The innovator’s sandbox

By Jennifer Englert

Here’s a piece of good news for everybody who thinks that innovation only happens if a) you’re creative genius, and b) sudden inspiration hits you. The good news is: if a) and b) don’t apply, there’s a proven method you can use instead.

New ideas are everywhere. But new ideas that become useful products? Not so much. For the second post in this mini-series on user-centric design, we’ve asked cognitive engineer Jennifer Englert to talk about a simple, but often-forgotten road to innovation insight: Getting inspiration from your users.

In our first post in this series, we talked about ethnography, and how it helps you understand the broad context in which people live, work, communicate, interact, and use stuff. These findings are hugely valuable, but they don’t necessarily inspire new product ideas – such as sliced bread, or the Post-it note. That’s why, if you’re systematic about it, you need to feed your ethnographic insights into the ideation phase. This is where multidisciplinary teams use information from ethnography, and other user experience methods, to come up with actionable ideas, identify user needs, and find opportunities for improvement.

business objectives and usefulness
Successful new products come from the intersection of business objectives and usefulness.

Finding the innovation sweet spot

Let’s face it: The ultimate proof point for innovation is user adoption. Pure novelty without usefulness is a gimmick – or too far ahead of its time.

That’s true for any type of new thing – whether you improve an existing product, or come up with a new one from scratch. And in a business context, where innovation needs a return on investment, it means you need to align two core objectives. (See diagram above).

Here’s an example:

A Xerox team was working on Digital Alternatives, a new product for its managed print services (MPS) offering. We did a research project for them to find out what companies could do to reduce their print volumes. So we went into offices to study people’s behaviors and workflows. We wanted to understand why people still print so much, and what would prompt them to go digital.Xerox Digital Alternatives Tool

The research found multiple reasons why people still print instead of using the digital tools that are now available. For example, some people printed large documents to read, annotate, and easily carry with them. They also printed documents like PowerPoint slides to share with colleagues in collaborative working sessions, where they could sketch or make notes on the paper copies.

We brought our insights from the field back to the business team and held a series of brainstorming sessions. In these, we found four main tasks that people needed to be able to do with the product in order to help them move from paper to digital:

  • Read documents.
  • Annotate them.
  • Share them with colleagues.
  • Save and archive them.

The result: The concept for the new product the team had been developing became much sharper. The main features of the product now supported several key functions of paper — without the paper. The features also provided the pathway for knowledge workers to move from paper to digital workflows.

Beyond observation: How to enlist your users

Bringing fieldwork insights back to the business can get you far, but blending these insights with user experience research can get you even further.

Some of our best insights have occurred when we made our users part of the ideation and design process. It’s called co-design — or participatory design. These techniques use visual and creative methods to uncover the things that really matter to the people who will use your products. There are a number of different components to these approaches:

Influence Diagram
A participant is making an influence diagram – a great source of insight into his perspective of his health ecosystem.

Start with a reflection phase

 It’s important to provide users with opportunities to become more aware of their daily tasks, needs and habits. That may sound easy, but it’s actually quite hard to describe the things you do every day. Diaries and tracking apps can help users be mindful about the daily tasks and activities that researchers want to learn about. For example: “What and when did you print last week?”  This phase also gets your users talking about the things that matter in their situation.

Here’s an example: One research project looked at healthcare with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the patients’ perspective in the payer-provider-patient system. So we asked patients to think about the factors that influence their health. We gave them paper circles of different sizes and colors to label, and create their own maps of how they see their health ecosystem.

Creating empathy

Visuals such as these are really useful in our work. We ask users to create all sorts of things: influence diagrams, collages, storyboards. We have even asked users to make cardboard prototypes of products.

Medication List
One patient’s handwritten medication list.

The idea behind these exercises isn’t for us to use the visuals as actual design ideas, but to give the participants tools to help them reflect on their situation and explain their perspective in their own words. Asking them to explain why they’ve chosen to represent the situation in the way they did is a hugely useful way to kick-start a conversation.

In our healthcare study, these explanations gave us a deeper understanding of how participants felt about their lives, their medical conditions, and the care they were receiving. These insights helped us identify user needs, and create empathy within the business groups.

In this study, we became aware of how much patients with multiple conditions were struggling to manage their medication. Many were using handwritten lists, spreadsheets and journals to keep track of what medicine they needed to take, and where and when to order it from. We brought these, and other, fieldwork findings back to the business teams, and used them to inspire new product features and concepts. For example, we discussed how the findings might inform the design of things like medication trackers, decision support tools, and caregiver support resources.

Xerox researchers create the future today. Learn more about innovation at Xerox.

These are just a few examples of ideas that come straight from working at the intersection of user needs and product development. It’s a fascinating dynamic: We’re the voice of the user to the business, and we bring value to the business by helping them focus their thinking (and avoid costly errors) in the early development stages. That’s a hugely privileged position to be in.


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