Do things always get better as they evolve? I touched on this idea recently, and I think the answer is definitely ‘No’. Now Wired has made the point for me again with an interesting article on innovations that are not big jumps forward technologically, but rather simply good enough. The idea is that some products work if they are cheap, flexible and easy to use. The examples they discuss include the flip video camera, mp3s, skype and the predator military plane. Here’s the description of the Flip:
No one understands this better than the folks at Pure Digital Technologies. Two years ago, the Flip Ultra nailed all three of those accessibility traits: It was significantly less expensive than other digital video cameras—so much so, it almost seemed an impulse buy in comparison. It was much easier to use, not only for shooting video but also for uploading clips to the Internet. And its pocketable size and Web-sharing abilities made video available anytime, anywhere. The Flip hit the Good Enough trifecta.
There are a couple of important lessons here for people trying to innovate. One is that we often think that our new ideas have to be perfect. Obviously, in some cases they don’t. Skype is a great example here – when it first started the sound quality was awful. But it was incredibly convenient, and very cheap, and that allowed it to grow. And now a few years later the sound quality has improved all the way up to mostly adequate. And they offer mostly adequate video too!
This leads to the second point – evolution is not a progression up a ladder. It is an exploration of design space looking for things that work. We often forget that – which means that we leave important sections of the design space unexplored, like that of cheap, easy to use video cameras on to which Flip eventually stumbled. Innovations that make existing things work better are important – just look at Toyota. But innovations that jump into a completely new area are the ones that transform industries. And usually, these innovations aren’t perfect right from the word go. Usually, they’re just good enough.