Back in December, I asked a question on the design@sun blog, and then posted a summary of the responses. In that summary, I said that I'd write a presentation with more details, which I did. In February, I presented the detailed findings as a "half-baked" talk to SunLabs East. At the end of the talk, an intern or a new employee (someone young, who I didn't recognize) asked me this question: "How can user research help you to innovate, rather than just make incremental improvements?"
I was taken aback. ... What a great question. Nicole jumped in and gave a really good answer about how user research allows us to get at the root problems that the users are trying to solve, and that we're not asking them to tell us what's wrong with the software, per se, but figuring out their goals and how to better meet them. Of course! Why didn't I say that?
But there was a bigger question, which is why I'm pretty sure that I didn't come back with the answer that Nicole did immediately ... and that bigger question is, "When faced with challenges, how do we leap-frog over just solving the symptoms of a problem and do something really innovative? something fundamentally different?"
I have an answer to that question, but before I tell you what it is, I have to put in a plug for the very-much undervalued "incremental improvement". If we continually made incremental improvements to the user's experience, we'd be far better off than we are now. Quite often, the designer says something like, "This [site | application | device | experience] needs a complete re-design", at which point engineering management rolls its eyes at what they think a complete re-design is going to cost. As a result, nothing gets done, and the user experience stays just as bad as it is. So, for goodness sake, make the incremental improvements! They are cheap, fast, and will have an immediate benefit for your users. Now, back to the question at hand...
There are probably a million answers to this question (how to innovate), but I have one, and here it is. Imagine what the solution would look like, behave like, or provide, if there were no constraints. If money were no object. If you had an unlimited engineering team to develop it. If the existing standards that everyone used were thrown out. If you were in charge ... then what would the answer be?
It's only by putting myself in that frame of mind that I have been able to truly innovate. To have a problem and then imagine the ideal solution, without boundaries placed upon it. Believe me, the boundaries will come. There will be functional requirements and business requirements, and of course, user requirements. ... but before then, dream big. Live outside the box. Read Plato's Republic. Think differently.
To borrow a line from Steve Jobs, "innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat."