Using UX design to reduce the risk of innovation failure

CES 2017, held last month, was, as usual, a showcase for innovation and future technology – the kind of stuff that seems out-there right now, but will likely be commonplace in a few years’ time. But, are emotional cars (such as Honda’s NeuV) or intelligent saucepans ever going to catch on? Or are they going to end up, like many failed innovations from the past, becoming objects of ridicule? According to Mark Payne, co-founder of leading Innovation Strategy company Fahrenheit 212, it’s closer to 90%. That represents a massive probability of failure – innovation is difficult!

Managing Failure

How can you design innovative products that people actually want? How can you reduce the risk of getting it wrong and avoid investing in a costly flop?

We’re sure many companies involved in innovating new products and services are well aware of user experience (UX). Most new products are probably carefully designed around user needs, user stories or typical personas. However, this is not always going to guarantee that your product will be useful and desirable or that it will be a commercial success. What is missing that makes some products soar and others flop?

To take an example: The Denso Ecology Shoe was another product unveiled at CES this year. This shoe cleans the floor as you walk, powered by the energy generated as your foot hits the ground. There is no doubt that this is a very clever and novel product that presents a solution to the common problem of keeping one’s home clean.

Figure 1: The Denso Ecology Shoe

You can imagine the underlying user stories and personas that may have been used to justify this new product: maybe something along the lines of “I want to clean my house, but I’m too lazy to get the vacuum cleaner out”. Research asking people “Would you like a clean house without the bother of vacuuming?” or “Would you like to clean your house simply by walking around it?” would almost certainly back up the need for this amazing new product. Who wouldn’t want to make cleaning their home easier?

Yet, in UX research it is vital that the problem is correctly identified so the right questions can be tackled. This process of correct problem analysis is why the foundations of so many innovative products remain the domain of dreams rather than reality. Mistaking novelty for value is a major failure of many technological innovations.

We have to avoid not falling into the trap of taking what Kahneman and Lovallo call the ‘inside view’, that is, ignoring the data because we believe “this case, our case [innovation] will be different.” The inside view is a type of bias that results because we believe that we are right from the start rather than applying rigorous analysis to ensure a robust understanding of the problem.

If you ask the wrong questions, you can get answers that trigger investment and activity. The real question you need to ask is: is there enough consumer value to trigger successful customer acquisitions, and therefore product adoption?

This strategic validation of consumer value is what we refer to as the pre-double diamond or the third diamond.

Figure 2: Nomensa Triple Diamond showing how strategy and value determination frame the design and development process of the traditional Double Diamond.

Re-evaluating the Denso shoe in this way we can quickly analyse the very likely outcome when the product launched. Let’s face it, it’s unlikely to be a runaway success. There are some obvious fundamental flaws with the product. If you’re too lazy to vacuum, you’re almost certainly too lazy to carefully walk over every inch of your floor. Added to the the motivation issue is a more practical question of where does the dirt go? How often would you need to stop and empty the dirt out of the shoes to keep them working effectively? What happens if something breaks? There are many operational considerations for the product that have not been thought through and analysed in detailed.

However, who wouldn’t want to exercise whilst cleaning their home at the same time? The potential market for such a product is huge, no doubt! From a marketing perspective it could be very compelling because keeping the home clean is a necessary activity for the majority of people around the world! Yet, if it does not fulfil a human need that people would pay for, then we would argue it has very little utility and therefore consumer value – it is merely novel and interesting.

Determining Customer Value

This is the foundation you need to build into your customer experience. It represents the foundation you build your value proposition around – there is no need to play commercial Russian roulette because of a lack of customer research and being biased by your own inside view.

So, how do you avoid creating the next vacuum cleaning shoe? How do you make sure you’re investing time, effort and money in the right products and services? You need to understand that the underlying value (utility) of a product or service will determine the experience.

One technique that we’ve been using successfully to assess products and services is an adapted version of the Strategyzer Value Proposition Canvas.

Figure 3: Strategyzer Value Proposition Canvas

Why have we adapted it? Simply to provide a greater focus on both customer value and business value. We start by identifying the customer’s underlying values. These are things like privacy or saving money or protecting their family – values which underpin the user stories or user needs.

This approach allows us to discover whether a product will be prized by the customer – does it match their root values? Now, we can see that, in the case of the Ecology Shoe, the underlying value of saving time and effort is simply not matched by the requirement to walk around a lot and empty the shoe of dirt frequently. Although a simple example, this neatly illustrates how the underlying value can be a better guide than the user story or user need. This underlying value can then provide a point of inspiration for new ideas.

However, matching customer values is only half of the equation. A product or service must also have business value in order to be a commercial success. There are many possible products which would meet user needs and be a brilliant match to customer values, but which would simply be too expensive to produce or would require a major restructuring of the business to make them work.

To assess this, we have also added business value to the left-hand side of the diagram. This allows us to assess each Gain Creator or Pain Reliever in terms of the value it will bring to the business compared with any additional costs incurred. The extended canvas therefore allows us to balance customer value and business value to create products that make sense from all perspectives. In basic commercial terms, once the product or service is launched, will it be profitable?

Designing the customer experience of a product or service based on a validated customer value proposition provides a robust structure on which to conduct innovation. It is a method we use for putting customers at the heart of a product or service.

So, by extending traditional UX techniques to include a structured assessment of both customer and business value, we can help you to sense-check the validity of an idea before investing further.

Thinking beyond technology and assessing what it really means for your customers and your business can help avoid costly mistakes, whether that is trying to solve the problem of digital transformation or exploring new innovations. Applying this type of approach will refine your ideas so that they are more likely to be successful and help you to avoid creating the next vacuum cleaning shoe!

In our next article we will elaborate further about our adapted Value Proposition Canvas.

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