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We can't leave innovation up to our users


"The world never needed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony until he created it. Now we could not live without it."
-- Louis I. Kahn

In this Web 2.0-ish world we're supposed to be all about the users being in control. Where the "community" drives the product. But the user community can't create art. (And I use "art" with a lowercase "a" as in software, books, just about anything we might design and craft.) That's up to us.
(Threadless excepted)

Our users will tell us where the pain is. Our users will drive incremental improvements. But the user community can't do the revolutionary innovation for us. That's up to us.

The world never needed the iPod until Apple created it. Now, look how many of us could not live without it.
[And before you snark about how we're just trying to look cool or be fashionable... no, this is about the way in which we're able to integrate music into our lives in a way that wasn't possible before. But that's for another post.]

The world never needed GUIs.
Or digital cameras.
Or cafe mochas.
Or skateboards.

But I have a hard time imagining my life without those things.

I can survive without them. But do those things give me pleasure and enhance my life in ways that I'd rather not give up? Just as Kahn says about Beethoven's Fifth? (Actually, I prefer the 7th, but whatever) Yes. Were these "needs" manipulatively planted in my brain against my will? I don't think so.

The point is that sometimes:

"The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of a need.
(this is the first part of the quote at the top of this post) -- Louis I Kahn

FYI -- I was inspired to do this by the documentary I saw last night, My Architect, a film by Kahn's son (searching for the secret to his father). I highly recommend it.

(Picture of one of Kahn's best, the Salk Institute.)

Posted by Kathy on July 31, 2006 | Permalink


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Well spoken.

And there's more. Can you imagine that there was a time when people "could live without" vaccines? (That is, those who survived a lack of something that wasn't invented yet.)

Or think of how people "could live without" a theory of gravity for thousands of years -- until Newton triggered a cultural/scientific revolution.

Science is a creative pursuit, too.

Posted by: A.R.Yngve | Jul 31, 2006 3:46:03 PM

The Salk Institute is one of the best examples of bad modern architecture. Interesting in an abstract way, but totally lifeless. Chris Alexander wouldn't approve. ;-)

Posted by: Chris Ryland | Jul 31, 2006 4:14:06 PM

Well said!

I think that in large part this can be attributed to the fact that radical change usually comes from the fringe. Unfortunately, most "customers" aren't on the fringe. They have been successful and are somewhere squarely in the middle of the bell curve. They like it there, it is safe and warm and cozy. You are making them happy, and they intend to keep it that way. And, you intend to keep things that way.

The problems come when customer focus crosses over into something more servile. It is subtle, but it happens. The trick is to make sure that while you are working to make your customers happy you are able to step back and look at the bigger picture. It has to be your vision, not theirs.

Like children, customers will eventually leave you. The ones that don't just end up sleeping in, hanging around the house all day, eating all of the food and drinking from the milk carton anyway. At some point, you WANT to part ways.

Posted by: Morgan Goeller | Jul 31, 2006 4:22:23 PM

Okay, so where did Coke-Mentos come from?

Posted by: Randy MacDonald | Jul 31, 2006 4:32:06 PM

Totally off topic, but that Salk Institute looks like the best skate spot everrr!

Posted by: huphtur | Jul 31, 2006 4:52:10 PM

I bookmarked a recent post over on Seth's blog because I couldn't get it out of my mind. He said, "Letting your customers set your standards is a dangerous game, because the race to the bottom is pretty easy to win."

I like what you're saying here...it's a related idea. Thanks!

Posted by: Mark | Jul 31, 2006 5:10:48 PM

About the Salk Institute .... that is one ugly building :). They say its for a reason, but I am not buying.

As for the post. I couldn't agree more. Yes, as companies, our fingers should be on the pulse of our customers, but to me that means more than just listening to customer requests. The best innovators realize when a certain product will find widespread use. That requires a very good understanding of the market, but that is different from implementing Customer feature request, A, B, C.

Posted by: Deepak | Jul 31, 2006 5:45:50 PM

From a business perspective, the phrase "We can't leave innovation up to our users" is really the difference between a leader and a manager.

A good manager is as important as a good leader - but they work in very different ways and produce very different results.

Posted by: Ben | Jul 31, 2006 9:20:15 PM

I live in Fort Worth, TX and we are very proud of one of Louis Kahn's finest (in my not-so-humble opinion) buildings, the Kimbell Art Museum (http://www.kimbellart.org/building/Architecture.cfm). It was completed in 1972 and looks as fresh today as it did 30 years ago. To really appreciate the building you have to see the interior and how the natural light is just perfect for viewing both paintings and sculpture.

