What is innovation?

For a long time I struggled with the concept of innovation.  I used to think that innovation is about thinking differently or thinking up something nobody in the history of mankind has ever thought of.  At first you would only hear this word at the launch of something new, then everyone started calling out for this unicorn “innovation”, and then like all pandemics, it forced its way into everyday workplace language. “How can we make this innovative?” ”What is innovative about that?” “Looks good, but its not innovative enough!” I swear if I had a penny for every time someone asked for something to be innovative I would have a Scrooge McDuck-esque pool of money where I would swim around for the rest of my days.


But innovation isn’t that new tech nobody has heard of yet, nor is it that extra layer of complexity: in fact when you think about it, complexity is the complete opposite to innovation.


This is not innovations fault, innovation didn’t ask to be used as a buzzword for everyone, but it kind of lost its way, we use it for everything and anything so it really has lost its power. So lets actually pull back the curtain on this, so maybe, just maybe, we can bestow it back to a word with some actual meaning. To understand what innovation is in context of product, we first need to acknowledge basic expectations.


Basic expectations are what a user expects to see when engaging with your product, they will never tweet about it, nor will the product have to explain what it is.  It just is, we know what it does, and we have an un-written contract between user and the product on what the thing should do. There is a blog I am dying to write about stuff that doesn’t meet basic expectations but that’s for another time. Essentially, your users expect your product to behave in a particular way because of the fact the user has a pre-defined expectation. Like it or not that is the world we live in.


Basic expectations suck, they tend to be expensive, nobody cares if we achieve them and users sure do complain if your product does not meet them. But once you know what your basic expectations are, you know where to focus your ideas and only then will innovation be achievable.


For me, innovation is the positive satisfaction a user gets when using something that is above the line of basic expectations.  It doesn’t have to be that new secret project unveiled in a Steve Jobs style presentation, nor does it have to be a new feature for sake of having something new. True, you might never get someone shouting from the rooftops over a singular improvement to a basic expectation but it’s the sum of all the parts that makes a whole. The more little “innovations” you have across a user journey, the more likely the overall experience will be above basic expectations.


When defining your scope, look at where the basic expectations are and improve them. The trick here is make sure your product delivers on all basic expectations across the entire user journey, otherwise you will never achieve that warm fuzzy innovation love from your users. It doesn’t matter how much better one part of the journey is, humans are hard wired (especially the British) to remember something bad against an overall experience.