What’s stifling innovation in large corporations

Standard

There’s a common lament about the lack of innovation coming out of large corporations. I don’t know why anyone is surprised. I can think of at least three non-trivial issues staring us in the face and they have to do with incentive and motivation.

Executive Compensation
It’s common sense, not socialism to be angry at the lopsided way people are compensated in big companies. Why in the world would anyone in their right mind do something new when the only people benefiting are those who are already making 10-20 times as much as me? Money is a powerful motivator for innovating. But if you look at many publicly traded companies, innovation isn’t rewarded. When it comes to money in big companies, them that got is them that gets. People in the C-Suite are outrageously compensated even when the overall company underperforms. If you were to do something innovative in a big company, there’s a good chance only a select few will reap the rewards, not including yourself of course.

A way to fix this problem would be for companies to put their money where their mouth is. If you actually want innovation, you need to reward the innovators within your organization the way you reward your managers. The other option would be to reward innovation, not cost cutting, at the highest level. Innovative leaders can inspire and motivate those beneath them to do the same.

Process
In large companies, “the process” is the culture. And yet, process is the antithesis of innovation. It’s about standardizing and normalizing, i.e. ensuring consistent results. Process is meant to drive out uncertainty, ambiguity, and serendipity, all key innovation ingredients. Most large companies reward you for how well you follow a process paying little attention to the outcomes.

Entrepreneurial people within organizations find ways around the processes to get things done. This understandably makes some people nervous. Therefore, outsiders and deviators of the process are pariahs even if their intentions are good.

A way to fix this is to let those who want to be entrepreneurial have their say. Don’t immediately tell someone to drop their suggestion in the box. They know that’s meaningless. Instead of putting more process in place, allow for more conversations. Don’t just have meetings to check the status of projects. Meet to actually talk about ideas. Yes, those meetings may last more than an hour, but they could pay off later in less work.

Exclusivity
Innovation within large organizations is something only a few people get to do. At cutting edge companies like Apple, only a select few are in a position to do something innovative. In fact, for the majority of people that work there, it’s preferred they keep their opinions on products to themselves. Having worked there, I found it very frustrating. Meanwhile, I can’t say it was always a bad thing. There was no shortage of armchair quarterbacks who thought they had the one great idea everyone should listen to.

Unfortunately, confining creativity and innovation to certain roles, people, or groups breeds contempt. After all, who wouldn’t want to be labeled innovative when you see how much the press fawns over them. The only difference between an innovative person, and everyone else is they have lots of ideas – good and bad – not just one silver bullet.

A potential fix is to make sure there is some cross pollination of people from different groups within your organization. When people who think they have a great idea get to interact with people who actually have lots of ideas, they see how much work it is to being innovative. They also see it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. There’s a lot to be said for people who can be effective operationally. Not everyone needs to be the mad genius.

Great user interfaces aren’t just a matter of taste

Standard

I pulled the following from a Crain’s Chicago Business article about the many bold moves the Sun-Times is making here. While I think it’s great to challenge the Trib, there was one line that stuck out at me.

With regard to his digital strategy, Mr. Ferro said he’s trying to create a “great user interface” for a tablet application that is in the works. On that front, he praised the example set by the New York Post tablet application.

Maybe what he meant to say was their app is consistent with their brand. Like the New York Post newspaper, their app is sloppy, rude, and just slapped together, but it’s not a great user interface. The thing that bothers me, is that someone in a leadership position is saying the user interface (a very specific term) is an important part of their digital strategy, then cites one of the worst possible examples of a tablet experience.

Has anyone else seen the New York Post iPad app?! It’s a hot mess express. It doesn’t follow any of the conventions of most iPad apps. Not that it needs to, there are plenty of great iPad experiences that don’t. The NYPost app, on the other hand, looks like a mistake. It’s like someone tried to Xerox the entire newspaper onto an 8.5 x 11 sheet at the Kinkos color copy sale.

Look at this mess

You literally get an experience that leaves stories cut off on the edge.

I’m may be splitting hairs when I say he should have used a term other than “user interface”. However, it’s not uncommon for someone higher up the food chain to insert their opinion on the UI as if it were just a matter of taste.

By now, every exec has read the Steve Jobs bio, so they get the user interface matters. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily understand how it actually happens. So the lesson here is don’t let all your hard work and critical thinking get pissed away because someone thinks it’s subjective. Spend the time comparing and contrasting the dos and the don’ts. Show your work. Don’t just build something and say, “here it is, what do you think?”

Take the time to explain why it’s important, don’t assume they’ll know.

via Sun-Times owner: ‘We’re not buying the Trib’ – Consumer News – Crain’s Chicago Business.

B is for Benefits

Standard

When I talk to clients about experience design, or UX design, I tell them it’s all about the emotional response people have when they interact with your product, brand, or service.

Most people think emotions just happen, like they’re not something you can design for. So they just put something out there and hope for the best. They think one can’t control how people react to their products. While some of that’s true, you can stack the deck in your favor by simply asking the who, what, where, when, and how as it applies to end user benefits.

People need a reason to use and keep using something, so think about the benefits your product provides to the end user. By the way, don’t confuse benefits with features and functionality. The latter two are tangible attributes, whereas benefits are an outcome, the positive feelings one develops from interacting with your brand, service, or product.

When developing and designing something, it’s easy to get so bogged down in the minutiae that one doesn’t see the forest for the trees. We start to perceive benefits to the end user where there aren’t aren’t any. Products get larded up with bells and whistles that no one needs. Or worse, we get  another “me too” also-ran that’s no better than what’s already out there.

If you’re not providing your customers with some advantage over what already exists, then you’re not really designing an experience. You’re just putting out some product.

What you need to know about prototyping

Standard

Prototyping is a pretty hot topic within the design world. Most of the time, things veer off into discussions about tools, techniques, or methodologies. You only need to know two things about prototyping – when to start and when to stop. Start when you have questions like “what if” and “how about”. Stop when you have to choose between two desirable, but incompatible options.

Decision-making is inextricably linked to design, and prototyping is most effective when you and others can see what the choices are. Otherwise, you’ll just find yourself talking about your options instead of evaluating them.

Startups and jobs

Standard

A recent study put out by the Kauffman Foundation shows that job creation from new businesses has declined about 12% since the 80s. They also equate this with a drop in startups. While I’m not surprised to to hear job creation is down, I find it hard to believe there has been a decrease in startups.

They’re making a common mistake – assuming all startups are businesses. The startup barrier to entry is so low that it’s hard to take them seriously, and still people do. Here in Chicago, there exists a fairly active startup community, but I wouldn’t say it’s creating jobs, nor does anyone seem to care if they do. Just being a startup in general seems to be enough.

Every business was once a startup, but not every startup will become a business.

Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps

Standard

via Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps – Technology Review.

They allowed themselves to be convinced that producing editorial content for the apps and developing the apps themselves would be simple.

We have several clients in the publishing industry and see first hand the pain they go through when it comes to developing apps.

According to a study by Miratech, people prefer apps over mobile web. Even if that’s not totally true, another study estimate some 30% of US adults own an E-Reader / Tablet now. Even if publishers don’t love apps, it would appear their customers do. So they need to do something about it.

The problem is adding another format, like an app, to your workflow is non-trivial. Unfortunately, if I’m a customer, that’s not my problem. We see great user experiences coming from other companies, in some cases small and obscure, and wonder why these big corporate publishers can’t follow suit.

Publishers have to figure this stuff out and make some hard choices in order to survive. Hopefully, they’ll err on the side of a creating a better user experience and not on a form that is easier for them to deliver.

Shell Apps and Silver Bullets

Standard

This is one of the better breakdowns I have read dissecting the native [mobile] app vs. the hybrid approach.

The difference is shell apps come from the wrong mentality. They start from, “How do we reduce effort?” instead of “How do we deliver the best product?”

via Shell Apps and Silver Bullets.

