Finding Innovation in Design

The best way to innovate in design is by solving today’s problems…if you’re successful then you’ll soon be asked to solve tomorrow’s as well.

The best way to innovate in design is by solving today’s problems…if you’re successful then you’ll soon be asked to solve tomorrow’s as well.

In Chapter 2 of my book Designing for the Social Web, I introduce and talk about what I call the AOF method. AOF stands for Activity, Objects, and Features. First you determine and research the activity you’re going to support. This helps you identify the social objects within that activity and the actions people take on those social objects. These objects and actions become your feature set.

The idea is that your features are nothing more than the actions people take on accepted, agreed-upon social objects. They are not pie-in-the-sky features that may or may not be valuable. By modeling your software on existing behavior you can be sure that the features you add will be valuable…after all…people are already doing them.

However, in talking with folks since the book came out, I’ve learned that I didn’t stress enough about how the AOF method is meant to model existing behavior. That is, the activity we model isn’t a future activity, a hypothetical activity that might possibly exist in the future if all goes well. It’s meant to support an activity that people are already doing today.

You’ll notice that the most successful software does this. Skype models making phone calls. Salesforce models the customer relations. Netflix models choosing and recommending movies. In each of these cases the technology is new but the behaviors are not: they have been around for a long time.

There are several benefits to modeling existing activities:

  1. Because they’re current activities, you know they are conducted to solve an existing, real-world problem.
  2. If the activity is non-trivial then you know there is an existing market for your product.
  3. You can reduce feature creep because you prioritize features based on observed need, not hypothetical desire.
  4. Existing activities are much easier to research than hypothetical ones. Your research will be grounded in reality.

One concern I’ve heard about modeling existing behavior is that some designers feel it’s not the way to innovate, to truly come up with something new. This may be true…to start. The AOF method is meant to be a practical way to come up with a valuable feature set for existing activities.

However, it can be extremely difficult to create something innovative until you’ve learned what the current problems really are. Don’t assume you know enough to really solve existing problems if you’ve only identified them from a 50,000 foot view. If it were that easy then the problems would already be solved. There is a world of difference between our initial assumptions about a problem and what we learn once we actually try to solve it.

It is this effort, the effort of trying to solve an existing problem, that leads to innovation. Let’s say you start off modeling existing behavior using the AOF method and you’ve got some people using your software. What happens is that you start talking to your users and can’t help but see how your software can be improved. People will give you feedback and guidance about what they need and want…they will essentially map out the way forward for you.

Now you are ready to really innovate, to push further than the current problem set. And, you won’t even have to come up with the ideas yourselves…because you’re actively supporting existing behavior people will naturally want more and more from you. Innovation is somewhat counter-intuitive in this way…the best path to it is not necessarily the direct path, but an indirect path that comes from nailing the current activity to the ground.

So instead of looking too far forward, design for now. Focus on current activity and an existing problem. You won’t need to find innovation. It will find you.

Published: July 22nd, 2009