adding a few new sliders.

Above all, have fun!

Blank EQ Templates:



FYI: This EQ modeling is fairly similar to a technique known as The Blue Ocean Strategy, a book I recommend (although it's a bit on the business school/academic side for me, but it's got a lot of great info). Their subtitle says it all: "How to create uncontested market space and make competition irrelevant"

Posted by Kathy on November 30, 2005 | Permalink


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glad to hear you are well again, great post. If you have not read it already, I recommend checking out Clayton Christiensen's book "The Innovator's Solution," I think you would really dig it. It is to business what the Head First Design Patterns book is to code (he essentially distills recurring themes and patterns in biz across many industries). The concept of adding "wildly new sliders" to differentiate yourself translates almost perfectly to his notion of a "new market disruptor" and all the strategies that accompany the task of successfully usurping an incumbent player in a marketplace. I wrote up a summary of the insights I got from his book and the parallels that can be drawn to web development here:
Sliders are defintely a neat way to think about the different dimensions of a product though. as Nigel would say, "but mine goes to eleven..."


Posted by: Sean Tierney | Nov 30, 2005 1:31:14 PM

Amazing article! This metaphor is just so cool! Imagine this - you don't really have to use it for competition or new products.

I am a neat use for this cretive EQ. I would call it the mood equalizer! From personal experience - atleast being a more visual and audio freak - i feel nice doing this.

A small app to save your moods scale daily will help lots of people overcome their personal either 'day to day' problems or even medical problems like depression or keep bipolar disorder undercheck. A java version would be a really cool one and then imagine - visualizing it over time!

Posted by: Vinu | Nov 30, 2005 1:38:56 PM

Kathy... First, glad to hear you're feeling better! Welcome back. Second, as usual this post is AMAZING!! I agree with Vinu that the EQ metaphor is a great one and has so much potential for so many different applications. Third, thanks for the templates. They make me wonder though, if there would be a way of creating a mini-flash or java app that would allow the user to attach concepts to the sliders, dependencies that would show how one slider affects the others and the ability to interactively adjust the sliders in real time.

Posted by: Dave Giunta | Nov 30, 2005 2:08:12 PM


I really like your EQ metaphor! Good post.

But I have to strongly disagree with your equating "User Bliss" to the low features of BaseCamp. I for one an unhappy BaseCamp user because almost anytime anyone asks for something then feel they really need 37 Signals tells them "We won't be adding that." And this on topics that a large chorus of people are clamoring for just such a feature.

The problem is 37 Signals equates listing to customers as being the same as adding bloated features. It is not. Really good companies can balance the two; in my opinion they do not.As soon as there is a viable alternative, I will be leaving BaseCamp and I am sure the same will be true of many others.

So I can tell you the low feature level of BaseCamp for me does not create "User Bliss"; instead it creates "Intense User Frustration."

Posted by: Unhappy Basecamp User | Nov 30, 2005 3:23:45 PM

You left out another strategy - a slider that goes to 11.

Posted by: Geoff | Nov 30, 2005 3:46:33 PM

wow, how did i miss this? all i have to do is draw a slider in my head and do something i think moves this slider and whammo i am a creative genius.

Posted by: whoops | Nov 30, 2005 4:56:19 PM

Sean: this is great -- thanks for the link and recommendation -- that book is on my short list now.

Sean and Geoff: DOH! I can't believe I missed that opportunity. Time to rent Spinal Tap again.

Dave: excellent idea -- maybe *you'll* code one up? ; ). I like the idea of dependencies, and the trackback from Bruno makes a really good point about this-- in a real EQ, there is a left-to-right dimension and the order of the sliders is not arbitrary, as it is with what I did. It would interesting to see if someone comes up with another channel of information you could get from visualizing the curve made by the sliders. With my examples, there really is no benefit in looking at the curve, other than to see that it's *different* from the norm, or different from your top competitor or whatever. There's nothing other than *different* to be seen there. But it would be useful to add something more, and relationships and/or dependencies would be cool.

Unhappy: This is a crucial issue, and one I wish I had an answer for. And one that I struggle with as well... how do you differentiate the criticism you get? Some of it is valid -- maybe *most* -- and you can't write it off. But on the other hand, you have to be brave about trying to please everyone (and smoothing out what you have until it no longer can be distinguished from what everyone else offers). Perhaps that's the next art 37signals will need to hone -- how to figure out *which* requests/complaints they *should* listen to. But that's got to be a tough job...