A is for Affordances

Standard

When designing with the end user in mind, consider how people will figure out what they can do with your product. Since you can’t be there hovering over their should barking instructions, the product itself will have to let them know.

Affordances, or the easy discoverability of actions, are how products communicate and engage with people.

A simple example is a button. The affordances of a button are touch and push. So when people see a button, whether it’s hardware or software, they know what they can do with it even if they don’t know what function it performs. Affordances don’t account for the action itself, but without them people have to revert to other means to figure things out.

If you need to provide instructions on the interface of your product, it probably has poor affordances.

Knowing that affordances, as a concept, exist will improve your ability to anticipate and avoid common usability flaws when designing a product.

Example

Let’s use a simple object with many affordances. The primary purpose of a milk jug is to hold liquid so it’s easily transported. Since glass is a relatively flexible medium (at least until it hardens), you can provide additional affordances such as a hand grip on the side, a flat surface for writing, a funneled spout for a steadier pour, and a collar for holding onto the red handle.

  

Some products, on the other hand, have terrible affordances. It’s impossible to tell what you can do with it unless someone shows you. Restroom hand dryers without buttons are a great example of things that do a poor job of communicating what you can do.

 

 

 

 

It’s a different world, not just a different medium

Standard

Like print, the iPad (and other digital tablets) are great for displaying text and images. And that, is pretty much where the similarities end. So it’s time to stop trying to have our cake, and eat it too when designing and developing content for this and other digital mediums.

Back in the early days of web development the Holy Grail was a visual, WYSIWYG editor. People thought we just needed better layout tools, and so we got products like NetObjects Fusion, PageMill, GoLive and countless other products with camel-capped names. Before these products, web development was pretty much a text editor and Photoshop.

Fast forward to today and no serious developer is using those tools. Ironically, we are pretty much back to the old way. However, the text editors have gotten to be more sophisticated.

The visual, layout-oriented editors turned out to be nothing more than a band-aid. Eventually you realize things like;

  1. Digital isn’t static. Users can change its form whether it’s resizing fonts, scrolling, and moving windows around. Content becomes a fluid, moving target.
  2. Visual editors enabled us to make tweaks to fit the design into the form. Since the end form can change most of those tweaks won’t make a difference.
  3. Consistency is the wrong goal. Realistically, no one reads both the print and the digital edition of a story. They don’t need to be alike, they need to be the best version of their form.
  4. We mistake nostalgia for the old form as a user requirement. Every medium has it’s own value proposition and affordances. They’re great for some things and awful for others. Early adopters figure this out right away, while others lament the passing of the old guard. Eventually everyone moves on.
  5. We’re working between different worlds not just different mediums.

The lesson here is embrace the differences the new platforms afford us. Sure, we’ll need a transition strategy. But you are going to have to learn something new to survive, just like going to a foreign land. Let’s move on. The perfect tool isn’t coming. It’s already here. If you want proof, just look at how many great tablet user experiences exist today.

Help yourself to help your customers

Standard

The other night our power went out around 9:30. There wasn’t a storm or anything. It was just raining. Everything went out, came back on a second later, and went out again.

Instead of calling ComEd (our local power company), I got on my iPhone and went to their website. It was there I discovered they have a SMS-based system for reporting outages. You simply text the word “OUT” to them and they immediately respond. In my case, it told me they were aware of the problem and 800 customers were also out. I received another text later estimating the problem to be fixed by 11:30pm.

I rarely have anything good to say about ComEd, but I’ll be talking this up to friends and family.

This simple feature, while very useful for customers, probably benefits ComEd more. Not only do they get to reduce the costs associated with staffing phone lines 24/7. They now have a secondary dispatching system that notifies them when and where the power is out.

I especially hate it when the power goes out at night. It’s not like you can go outside and find something else to do. I’m reasonable, I know the power goes out from time to time. I just need to know 1) it’s not the apocalypse and 2) someone is on it. This system does that.

Not every user-friendly thing your product or service does has to come from an altruistic place. Sometimes you can create more value for your organization and still make your customers happy.