Research Drives Innovation

By Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain

Published: December 10, 2012

“Apple builds products their own employees would want, which translates nicely to the consumer population as a whole. This does not mean that Apple is not conducting research. It just means they’re doing research internally—and for Apple that just works.”

Apple has attained universal recognition as one of the most innovative companies in the technology industry. The products that they have introduced, from the Mac to iPhone to Apple TV, have mainstreamed user experience concepts and interaction models, shifting the entire industry. There’s a common misperception that Apple doesn’t do research. That these ideas sprang full formed from the cranium of the late Steve Jobs like a technological Athena. The media have mentioned a number of times that Apple builds products their own employees would want, which translates nicely to the consumer population as a whole. This does not mean that Apple is not conducting research. It just means they’re doing research internally—and for Apple that just works.

But all of the companies that don’t have a workforce that represents its users so nicely need to pursue other research strategies.

This month, we’ll take a look at the role that research plays in innovation—from generating ideas to refining them throughout the development process to smoothing the transition to mainstream success.

Inspiration and the Birth of Ideas

Sometimes we feel like we have the best job in the world. It’s true that we spend much of our time determining the best research approach to solve unique problems or pouring over data to identify trends, but we also spend a lot of time out in the field with people, learning about their lives and challenges in hopes of discovering ways to help them through the introduction of new and innovative products.

It’s through our research process that we gain a full understanding of users and, thus, are able to see opportunities for introducing new products into their lives. Whenever we see elaborate workarounds, simple processes that just take way too long, or users’ shoulders slumped in exhaustion or stress, we know that we’ve identified an opportunity.

“Inspiration tends to come from the world around us.”

Leonardo da Vinci also drew inspiration from the world around him. Da Vinci studied animals to understand how fish swam and birds flew. The insights he gained through research helped him to create early concepts for flying machines, parachutes, floatation belts, swim fins, and many other inventions. The Wright brothers would later duplicate Da Vinci’s  early attempts at biomimicry in creating their own flying machine.

As much as many of us might hope that we could just sit at our desk and wrack our brain until we come up with the next great idea, the truth is that inspiration tends to come from the world around us. The camera grew from ideas garnered from watching light pass through a pinhole or the leaves on a tree. Thorns and living fences inspired barbed wire. The earliest form of the bicycle was called the dandy horse, recognizing the animal that inspired it.

Beyond biomimicry, there are numerous examples of technology drawing inspiration from the world. Every popular computer operating system uses a desktop metaphor to support user interaction. Craigslist mimics the newspaper classifieds that it’s currently overtaking. The shopping cart, which has become an ecommerce mainstay, takes its name from the physical carts that inspired their virtual counterparts. And social networks are modeled after—well, actual social networks. It’s easy to see how, over and over again, experience of the real world has inspired the technology that has reshaped our lives. But inspiration is only one part of invention. It’s not enough to have an idea, you have to execute it.

Growing an Idea

“During the definition phase, research can help to determine a product’s feature set and differentiate between core features and added value. During the design phase, research results enable you to tell a story about who your users are and how they will tend to use your product.”

Over the years, we’ve seen a variety of concepts evolve from ideas to products to mainstream market conventions. In each case, a product matured thanks to the concerted effort of a team of people with different capabilities. A good product team almost always includes a UX designer who is responsible for designing the product, a developer to build it, a business person to create strategies for monetization, and a user researcher to support all other efforts. Research plays an important role in generating and developing concepts into products because of the information it provides. Whether market data or user data, information nourishes inspiration and helps us to evolve our ideas into fully realized products.

Research provides guidance and validation throughout the entire design and development process—all the way through to the release of a product and beyond. During the definition phase, research can help to determine a product’s feature set and differentiate between core features and added value. During the design phase, research results enable you to tell a story about who your users are and how they will tend to use your product.

Data from research helps to inform usage considerations such as the environment or conditions under which people will use a product. For example, if research indicates that the main users for a product would be working mothers, it should also indicate the design considerations for that group of users. That could include the need for quick engagement and multitasking, because a working mother is often juggling multiple demands on her time and attention.

Research can also help to validate a design as it develops through early mockups and concept testing. Acquiring user feedback on early designs before you begin spending time and money on development can save a tremendous amount of both.

Once you reach the development phase, user data on likely product usage can inform key platform and development decisions. Knowing where and how people might use your product can make the difference between, for example, your deciding to use Flash or PHP for the front end of a Web application. Making the wrong choice and starting down the wrong path, then having to reverse course could result in a very costly change in direction. Knowing a great deal about likely usage also allows you to set your development priorities. For example, knowing that working mothers tend to like using tablets, because they enable quick engagement, can help you to prioritize mobile over Web or desktop applications.

As you get close to completing product development, research can guide your marketing, distribution, and sales strategy. Knowing where your users consume content can help you to determine what your marketing content and ad placement should be. For example, you might find that working mothers like to visit celebrity news sites. Therefore, celebrity endorsements and ad placements on People magazine’s Web site might be a key element of your strategy to build awareness of your product among working mothers.

Like other aspects of product strategy, missteps with your marketing and advertising approach can be extremely detrimental to the health of your product and company. Throwing away valuable advertising money by pursuing avenues of marketing that don’t effectively build awareness of your product could leave you stranded, with empty coffers and lagging product adoption. For a startup, this could mean challenging attempts to recapitalize without demonstrating traction in the marketplace.

Conclusion

“Relying on research to generate ideas, inform decision making, and verify design and development directions is absolutely key to maximizing your chance of releasing a successful product.”

Research is an extremely important aspect of innovation—both in generating ideas for new and innovative products and in guiding the development of products from their inception to their release. Relying on research to generate ideas, inform decision making, and verify design and development directions is absolutely key to maximizing your chance of releasing a successful product. For startups, spending scarce funds on research to support critical design and development phases may seem like an expensive luxury. But we’ve encountered companies that were able to achieve success by partnering in equity relationships with freelance researchers or small research firms like ours. Establishing such partnerships can be an effective way of getting the guidance and validation that a successful product requires, without devoting a great deal of seed capital in research during the early stages of a startup.

1 Comment

Mother Nature is a terrific engineer, as you point out in your mentions of Da Vinci and the Wright brothers. Also interesting: The bombardier beetle inspired fire extinguishers. Butterfly wings inspired a video display that uses near-zero power. The mosquito gave us a clue that led to pain-free hypodermic needles. Biomimetics is fascinating, as is your article.

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