similar yet vexingly different – design and innovation

What do the following items add up to: 1) the loss of a chief visual designer, 2) the prototype launch of an all knowing answer-engine, and 3) the talk of an antitrust investigation? Answer: a difficult week, for Google

Google is in the news so much that they usually escape notice. But now it’s different somehow. It’s as though journalists are actively to trying to prepare us a world after Google.

Miguel Heft, of the New York Times, suggests there is some trouble in the magic kingdom (a chief visual designer moves on – to Twitter). But he seems more concerned to know if engineers are blinded by data? He also asks, if companies are in danger, when they fail to recognize what designers have to contribute. 

“…Google is unapologetic about its approach.“We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of search products and user experience, said….”

“CAN a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?”  Read the whole article>>

Henry Ford might have answered his question this way: ‘if I asked the people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses’. 

A century later, does our always-on, increasingly networked, and ever-measured, world, make Heft’s question any more difficult to answer? Not really. And it doesn’t excuse Miguel from blurring the boundaries between design and innovation.  Doing so isn’t much help to either cause.

Heft would like us to make a choice: innovation, or customer delight? Which side are you on? A sort of one-two punch sets the article in motion, and succeeds in making it hard to see what ideas are lurking off to the side.

For argument’s sake, let’s just say that when Google is trying to decide which – one of 56 – shades of blue to use that is a design decision. And when it is trying to assess if wolfram alpha is a Google-killer or not, well that is an innovation decision. Your first clue is that no one around you knows just what a wolfram alpha is yet.

If the flight of a brilliant designer was big news, then news of wolfram alpha seemed bigger. Steven Wolfram lifted the lid on his fantastic computing machine, an answer engine, to a small group of well-placed users over the weekend. While he denies any aims to be making a Google-killer who wouldn’t be flattered by the comparison. Have answers become the new search? Here is what Nova Spivek had to say:

“It’s not a “Google killer, it does something different. It’s an “answer engine” rather than a search engine”.

But how different? And what difference would that make in the everyday lives of people who google? One hands-on reviewer, TEDchris, posted this thought experiment on his blog:

“…The much-hyped new computational engine Wolfram Alpha soft-launched last night. It’s been dubbed by some a Google-killer… so, just for fun, I ponied up a few questions to compare the two, trying to focus on the types of specific queries that Wolfram Alpha is designed to excel at.” Read more:  –

As well as this conclusion.

I’m sure it will find a powerful niche.  But even in its target area of specific answers to data-based questions, a lot of people will be Googling for a while yet.

As fascinated as users are with its strengths, they are quick to grant the incumbent an easy win. But back to Heft’s Question. Can a company do the wrong thing by listening [quite literally] to its customers? Certainly. Especially when the customer tries harder than it should to help you out. TEDchris’ experiment is an object lesson in how not to learn from people who use what you have to sell.

Looking closely at the experiment above, we see that TEDchris gins up seven questions for the wolfram alpha that is intended to help show it off.  He follows this with a bake-off; entering those very questions into Google as a control measure. Meaning, that if the differences between the ‘answer’ paradigm, and the ‘search paradigm are breathtaking, then wolfram alpha scores the ribbon.  If not, then Google remains champ. The design of his experiment indicate that, TEDchris knows just a little too much about the technology. Would-be innovators must learn to see past this common illusion.

This is where Debra Dunne and John Seely-Brown have an argument. Or, as Henry Ford might say, if it is innovation you’re after, it isn’t about making faster horses. In other words, the promise of a new paradigm is not aptly measured by the standards of the incumbent.

Seeing around corners requires a deep understanding of what people do and believe. Neither the incumbent nor the new entrant will earn a significant new following from random acts of design – classically trained or not.  And while inventive technology is vital to innovation. It just happens to have a history of misleading its creators.  Recall for a minute the breathless talk of the Segway Transporter. Exciting yes. Adopted by millions? Not so much.

Debra Dunne and John Seely-Brown encourage would be innovators to focus on observing pain points. Something, they argue that Google’s micro tuning ways with data might never show.  Good. But, what about knowing peoples simple pleasures? Or better yet, the activities they are otherwise get engaged in (when they are inclined to search)?

If an answer engine is the answer to the question of what’s next, then TEDchris would have been better off performing a different experiment. I would encourage him and others to get up from the laptop, and live a little.