Whoops: Hmmm... I didn't make my point clear enough, so I'll quote it again here:
"I know I don't need to say it, but for disclaimer purposes I will--adding weird sliders just to add sliders and be novel isn't the point. The goal is to add sliders that turn out to be really important to users. "

Apparently I *did* need to say it. The reason there are so many gazillion creativity tools and techniques is because what works for one doesn't work for another. Indeed one person's "silly sliders" is, in our case, a tool that changed our lives. Not because it's a good tool -- but simply because it gave us a way to look at things that worked for us. There are plenty of tools and tricks others have used -- with great success -- that seem ridiculous and pointless to me. Which means I probably missed the point.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 30, 2005 5:25:45 PM

Brilliant, brilliant writing, Kathy. As a fellow sound board fetishist, the EQ metaphor hits me spot on. And I can't help thinking of all the other variables on a board--panning left to right, individualized feeds to the house, to the band, to individual band members, the gain for each input...

Posted by: Dave Rogers | Nov 30, 2005 7:18:30 PM

I bought and read "Blue Ocean Strategy" after seeing it casually mentioned in one of Kathy's other posts. I like the book's examples of companies that created new markets with this kind of strategy.

Sliders?... mmmmm... White Castle... I think we called those things "faders" in recording class but it's been a while. Anyway, this was a creative twist on the blue ocean charts.

It's worth mentioning that many of the companies in the Blue Ocean book had to tune down a good thing to create room for cranking up another. Sometimes a service was reduced (or even eliminated) to make room for increasing another value or creating a new one.

For tech books, the frequency bands of "Learner Friendly" and "Reference" would work on an EQ rack. Many books try to be both of these and few focus on being learner friendly like the Head First series. But the added value did not come for free. The series had to sacrifice some reference value to become more learner (aka brain) friendly.

Posted by: Marc Peabody | Nov 30, 2005 10:29:44 PM


a spelling error you may want to fix:
The breathrough ideas usually come from adding new sliders!

breathrough = breaktrough.

Feel free to delete this comment!

Posted by: Ivar | Dec 1, 2005 6:14:34 AM

Glad to hear you're feeling better, Kathy. Great post, as usual. I read a bunch of Clayton Christensen and "Blue Ocean Strategy" in business school. See, I am one of those types :), though what I love is making academic concepts understandable and applicable to those in the real world. Anyway, my professional life has been driven by these concepts ever since. Your EQ metaphor is great, and gives me a new way to frame my thinking around product/service design. Thanks!

Posted by: Jessica Emmons | Dec 1, 2005 7:55:13 AM

Let me second a recommendation for reading Clayton Christensen, who is one of the very few business authors to create a truly useful and insightful model for how industries go through evolution and revolution. You can get an excellent overview by simply listening to his talk on IT Conversations:

Posted by: Zach | Dec 1, 2005 9:45:26 AM


Really good post. I'll be using this for a business I have been trying to get off the ground, I really appreciate you letting us in on this technique.

But one tweak? Shouldn't things like "Pain" and "Price" be reversed so that they are really "Lack of Pain", and "Low Price"? That way, a low price or low pain product would be in the positive, and better show how they balance against the other tradeoffs.

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | Dec 1, 2005 11:35:21 AM


For that link to Clayton Christensen's audio: Thank You, Thank You, Thank You. I've just about finished listening to it, and it's astounding!

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | Dec 1, 2005 2:42:15 PM

Nice metaphor.

'(The number "4" means nothing -- it's just an arbitrary number that matches the graphic -- I could just as easily used "1" or "10" or "42".)'

First, a thought: your sliders should go up to 11 like Spinal Tap's.

Second, a nitpick: Apple didn't decrease granularity, as your slider image suggests; they increased granularity and decreased product size.

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Dec 1, 2005 7:34:55 PM

Welcome back!!!

Oh my god... I might have to take next week off to read this one all the way. ;D

Posted by: olivier blanchard | Dec 1, 2005 7:58:38 PM

brilliant. the metaphor works.

