The designer’s dilemma –

Where does the difference between radical and incremental innovation lays from a designer perspective? Are there tools that help us as designers to tackle radical innovation in the first place? How about the mindset?

photo by Aga Szóstek

Have you ever bumped into a book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christiansen? It is not an easy read but it is totally worth it. It took me over a year to get to read it and a month to get through it. It took me so long because I realized that many things that are discussed there touch upon the design profession as it is evolving these days.

A disclaimer first, though

It might seem like I am ranting (again) on the subject of Design Thinking, which is not at all my intention. I strongly believe that this concept made a lot of good for the design profession and changed us from beautyfiers to creative makers, particularly in the corporate world. But as any methodology, it has its shortcomings. It doesn't mean that because something is not perfect it should be discarded. Yet, it is worthwhile to know where the shortcomings are to be aware of certain consequences that come with using a given approach.

Design Thinking and disruptive innovation

For quite some time I felt uneasy with a number of issues regarding the DT approach. One of them being the linearity of the creative process that is proposed. Another one is using the DT tools as ingredients in the creative sauce of success. “The Innovator’s Dilemma” made me realize one more trap embedded in the assumptions of the DT methodology. There is this widely known picture stating that if you mix up desirability, viability and feasibility you are likely to arrive at some sort of innovation.

drawing from IDEO materials

Christiansen wrote in his book:

“Successful companies want their resources to be focused on activities that address customers’ needs, that promise higher profits, that are technologically feasible and that help them to play in substantial markets. Yet, to expect the processes that accomplish these things also to do something like nurturing disruptive technologies — to focus resources on proposals that customers reject, that offer lower profit, that underperform existing technologies and can only be sold on insignificant markets — is akin to flapping one’s arms with wings strapped to them in an attempt to fly. Such expectations involve fighting some fundamental tendencies about the way successful organizations work and about how their performance is evaluated.”

It made me realize that although the DT approach might be quite good in delivering incremental innovation, in evolving the existing business or technological solutions, it is not a tool for disruptive innovation. Why?

User research

Typically, the DT approach propagates user research done with the well defined groups of customers. The designer investigates their hopes and pains, and based on the collected insights forms concepts that address them. The thing is that typically user research is not done with people who might enter the non-existent market but rather with people who have already accepted a certain type of a service. In other words, in the terms of the Gaussian curve, we investigate the needs of the early and late majority. Yet, by the nature of innovation adoption, these groups are not willing to risk following the radical innovation. They want their solutions to be tested and proven to work. So, the more we satisfy them with our ideas, the more we are in the space of incremental rather than disruptive innovation.

Gausse distribution of user acceptance

Christiansen puts forward a very insightful thought: that companies are not managed by their managers; they are managed by shareholders (pretty obvious) and customers, who determine the direction, which the company should invest into by choosing to put their money on this solution rather than that one. But, like I mentioned earlier, it helps to improve the existing solutions not build the new ones.

Creating solutions for non-existing markets

Radical innovation is something that creates markets, where there was none before. From the organizational perspective, the only sensible way to create radical innovation, is to spin out a new organization, competitive to the mothership and aiming at cannibalization on the established business. It has worked (by design or more often by luck) in the past quite a few numbers of time, so such a strategy seems to be a viable approach. But how do you design in such conditions?

As you know little to nothing about the needs of the potential future customers (actually you might not even know who the future customers are going to be), the traditional Design Thinking approach can go out the window. Hence the contemporary designer’s dilemma: how do you get insights from the people you are not able to identify about things they don’t even imagine can exist?

You might think that doing trend analysis could help. But Christiansen proves (again) that trends are built based on the established approaches and tend to lead absolutely nowhere. The same stands for market research, by the way. If you inspire yourself from any of these two sources, you are inspiring yourself to create incremental solutions. Drat…!

Christiansen says:

“Because failure is intrinsic to the search for the initial market applications for disruptive technologies, managers need an approach very different from what they would take toward a sustaining technology. In general, for sustaining technologies, plans must be made before action is taken, forecasts can be accurate, and customer inputs can be reasonably reliable. Careful planning, followed by aggressive execution, is the right formula for success in sustaining technology.

But in disruptive situations, action must be taken before careful plans are made. Because much less can be known about what markets need or how large they can become, plans must serve a very different purpose: They must be plans for learning rather than plans for implementation.”

So, from the perspective of the designer’s dilemma is there a known way into creating something disruptive? Three approaches come to mind: research through design, parallel design and experience design.

Research through design

Research through design is an approach where you start with the design part: your envision a solution, create it, expose to the people and see how they react. Do you, by any chance, remember the wifi rabbit Nabaztag? It was created in the research through design methodology and I must admit, that although it is not in business anymore, it has shown the viability of research thought design as a way to create disruptive solutions. It was a way to learn what the market for physicality in communication could be in the future and to understand new ways, in which people engage with such technology.

photo borrowed from

Parallel design

Parallel design is an approach promoted by prof. Dave Snowden, the author of the Cynefin framework. He believes that in order to address complexity (and to create disruptive solutions) you need to experiment with parallel designs some of which could (or even should) be in conflict with each other. You can do it by creating a series of the least expensive possible experimental setups, test them and see how people react. He also believes in introducing obliquity into the design process but I am still in a process of understanding that particular concept so I wouldn’t like to try to be a smarty-pants here.

Experience design

Experience design is an approach, where you begin with a vision of the experience you want to deliver. You begin with a goal of transforming your users in a certain way. And then you keep on experimenting until you reach your goal.

Most of the examples for experience design approach I know come from research, one of them being a project by the team of Marc Hassenzahl from the University of Siegen in Germany. Imagine you are promising yourself to call your mum (or your friends) but you keep on postponing it. Or you have another procrastination mechanism you would like to battle. Marc’s team created a ReMind: a moving clock, where you put your promises to yourself in a form of notes on magnets. As the clock keeps on moving the magnets get closer to the point where they hit a block and fall off, making it painfully obvious that you’ve been procrastinating again. To avoid it you have two choices: either to “reschedule” the task by changing the position of the magnet or by doing the damn thing. Is it disruptive? I think so.

Designer’s mindset to disruptive innovation

How do these three approaches differ from the traditional Design Thinking process? There are a few points of distinction, I think. First, in all three cases the designer starts with a vision of what she wants to achieve at the end and becomes a proactive visionary who accepts the high probability of failure. Second, she understands that user research will only go so far as to find new means of people’s needs rather than suggestions for solutions. Finally, she knows that the initial market for the radical idea is likely to be small so she looks for innovators and early adopters to test with. And, above all, she is not afraid to ship. To expose her ideas to the world. To see negative feedback like Edison described it: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” To fail. Hard. And not that quickly.

Author: Aga Szóstek

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