Inventing the future:
- Understand how people really work, and you’ll figure out what invention could help them
- Nobody wants an invention that doesn’t meet a need
- Customers can’t tell you what to make, since they don’t know the details of what they do
Every team we work with raises the same claim. Customer data tells you what is, not what could be. How do we invent the future by looking at the past?
Every Invention Meets an Existing Need, or Nobody Would Want It
Invention is a response to some life or work practice by a designer or technologist who—seeing a need and knowing the technology—imagines a new possibility. Edison didn’t invent the idea of light; he saw candles and gas and invented light bulbs. Dan Bricklin didn’t invent accounting; he saw the use of paper spreadsheets and knew what technology could do. The developers of Word Perfect worked in the basement of a secretarial pool.
Nobody invents entirely new things that don’t fulfill a need and contribute in some way to human activity. They invent new ways to fill existing needs and overcome limitations. And as people integrate these new options into their lives, they reinvent themselves by using and pushing new ways of working. So if we’re out there seeing people living their lives with, without and in spite of technology, we can see where we might direct technology.
A Vision is Only as Good as the Team’s Combined Skill
- Customer data provides the context to stimulate the direction of invention. But there is no invention without understanding available tools and materials: technology, design and work practice.
- The visioning team needs to include people who understand the possibilities and constraints of technology.
Contextual Data Reveals Needs
A client in the mobile phone business tells a great story when asked about how you could have invented the hand-held cell phone by looking at contextual data: You’d be driving down the road and watching people suddenly pull off the road and park their cars to make a phone call. You’d see them pulling into gas stations to make a telephone call. They’d be out in their yard in the midst of yard work and run inside to make a telephone call. You’d see people looking all over the office to find a person not at their desk, and hear them calling over the loud speaker. You’d see families call all their child’s friends looking for them. And then, knowing phone technology, you’d ask yourself what if, when people called, the call went right to them? Gee, how could we, the makers of phones, do that? So where do you think the idea of cell phones came from anyway?
A Vision is Only as Good as the Team’s Combined Skill
Customer data provides the context to stimulate the direction of invention. But there is no invention without understanding available tools and materials: technology, design and work practice. The visioning team needs to include people who understand the possibilities and constraints of technology.
If the team is supposed to design web pages and none of them has ever designed a web page, they will not be able to use web technology to design. For example, when people who always designed mainframes were told to design WYSIWYG interfaces, they replicated the mainframe interface in the WYSIWYG interface. Similarly, if the team has no interaction designers or work practice designers on it, the resulting vision will not be as powerful as if they did. This is why we recommend that design teams have diverse backgrounds representing all the materials of design and the cross-functions of the organization. Only then will an innovative design emerge that works for people, technology and the business.
Even New Technologies can be Guided by Customer Data
Even if you’re looking for ways to use an entirely new technology, there will be something to observe and gather data from. Years ago, when sound on computers was brand new, one client said to me, “We’re creating something that has never existed before; there is no customer data to collect!”
Is there no data to collect to guide this technology? Is this brand new? Sound was once a totally new technology, but sound is not new. Using sound appropriately in computers is a challenge. What data should you collect? Data on the experience of sound: walk in the world see what people do with sound. Listen, look and talk with them about random sound, talk, music in the environment and the role of sound in people’s lives. And pay attention to silence, because you don’t want to violate that. Studying sound and silence, noise and communication, will reveal opportunities and identify appropriate ways to use sound on a computer
We Don’t Ask the Customer What to Make; We Understand What They Do
Customers can’t tell you what to invent. They aren’t aware of the details of their own work practice, and they don’t know the latest technologies. Further, they don’t know what your business is able or willing to create. So we don’t ask them. Instead, we understand what they are doing and capture it in a systematic way. We immerse a design team who does understand technology, work practice and the business in that data and let them vision.
But We Do Involve Customers in Inventing
The vision has to be right for people, so we take it out and test it. We let people test drive their future in our paper mock-ups. And we let their tacit knowledge of their lives shape and direct our vision of the future.