The Conundrum of Humdrum Innovation

Innovation Today

Now, in contrast, each component of IDEO’s Venn diagram of innovation seems to be enlarging, as Figure 2 shows—especially in the technology sector. For example, if you’re making a digital product or service today, our maturing technology infrastructure makes many ideas more immediately feasible—technologies such as iOS, AWS, and 3-D printing. Business models focusing on subscriptions and ongoing customer relationships have created new opportunities—for example, Instacart, Uber, and Dollar Shave Club. Targeted, data-driven, experience-design approaches that support bespoke, personalized experiences mean your product can appeal to more different types of people—for example, Netflix and Amazon.

The Expectation of Innovation

The increased opportunity for innovation has fostered huge growth in new products and services that have made remarkable impacts in their respective markets—and, indeed, on society as a whole. Just consider the radical changes in regulation and policy that Uber and Airbnb have required. But, as we find ourselves deep in a VC-fueled Silicon Valley-izaton of our world, innovation has now become de rigueur—a bit of a humdrum catchphrase. A company’s focus on innovation no longer inspires a Wow! reaction. Today, it’s expected.

Given the rapid, continual innovation of today, what makes some ideas stand out from the crowd?

This question is particularly puzzling because, while some innovations are completely new inventions, many are simply sexy, obvious improvements on established products or services. Before Uber, you could always call yourself a car or taxi. Before Airbnb, you could book any number of homes on VRBO. Grocery delivery service is a very old idea. We had lightweight sneakers before Nike Flyknit. While these innovations might not be moon shots—radical innovations like artificial organs, the Web itself, IBM’s Watson, self-driving cars, and the unrealized dream of single-payer healthcare, they have had remarkable impact nevertheless.

Opportunities for Innovation

In addition to inventions that have solved previously intractable problems, there are particular types of innovations that stand out in today’s hard-to-impress world:

  • The application of a user-centered, design-led approach to innovating components of a product or service experience that were previously undervalued or taken for granted, or for which the market had assumed there was simply no room for innovation. When something improves and we hadn’t thought it could improve, that can seem magical.
  • Changing the mindset and perceptions of the user, which can make products feel radically new, even if a team isn’t creating something brand new.
  • Changing the relationship of a product to other products. We often think about products in silos, but when incremental innovation lets us integrate a product into our lives in different, new, and useful ways, that incremental innovation seems much bigger.
  • Changing the relationships between customers and a company providing a product or service. While that product or service might not be radically different, the change seems significant if the relationships also change—empowering the consumer or leading to greater transparency.
  • Changing the way people inside organizations think about their product or service—and their relationships to their customers.


The foundation of all these opportunities is the human desirability index that is part of the familiar model for innovation, as shown in Figure 2. If you consider the other factors as well—business viability and technical feasibility—they suggest many more opportunities for innovation—whether they’re aesthetic, procedural, or financial. But what kinds of innovations stand out most today? Those that affect us as human beings.

Which brings me back to our future-facing design vision project: We aimed to steer away from the glossy utopias that constitute the visions for so many of these sorts of projects. Instead, we focused on anchoring our design concepts in genuine, relatable, unromanticized moments. (I wish I could share our work, but, alas, it’s still under wraps.) We wanted to make our vision of innovation simpler and more relatable—not just because this anchored our thinking at the center of the practical innovation nexus, but also to acknowledge the increasingly casual relationship we have to innovation. We wanted to imagine a future in which all of the magical technology that surrounds us today has meaning in our lives.

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