I have to agree with the main point of your post as well. If all you do is listen to your customers, you become a commodity business (like Dell) that can easily be duplicated.

Posted by: Robert | Jul 31, 2006 10:18:56 PM


Don't you think that you are being a wee bit arrogant, to assume that only you (the company) can invent the future?

Companies have a rotten record of successful innovation. Most research points to a failure rate of over 80% for new product introductions and over 70% for their improved reintroduction. In contrast, research by Donald Lehmann and others suggests a success rate of over 90% for products developed directly as a result of sensing and responding to customers needs.

There are probably hundreds of thousands of customers out there experimenting with how they can get more out companies' products. They are changing them, mashing them together with other companies products, swapping components out of them and so forth. Somewhere out there, a customer or a group of them have already spotted many different futures for the companies products. But most companies are too lazy and self-centred to go out there ask them. Meanwhile, marketing people inside the company go on generating slick advertising to try and push the better mousetraps created by the company. And as we all know, it is a model that is working less and less effectively.

The future lies in a balance of internal research and customer-driven innovation. The sort now being done by the likes of Eli Lilly through its Innocentive organisation, by 3M through its lead-user programme and even by P&G through its Tremors programme.

Oh and by the way. I understand that the iPod WAS actually a customer idea, not the brainchild of an Apple insider.

Graham Hill
Independent Marketing Consultant

Posted by: Graham Hill | Aug 1, 2006 12:18:25 AM

Most of the development of BSD unix was done by a group of customers - when BSD began it was just plain old Bell Labs' System V, but the students at Berkeley needed it to do more stuff, and do it their way, so they coded up their own extensions and enhancements. You could say that the real innovation was Bell's, but that's like comparing Concorde to the Wright Brothers' plane and saying the Wright Brothers did the real innovation.

Pretty much all the useful early Linux stuff was done by its users, as was most of CPAN with perl. Customers have a great power to take a seed crystal & turn it into something magnificent - don't ignore the power of grass-roots movements.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Aug 1, 2006 3:34:33 AM

Good post Kathy. The only part missing, was the backlink to other things you've said, aoout not pushing the 'new and improved' aspects, a la Word 200x, and to keep the 'product' simple in line with 37 Signals products - do what it needs to do and no more. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Bruce Scharlau | Aug 1, 2006 3:40:12 AM

The world never needed GUIs.
Or digital cameras.
Or cafe mochas.
Or skateboards.

I may be misinterpreting you or 'not getting the irony', but FYI - skateboards are the prime example of lead-user innovation, as they were invented entirely by surfers trying to come up with a pass-time when there wasn't enough wind/waves to surf. No single company was ever the driving force behind this innovation, and it serves as a case example of how user-driven innovation should be taken seriously. For reference take a look at the work of Professor Lars Bo Jeppesen on lead-user innovation.

Posted by: Franck Roussel Rasmusen | Aug 1, 2006 4:09:17 AM

Ahh, I have seen this film, A son trying to find out truth about his father & women in his life.

As a designer I do believe necessities are created but to what extent, will that need really needed. Like we do the ergonomics studies of an existing product. And a person took comb or hairbrush; so are not people using it, combing hair. So how actually a designer is contributing. Own ethics and responsibility towards human beings-the Users.

Posted by: Paavani | Aug 1, 2006 4:45:20 AM

Need is such a subjective and dangerous term. I see the iPod as an evolution of the Walkman etc which was itself, I imagine, a response to people carrying their own tape machines around because they had a "need" for self-chosen music on the move.

That said, I agree with you entirely that creators/manufacturers should strive for greatness (albeit without risking feature fatigue). Otherwise you do run the lowest common denominator mire that Seth's post (referred to by Mark above and spoofed with a purpose on my blog) was all about.

But simultaneously, one must not be so prescriptive in one's design that it doesn't allow for user-led innovation. I know you're not suggesting that but I think some readers have interpreted it that way.

Posted by: John Dodds | Aug 1, 2006 4:51:57 AM

I think it is very easy to become complacent with what we have, and not be able to see what might be created next that will change our perception of what we need.

The iPod is a great example of that. Being in software startups, I've encountered the same attitude expressed as, "But XYZ has already done that". Leaving aside the idea that new companies can simply out-execute existing ones if they work hard enough, there are always new ideas that can be applied to old applications.