Posted by: elginite | Dec 1, 2005 9:15:53 PM

Yep, that Apple granularity thing is a bit confusing
cause granularity increases when size of the granules
decreases... As I understand, slider is supposed to show
the size of the granule, so label is misleading a bit...

Posted by: Rimantas | Dec 2, 2005 2:54:20 AM

I'm sorry, I can't help myself on this one. Igor, if you're going to be anal enough to point out a spelling mistake in someone's post, you might want to spell-check your "corrected" word before hitting the submit button.

Kathy, GREAT idea, very helpful when trying to think outside of the box. Or outside of the EQ sliders, as the case may be. I'll take all the help I can get.

Posted by: Laura | Dec 2, 2005 11:35:48 AM

I teach lit and composition. I love new metaphors and as a former roadie and soundboard dude this one is resonant. My question is one that I have had for years: what is my product? Is it something I am creating in my students or something they are creating within their own heads or both? I think that I can use this "innovation machine" if I can only come to grips with what my product is. Any thoughts? Or, in honor of Igor, 'breathroughs'? Actually I like that as a new word "breathe-throughs", the kind of breathing you do as you give birth to a new idea.

Thanks for this grand touchstone of an idea.

Posted by: Terry Elliott | Dec 3, 2005 5:48:57 AM

Ok, after this post on how to be creative, popular request for the next:

How to come up with great metaphors? You rock at it.

Posted by: Vishi | Dec 3, 2005 9:03:21 PM

marc:"But the added value did not come for free. The series had to sacrifice some reference value to become more learner (aka brain) friendly."

Absolutely right. My "number of topics" slider indirectly suggests our weakness as a reference book, but putting "reference value" or even "reuse" as sliders would also show us well below norm.

Zach: thanks for the link!

Kyle: I thought about that... but showing "pain" as low was a better mapping for how we actually thought about it. When we talked about it, we always said, "reduce pain" and so raising the "lack of pain" slider didn't have the same intuitive feel, even though it means the same thing. But you're right that it would have given us a different layer of information, which I do think is a good idea. Still working on it...

Scott and Rimantas: I do get confused about that one -- in my head, I was thinking "finer/smaller grained" so that meant "lower", but it isn't exactly right. The slider value was indeed supposed to show the size of the grain -- so the title doesn't quite work, you're right.

Cheers and thank you everyone.

p.s. Igor, right now I have a great appreciation for anyone who can find typos and errors, so I appreciate the feedback -- I was just too lazy to go back and correct it...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 4, 2005 2:51:30 PM

Additional, and great insights into this method are available in several reprints from Harvard Business School publishing on Value Innovation. [Value Innovation: The Strategic Logic of High Growth, by W. Chan Kim
& Renée Mauborgne, Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Febr, 1997] There's a great case study showing how Quicken reversed the value curve from prior available solutions; EasyJet is another good one. (It's a faster and cheaper way to understand the author's methods than buying and reading Blue Water Strategy, which has the typical extra 150 pages business books seem to require.)

Posted by: Robert Davis | Dec 9, 2005 2:20:42 PM

This reminds me of some techniques I learned for exploring theatre characters and situations. Basically, you establish a state and a scale, e.g. ‘anger’ and ‘1 to 5’ with 3 as a ‘normal’ level of anger, 5 their indidividual max, 1 their individual min. You let the actors loose and improvise anger at level 3, then you gradually increase and decrese the level of anger.
The fun starts when you have established different state-scales: anger, engery, speed, joy etc. and start combining them, e.g. joy 5/speed 1 or sadness 5/speed 4. It’s quite interesing how some things are naturally in sync and what happens if you consciously divert from this natural sync.

And of course you can somtimes suprise the actors by suddenly getting into the negative part of the scale: What is a coward -2?
Or you suddenly expand the scale upwards: energy 8! And fantastic things happen: 5 was supposed their individual max, but they can give more, much more! (kind of like the 11 on the much cited Spinal Tap amplifier).



Posted by: Jens Reineking | Dec 13, 2005 3:09:57 AM

Hi Kathy,

It took me longer than I thought to get around to this, but I whipped up a webapp version of your equalizer, using your images (with some modifications). Up to eight sliders can be added dynamically and the state of the whole equalizer can be bookmarked. Let me know what you think.


My blog post about this:



Posted by: Dethe Elza | Dec 17, 2005 12:07:11 PM

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