Inspiration Beyond the Lab

By Bryan McClain and Demetrius Madrigal

Published: October 4, 2010

“If we don’t get out, experience, and truly understand what other cultures and subcultures are doing with technology, we’ll only be guessing when we try to innovate for large and diverse audiences.”

Over the last ten years, both of us have read countless articles about innovation, entrepreneurship, and socially responsible ventures that change the world. The theme that appears to emerge time and time again is the importance of getting out of the office, visiting different cultures, looking outside the bubble we live in, and experiencing new adventures. But it wasn’t until a recent vacation in Costa Rica, where Bryan had the opportunity to see rural farm workers using cell phones to talk with other farm workers—people who appeared to be very poor—that he fully realized the importance of understanding the world beyond that which we encounter on a daily basis.

Though we have spent the majority of our adult lives studying people and how they use technology, the lesson we took from Bryan’s experience is this: if we don’t get out, experience, and truly understand what other cultures and subcultures are doing with technology, we’ll only be guessing when we try to innovate for large and diverse audiences.

Innovation is about introducing something new and different to the world that helps enhance people’s lives. If we constantly have the same experiences day in and day out, it’s hard to generate thoughts and ideas that are different from those that are consistent with our everyday experiences. With fresh experiences come fresh perspectives. To push the limits of technology, we have to cultivate ideas that are outside the norm. We have to push against the limits of our own personal experience and understanding.

As user researchers, we are blessed with many opportunities to explore our world—constantly interacting with new ideas, meeting new people, and encountering different cultures. Thus, we’ve gained perspectives that help us generate and evaluate ideas that can drive innovation. For all of us in the field of user experience—not just user researchers—having diverse experiences, becoming aware of new perspectives, and developing new concepts that arise from our unique experiences will help us to discover opportunities for exciting, new technologies. In this month’s column, we’d like to look at some innovative products that went beyond typical human experience and explore some ways in which we can enhance our ability to do user research with innovation in mind. More specifically, we’d like to talk about curiosity, exploration, and creativity as a foundation for innovation.

Curiosity

“The desire to dig a little deeper, look at problems from different angles, and explore ways of extracting information that go beyond our typical processes is crucial to developing new ideas.”

Being curious is a necessary trait in a good user researcher, and it’s also one facet of being an innovator. The desire to dig a little deeper, look at problems from different angles, and explore ways of extracting information that go beyond our typical processes is crucial to developing new ideas. Curiosity helps us expand as user researchers, innovators, and ultimately, as a society. Inspiration can come from the most mundane experiences. For example, let’s look at Velcro—a product that pushed our society forward, helped solve many common household problems, and even helped astronauts secure tools and equipment during space flight.

In 1941, a Swiss engineer by the name of George de Mestral was on a hunting trip with his dog, in the Alps. He noticed how burdock seeds were sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur. After closer examination of the burrs, he noticed they were made up of hundreds of little hooks that connected to one another. His curiosity and hard work helped de Mestral develop the first zipperless zipper and eventually led to a patent for what we now call Velcro.

This story highlights how a simple experience in combination with an engineer’s curiosity led to the development of one of the products in most common use today. Instead of simply removing the burrs and moving on with his day, de Mestral took the time to understand them and conceive of an application for the concept. We need this level of curiosity to advance innovation and move forward with new product development.

Exploration

“Exploring different cultures—
and, in some cases, species—
beyond the lab can greatly expand our minds and help us to see problems in new ways.”

Exploring different cultures—and, in some cases, species—beyond the lab can greatly expand our minds and help us to see problems in new ways. For those of us who work in technology, it can be difficult to think beyond our own experience to reframe a problem, but if we expand the reach of our experience, we may be surprised by what we find.

A few years before the 2000 Olympics, British designer and former competitive swimmer Fiona Fairhurst and Aqualab, the R&D division of Speedo, created one of the fastest and most revolutionary swimsuits in history, the Fastskin Suit. Its designers gained their inspiration for this swimsuit from the way a shark moves through the water. A shark’s skin comprises scales called dermal denticles, or placoid scales, which help them move through the water quickly and smoothly, with little drag. Because of their scales’ reduced drag, mako sharks can swim at a speed of 46mph, or 74kph. It was the natural efficiency of these scales that Fairhurst and her team wanted to replicate in their swimsuit design.

Fairhurst consulted with Jane Cappaert, a scientist from the International Center for Aquatic Research and a specialist on the biomechanics of swimming. Together, they innovated the Fastskin technology, which was a major success because it reduced drag in the water by up to three percent. In competitive swimming, this represents a major advantage and could easily turn a second place finish into a win. This revolutionary improvement in swimsuit technology had a game-changing impact on the sport, as athletes set even faster speed records.

By reaching beyond the capability of human beings and examining the makeup of one of the fastest hydrodynamic animals on the planet, Fairhurst and Cappaert were able to create one of the most effective swimsuits in history. It is this type of innovation that drives markets forward and expands our ability to create products that truly create change.

Creativity

“Creativity is the heart and soul of innovation.”

Creativity is the heart and soul of innovation. In user research, being creative is extremely important, because not all situations in which research occurs are ideal. Thus, it may take new and innovative research methods to extract the information we need to move a project forward. It also takes creativity to recognize that a common phenomenon might have a useful application. A perfect example of this is the way in which Percy Shaw invented the road reflector—a product that is now in common use throughout the USA.

In 1934, Percy Shaw patented the Cat’s Eye, or road reflector, to help prevent automobiles’ accidentally crossing into other lanes at night. At the time, there were no effective, visual guides on the road to help prevent drivers’ unintentionally crossing into other lanes. As the story goes, Percy came up with the idea while driving on a dark road one night. The reflection of his headlights off the eyes of a cat that was sitting beside the road provided his inspiration. This experience gave Shaw the idea of building a reflective device that could help people stay within their lane, increasing the overall safety of night driving. Thus, Shaw started a company that would help millions of people drive more safely at night.

Most of us have seen how a cat’s eyes reflect light at night, but Shaw’s creativity enabled him to realize how this could lead to the development of a very useful product. It is this type of out-of-the-box thinking that drives markets forward and helps us reach new heights of innovation.

Conclusion

“Fostering our natural curiosity about the world, taking the time to explore new ideas, and finding creative ways of approaching problems can help us to achieve the ideal of design thinking. By applying these principles, we can discover new ideas that can lead to amazing innovations.”

Fostering our natural curiosity about the world, taking the time to explore new ideas, and finding creative ways of approaching problems can help us to achieve the ideal of design thinking. By applying these principles, we can discover new ideas that can lead to amazing innovations.

One recent example of innovation is from Job Rooster, a San Francisco-based social enterprise. The founders of Job Rooster discovered that there is a huge group of people looking for employment who do not own smartphones or make extensive use of the Internet or email to look for work. They developed a simple text-messaging platform to inform people of job opportunities. People can sign up for the service by sending a text message, then receive text messages notifying them of job openings, and even apply for jobs instantly, all through SMS (Short Message Service). This simple, but innovative approach provides a low-tech method of enhancing people’s job searches.

This service addresses a huge need, but most of us would not think of it. We live in a world in which almost everyone has the latest smartphone and going a week without checking our email is just about unthinkable. Because they had the curiosity to explore beyond their own experience, the people at Job Rooster were able to discover the needs of a dramatically different subculture, hiding in plain sight.

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