For example, today many people believe Flickr is the ultimate expression of photo sharing online, but there's plenty more that can be done in that area. Until the new ideas are implemented and shown to people, it's hard to imagine what they might be.

Posted by: Ned Batchelder | Aug 1, 2006 5:43:31 AM

Kathy - much as I respect what you say I think you'll find you're confusing invention with innovation. Invention can have a creative element (art) but it is still invention. The creation of something that has intrinsic business value did which not exist prior to.

The fact we can do more with an iPod today than was originally intended is innovation. Some of that is led by the original designers but most is led by others.

In the software arena, the innovations which turn into deliverable projects are not about re-inventing ERP etc but about taking the pain at the edge and using existing technologies in novel ways - often inspired by the client saying...what-if?

That's not to say the client cannot be coaxed into thinking about things differently, the job of the facilitator is precisely that. But I'd be very surprised to see any consultant come up with something innovative without an intimate knowledge and understanding of the business to which they are contracted.

There is another dimension to this - not all innovation is either required or necessary. Hanging your hat on a single moniker is dangerous over time.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett | Aug 1, 2006 6:06:30 AM

I agree that users can tell you what they want, and you find out from that what they need. Finding out what they want is hard enough and it's not a user's job to know what system would improve their life and work properly for the business.

It goes for little things; I didn't know I wanted a running word count in the status bar until it showed up in Word 2007. I thought I wanted word count on demand, but actually ambient word count is more useful. Of course there are things we users know we want; I've been telling people at Microsoft in detail what I wanted for timezones in Outlook and lo, Outlook 2007 has a Timezons button for appointments. It goes for big things; I might say I want a macro to export an Excel table to ICS format so I can import it into Outlook's calendar, but what I'm really asking for is an integrated accounting and time management system.

But I'm going to take you to task for saying "The world never needed the iPod until Apple created it". One; I needed it. Two; Apple may have created the iPod but it was neither the first MP3 player (Eiger Labs branding of Saehan) nor the first hard-drive based MP3 player. That was the 5GB Hango Personal Jukebox (PJB-100), designed by Compaq, abandoned to a Korean company without the distribution or marketing to get it out there. Back in 1998 you might have seen me testing the anti-skip on the hard drive by hurling it across the table in a pub, or being dragged back onto the pavement just before I got run over by a taxi I didn't hear because I had headphones on. I was copying MP3s from my PC, making playlists, browsing my library with an easy to use menu system and generally making like I had an iPod. (The PJB site has become a shop but CNET remembers and so do I http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6450_7-5622055-1.html)

What Apple did was take an existing product, design it beautifully, make it with the cheapest possible components engineered to an inch past their predicted life and market it superbly. That's what Apple does. Their innovation is all in the implementation; it's all in the delivery. That's OK - that's often what the user needs to realise that this is something they really do need. A geek will have hunted out the first version (and probably written a macro to get around the problems that Apple will smooth over in the design). Just don't tell them they didn't know they needed it till someone prettied it up.

Posted by: Mary Branscombe | Aug 1, 2006 6:19:48 AM

I couldn't agree more. And it's just not the creation of new needs, but the creation of new lusts that drives innovation.

I use the world "lust" in the context of overwhelming desire, for it is in the creation of that intangible we suddenly can't do without that we can build and expand product lines on in order to compliment the experience.

Thanks for the reminder that the onus of creation is always on us...

Posted by: Rod | Aug 1, 2006 6:57:40 AM

Interesting discussion:

While there can be innovation from either/or, why think in the us and them mode? It's not the customer and it's not the company, it's both in a concert that should allow innovation to be turn into actuality...the taking of thousands or millions of voices, visions, and ideas, and distilling them down to a clear purpose. Or does this process end up diluting the innovation?

Posted by: Earl | Aug 1, 2006 7:41:55 AM

I'm not as interested in what you can create for me as I am in what I can create for myself. Where it hurts? It hurts to be an observer instead of a participant. The revolutionary innovation? A user community that takes the power to create and participate back into its own hands and creates good art or bad art, good journalism or bad journalism, good product or bad product... depending on their skill, training, commitment, taste. But the important part is that they can participate. That's the revolution... long may it wave.

Posted by: audrey | Aug 1, 2006 8:12:13 AM

While I partially agree with your statement about the community not being able to create art, I think it's a bit over generalized. I'd agree with the statement that we shouldn't /rely/ on the community to create art for us. As sometimes we need to realize it really is a matter taking matters into our own hands.

