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What makes an innovation truly valuable?

I work for a startup which successfully transitioned from custom R&D projects to turnkey software. 5 years and a series A later, this exciting ride ended short of additional funding.

People tend to gravitate towards innovation, it’s a promising concept — it conveys excitement, generates expectations, both for clients and internally. But the journey from custom to turnkey can be long or arduous.

What allows you to transition from prototype to product, to a useful service that is *actually* used?

Over the years I’ve coached teams in hackathons, advised startups on R&D credits and I’ve been involved in structuring and scaling innovative products. If there’s one common component that sticks out for me is this :

picture credit
picture credit

Beyond the technology developed, beyond vision or company values, devising and sharing the right internal posture is a key component for producing actual, useful, valuable innovation.

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the whole digital experience, the entire customer lifecycle, from generating the initial lead down to ensuring usage and satisfaction. This takes a good deal of collaboration, and a strong, unwavering, common understanding of final expectations a user has. I’m in the process of hiring interns right now, and I realized it was important to spell out some of the things I take for granted. Here’s my list, I’d love your feedback!

Let’s start with the obvious: innovation is not technology. 

You can build the best gadget, with all possible bells and whistles, but it won’t make it more useful or usable. This might sound obvious, but it can be quite tricky to stick to this when you’re trying to fit in to funding acceptance criteria or investor expectations.

Innovation is the means, not the end. 

This point also seems pretty obvious, and is very closely linked to the first one, but cannot be stressed enough. Whether we’re developing, explaining or selling innovation, we always need to make sure we don’t get mixed up in the process of delivering.

Innovation shouldn’t be a marketing gimmick, and shouldn’t be oversold. 

Don’t throw in trendy or ambitious taglines which turn into empty promises — hello Bullshit Bingo! Resist the temptation to woo audiences and center the message on actual product strengths, focus on strengthening features before thinking four versions ahead. Sell beyond promised delivery, and set yourself up for internal havoc and stressful account management.

Innovation should be the practical application of change. 

Technological discovery can usher in a revolution, but innovation has the responsibility to make it tangible. How will this app, this service, this object *actually* improve upon the existing options around ? How can it produce a shift in habits, in practices, for the better ? Design sprints are great tools, but many more exist, it takes a little wisdom to know which one to pick.

Innovation should be easy to access or adopt. 

Easy refers to the end user perspective, not from the R&D angle. Simplifying access via a functionality means making it truly accessible, not just cutting down on lines of code, shortening process time or reduce a user journey by two clicks. If your user can’t accomplish something without you, then there’s a problem.

Which leads to another point. Beware of “fake it ’til you make it”: good, lasting innovation is built on trust and transparencyTheranos is probably a great counter example. If you want to build a product and sell promises, gaining trust, is a much easier place to start from to ensure continued internal and external adoption. You might have your own secret recipe or code, these are the trump cards you need to build your business. But would you play poker with somebody who makes you feel like he’s got cards hidden up his sleeve? Customers can accept a surprising amount of trial and error, as long as they feel you’ve got their best interest at heart.

Would you play poker with somebody who makes you feel like he’s got cards hidden up his sleeve? Customers can accept a surprising amount of trial and error, as long as they feel you’ve got their best interest at heart.

Innovation should not feel invasive or condescending. 

Okay, at this point, in some industries, competition is making it very hard *not* to be invasive (hello GAFA!) But their success is based on how little its user base suspected these technologies collected. Innovation should not made to be felt like a magical attribute or power which you bestow upon the user. Sounds dumb ? An aggressive sales approach can skew user perception or intimidate them even before he or she engages with your product for the first time.

And finally, innovation should be sensible, respectful. 

This is closely related to the bit about not being condescending or invasive. UX, outreach or customer experiences shouldn’t be just user-centric. The way I see it, they should be grandma-empathetic — that’s my own Litmus test I use when testing ideas for improving a digital experience. If your grandmother can’t get it and get behind it, then you’re missing part of your audience. Not that grandmothers are a de facto customer segment. When done properly, making innovation simple to understand doesn’t dumb it down. The point here is that if people don’t get your message, they are much more likely to pretend they do than to call you out.

How do you measure success or performance if you’re not confident your target audience or end user gets it?