Innovation Starts With “Blank”

August 16th, 2009

Thoughts on Innovation

I guess the best place to start you is where I started myself. I believe that true innovation is about making it easier to do more with less.

These words have been ringing in my ears since early spring 2006. I had just returned from a 6-month stay in Japan and was getting back to my routine as the Application Coordinator in the Office of Mediated Education at Kansas State University. To be honest, I came by these words by complete accident; it was a genuine “Ah-ha” moment.

On a cold February Saturday, I was walking towards my favorite coffee shop. I wasn’t looking for inspiration that would change my thought process forever; I was just looking for a nice cup of coffee to get me through the mountain of emails that I was sure had piled up the night before. As I walked, I reached into my pocket and turned on my iPod. The music blared in my ears and I instinctively turned it down with a quick circular motion of my thumb–my hand never left my pocket. It only took a few seconds before I realized I didn’t want to listen to current song. Again, I reached my hand into my pocket and advanced the playlist. Unfortunately, the second song also failed to capture my immediate interest. I pulled my iPod out of my pocket and with a few clicks I changed my smart playlist from “Acoustic” to “Alternative”; the sounds of U2, Coldplay, and Radiohead were the perfect backdrop to a cold morning.

As I was listening to U2, I stopped dead in my tracks and literally stared at my iPod. I’m not sure what people passing by thought, but I as I stared I realized I had just accomplished something remarkable. In less than 15 seconds I navigated my entire music library, more than 3,000 songs, and found the perfect soundtrack for my short walk to the coffee shop. I marveled not only at the task, but also at how complacent I had become to its significance. Not only was the process remarkably simple, it was entirely expected. Anything short of remarkable at that point would have been out of the question. I expected such a grand task to be easy, and it was. As I looked around, I counted four other people with the signature white headphones (though I admit I was the only one staring at my iPod in awe). I started to count the number of steps it took me to filter those 3,000+ songs; I was amazed to find it was only four clicks.

I asked myself the question, “How can the iPod be so simple, and still accomplish everything I need?” This device, the iPod, was and still remains a truly innovative product. But why? How can something so simple have such a profound effect on society? As I asked myself these questions, I realized that I was answering them. The iPod possessed the perfect combination of simplicity and power. No unneeded bells or whistles, no superfluous feature that 5% of a random user group “had to have”. It was designed to do one thing, give me access to my media in the most efficient way possible; and it did that one thing incredibly well.

Dr. John Maeda in The Laws of Simplicity says:

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

The iPod epitomized that concept. Everything I needed was at my fingertips. Everything I didn’t need was hidden or simply not present. More importantly however, the iPod was intuitive. I was able to operate it instinctively when it was too loud and by touch when I wanted to change songs; every button had a function, nothing was wasted.

I expanded my understanding of Maeda’s statement when I realized that it was easy to design a product with minimal controls but extremely difficult to design a product with minimal controls that makes the user feel uninhibited. The iPod removed the obvious and added the meaningful without being complicated. The iPod was innovative.

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