However, I also feel the examples you used to backup your case regarding the creation of art through the community are a bit inappropriate. With Web 2.0 we're dealing with a high level community that could easily program, create graphics (literal art), produce articles, and more. I think it's unfair to compare a physical communities inability to create, design, and produce a piece of hardware compared to a virtual communities ability to use a platform (in this case the web 2.0 application) and produce a creative work of art.

If we look into the gaming world, a tactic many developers use now adays is to make their game modifiable. They do this because it's a sneaky way of extending the life of their game by means of allowing the community to create their own games from their game. That is, they developers give them a platform to create their own - highly creative - works of art. In fact, Valve is currently making money off of the creativity of the community from their previous game.

I agree that we shouldn't rely on the community to create art. If it is art we are truly seeking, and if we truly want success from that art, then we must be the hand moving the 'brush'.

Posted by: Nathan | Aug 1, 2006 10:05:46 AM

"The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of a need."

This is one of my favorite quotes in the world, because I use it to help justify spending between 40 and 50 hours on some of my bead-embroidered neckpieces that no one has specifically commissioned!


Posted by: Cyndi L | Aug 1, 2006 10:42:33 AM

One of my favorite sayings (not sure who originated it):

"There are no new needs, only new solutions." Sums it up for me, and you're right, users are not great solution creators.

Great post.

Posted by: James V. Reagan | Aug 1, 2006 11:49:43 AM

I'm sorry, but am I allowed to say -- once again -- that the commenters here kick ASS? These are insightful comments for sure, and plenty to get me thinking.

I want to clarify a couple of things that weren't done well:

1) I took on two different points, and didn't make distinctions -- the first point being about "creativity" and the second about "definition of need". Those are both important topics, in my opinion, and could use a lot more treatment (and thought) than I gave them.

2) When I say "users" I mean USERS -- the collective group. Many of the counter-examples here are not about USERS but about one--or two--people who came up with something. My point was meant to be about the ability of the whole user community to collectively come up with the next thing you should do.

But you're absolutely right that a single individual user -- a very small group -- certainly CAN innovate. In many cases, though, those "users" innovate and then decide they should do it themselves.

Skateboarding did not evolve from the entire community of surfers. A very tiny group made that first leap, although it did incrementally improve after that, with each new generation of skaters (and manufacturers) adding new things. Here I am talking about incremental improvements, though, when all *I* really want is for old-school boards to be more widely available (but thanks to the Dogtown thing, at least they're out there).

I have absolutely no clue who made the first cafe mocha, but I love them. Dearly.

I think Earl made an interesting point:
"While there can be innovation from either/or, why think in the us and them mode? It's not the customer and it's not the company, it's both in a concert that should allow innovation to be turn into actuality...the taking of thousands or millions of voices, visions, and ideas, and distilling them down to a clear purpose. Or does this process end up diluting the innovation?"

I agree that it should not be an either/or us/them thing. I like what you said about "in concert", because of course that IS true. I don't believe that your best source of innovation is The Community of Users, but successful innovation seems unlikely if you aren't--as many said here--deeply involved with and listening to those users.

Still, I am not a fan of groupthink. I believe strongly in wisdom of crowds--a very different thing--which means the community as a whole is far less likely to come up with the best, smartest ideas/solutions than are the ideas from *individuals* who are listened to *as individuals*, and not as a community.

Audrey: I agree, but this is a different kind of innovation/participation... I think what you are talking about is YOUR ability to innovate, but I see that as something you do for yourself (or your own community) and NOT as a service you provide to the company. My job might be to innovate a tool which lets YOU innovate something completely unrelated...

To those who suggest the iPod is just an incremental improvement on things like WalkMan... OH the humanity! [shakes head sadly]
But I should have been more clear when I said "the world never needed the iPod until Apple created it." Well, that's what I meant. Nobody could have imagined, based on the sales of walkmans and other music players that a single device could change so much. Think of all the people who never wanted (let alone needed) or imagined that a portable music player would become part of their life.

So... will your users HELP you innovate? Of course, and you must pay very very very close attention to them... they ARE your biggest source. But the title of my post was that you cannot leave it UP to your users, and that's the misconception I think a lot of Web 2.0 hype talks about (the whole "user-generated content" thing).

And is it possible--or even likely--that a tiny subset of your users might very well come up with the breakthrough innovation for you? Definitely. But that's very different from "the community". Thousands of voices are important, but when they are interacting and operating as one collective group, you will get "committe-designed art".

But wow -- I learned a lot from these comments.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 1, 2006 4:01:04 PM

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