Had he captured seven genuine situations (from personal experience) over the course of a day or two, he would have notices different types of uncertainty he were featured in his experiment. And he would have known the consequences of each. Because we no longer pay much attention to tasks like, commuting, tying our shoelaces, and using a search engine, much of our everyday life is hiding in plain sight.

Had he found a simple way to face up to these experiences, then his questions for wolfram alpha would be different.  More importantly his insights about an answer engine, would have included ideas about where people might need and want to access to better answers.


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3 responses to “similar yet vexingly different – design and innovation

  1. Great stuff, Michael. Isn’t there something here (which I didn’t see you say explicitly though maybe I missed it) about letting things have time to find their own level – their own application, etc. Google (say) didn’t know what it would be used for and people didn’t know what to use Google for, until Google existed and over time people experimented and use cases emerged and other people learned about them and Google evolved and other use cases grew in prominence and relevance. Innovation may be about a new behavior for people and it takes time to learn that behavior and to try it out and see how to make it fit – or not. So in the first week, many of us went to Wolfram and tried some Google-like query and saw it fail and have moved on. But maybe we’ll try again when we learn more about what it can do. Or maybe we won’t. Some lead users (Chris?) will try to teach more of us what we can do with it, and the conversations (like this one) will continue. Indeed, this is the first I heard about it – that someone has identified and communicated what it IS good for, so that’s something that’s moved me a notch further down that path.

    I ramble, but anyway, good stuff!

    • michaeldavisburchat

      Thanks Steve,

      If I understand ‘the ramble’, two things stand out for me in this context (i.e. decisiveness +innovation):
      1) there are two different Googles involved.
      2) allowing innovation to happen, is markedly different than enabling it.

      Back in the day when Google was a new entrant – working in a garage – they were able to explore hunches about what industry to disrupt, and how to disrupt them. Google’s trial and error process was aimed at answering the ‘what-business-are-we-in’ type of questions. It acquired IP, and corporate advisors, on the road to development of concepts like pagerank, and adsense.

      Now that Google is the incumbent, an industry goliath, its relentless pursuit of excellence (with data) does two things: 1) it keeps phenomenal distance between itself and search-engine-wannabes, and 2) it becomes increasingly blind to the ways in which everyday lives of people are changing.

      Like any incumbent, the better that Google gets at making *search* technology, the harder that it will be to see what [rivals] are hiding in plain sight.

      My current favorite example is Nintendo’s Wii. If you dial back to 2005, the gaming console industry had left Nintendo for dead. The future, Microsoft and Sony claimed, was all about powerful graphics chips – and virtual-reality type narratives.

      Given few options, Nintendo decided to study North American parents and kids. They learned 3 insights: 1) parents felt games were making their kids social outcasts. 2) parents worried that games would make their kids obese. 3) kid’s worried that games were limiting their intellectual growth.

      In hindsight the Wii looks like a no-brainer response to these insights.

      But put yourself in Nintendo’s shoes – in foresight, it would be easy enough to say something like: ‘Thanks but no thanks, we are all about building these new chips, and partnering with narrative content providers. So given our diminishing resources we need to build what we know will sell.’

      And that is just the point; what we expect will sell, varies dramatically with what does sell – when changes are well researched and situated.

  2. Aaron Duke

    Very insightful Mike,
    A number of things come to mind. Much like everything else these days, the term innovation is subjective and has to be put into a context. Business Weeks Magazines most recent Annual Innovation Review emphasized emphatically how the term innovation didn’t simply apply to a given product, but was also a reflection of how a corporation conducted itself or organized itself. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the basic gist of it. As I think about how companies like Google conduct themselves, the term autocracy comes to mind before innovation does. Their aim seems to be control and by conducting themselves that manner, they’ve sadly missed the obvious opportunities Mike alluded to in his posting. History has a habit of repeating itself!
    It also brings to question whether nor not any one (company) can truly control the pulse, the ebb and flow, the naturally occurring algorithm’s of any sort of social network. One could make the argument that a search engine is as much of a social network as any other typical network is, just with a different context. That context though, is as unique to us as our own finger print….talk about a reason for corporations to be a bit tentative when it comes to innovative developments in this area. That said, Google is Mac, in terms of being ingrained into the fabric of our social subconscious….so if anyone can pull off autocratic innovation and in doing so, “re-train” the public along the way, they can!

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