The Teeter and Totter of Innovation

Every holiday season, it’s fun to observe trends as we all shop for the latest hotness. It’s hard not to think about innovation: what it is, what it means, and the key tenets of how innovations achieve wide adoption. Ideas. New ideas. How do they take hold?

It’s easy to think of a seesaw as a metaphor for this, teetering between innovation and need (or convenience). These two words, need and convenience, mean different things but seem to become more interchangeable as time goes on. The seesaw, though, illustrates well the way a system, like innovation and need, is tied together and where one thing moves, another needs to give, too.

So, yeah, I’m just going to riff on this idea for a bit here.

According to Wikipedia:

Mechanically, a seesaw is a lever and fulcrum.
Seesaws also work as a simple example of a mechanical system with two equilibrium positions. One side is stable, while the other is unstable.

Innovation requires need. Convenience requires innovation. How does this seesaw create instability in markets and in our culture?

This metaphor requires more thought, in the consideration of characteristics that are more qualitative (driven more by emotion than logic) in order to establish a definition of what “innovation” means.

I can think of multiple components that contribute to the failure or success of an innovation and they oddly all begin with the letter ‘c’ : choice, control, community, convenience, completeness, compatibility, coolness, communication, and cost.

Using these to evaluate an idea early on seems to contribute to the success of a new product or service by improving adoption, reducing risk, and building trust.

Convenience is any product or service that saves time and/or simplifies work. It must add to the overall ease of our lives or plain old comfort. Why is convenience essential to the success of a new product or service? Here’s are two important ones I can think of:

We’re all busy and rarely feel we have enough time to do everything. So, a product or service holds the most value when it eliminates steps in an activity, reducing the time involved without affecting the quality of the experience. If it can add enjoyment to it, even better.

We humans are generally resistant to change of any kind, fear learning anything new, and don’t like to make choices, so innovations must offer more convenience than the existing solution in order to be successful. Innovations that add significant convenience over previous solutions are self-evident and require little or no convincing of their value.

For example, finding information no longer requires stacking up piles of books at the library, spending hours paging through encyclopedias is not something anyone does anymore, not since the search engine showed up. Sheeesh, I’m old enough to remember writing papers surrounded by STACKS of books. Took FOREVER. Google has saved an exponential amount of time simplifying that work.

Everyone needs this. Everyone. Executives, students of all ages, stay-at-home-parents, even . Regardless of who a company’s target customer is, innovations that improve convenience over existing solutions for everyone will attract the most attention and therefore be the most successful.

For success in any market, the convenience factor of an innovation needs to be apparent from moment a user lays eyes on it. The average bear has little time and interest to learn about new products and services. There HAS to be a compelling reason: a convenience factor that is off-the-charts.

Another factor – community – is often a determining component. If a user can identify a community that has adopted the new innovation and find clear and personally-valuable evidence the innovation has value then, if the switching costs are not too high, they will be more likely to make the jump.

Disposable diapers in the 60’s were totally inconvenient and expensive. There were two choices: wash, dry and reuse cloth diapers or reply on a diaper delivery service. Either case was a drag. Washing and drying diapers created work for already tired parents; diaper delivery services, while convenient, costed parents a ton. Disposable diapers disrupted that market because of convenience, cost and community – everyone and their Aunt Jane was talking about it and, almost overnight, became the de-facto solution to catch newborn excretions.

Apple didn’t invent the digital music player but innovated on making it convenient to find, download, manage and play music. Other MP3 players still require way more time and energy. It’s all about convenience.

Books are really convenient. Inventors have tried, unsuccessfully, to replace them. A book can go anywhere, requires no batteries, is durable, and offers a comfortable, familiar form factor comforting to most. When Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, some anticipated the end of the printed book. Nah. It remains to be seen if the Kindle and its competitors will replace the book as the preferred reading media, but the Kindle still has many of the drawbacks of the older electronic book formats. Namely, it requires power. In time, electronic mediums for reading may become more accepted but will they ever replace the book?

This concept extends across contexts. Packaging can be more convenient by offering the same protection coupled to a more friendly experience to open, discard, and recycle. Successful service innovations typically focus on how to deliver better levels of service while minimizing the time or money required to obtain them.

New innovations have to demonstrate convenience quickly and provide highly portable ways to showcase it in order to overcome our resistance to change. We’ll adopt new products and services only when there’s a significant benefit requiring little overhead and an experience that teeters our totter in juuust the right way.