Innovating Meaning

Often when we someone asks us to describe a product or a service, we tell them about features. What does it do? How does it do it?

This is a mistake. Products and services are not about features – they are about meaning, and they are about getting jobs done.

Here’s an example – listen to Dan Ariely talk about the Toyota Prius:

Ariely is not describing the Prius as a set of features – he is describing what it means to drive a Prius. The features may influence this meaning, but the innovation in the Prius is not really in what it does – the innovation is in what it means to people.

Clay Shirky has another example in his new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age:

When McDonald’s wanted to improve sales of its milkshakes, it hired researchers to figure out what characteristics its customers cared about. Should the shakes be thicker? Sweeter? Colder? Almost all of the researchers focused on the product. But one of them, Gerald Berstell, chose to ignore the shakes themselves and study the customers instead. He sat in a McDonald’s for eighteen hours one day, observing who bought milkshakes and at what time. One surprising discovery was that many milkshakes were purchased early in the day – odd, as consuming a shake at eight A.M. plainly doesn’t fit the bacon-and-eggs model of breakfast. Berstall also garnered three other behavioral clues from the morning milkshake crowd: the buyers were always alone, they rarely bought anything besides a shake, and the never consumed the shakes in the store.

The key to understanding what was going was to stop viewing the product in isolation and to give up traditional notions of the morning meal. Berstell instead focused on a single, simple question: “What job is a customer hiring that milkshake to do at eight A.M.?”

If you want to eat while driving, you need something you can eat with one hand. It shouldn’t be too hot, too messy, or too greasy. It should also be moderately tasty, and take a while to finish. Not one conventional breakfast item fits that bill, and so without regard for the sacred traditions of the morning meal, those customers were hiring the milkshake to do the job they needed done.

All the researchers except Berstell missed this fact, because they made two kinds of mistakes… The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customers wanted it to play – the job they were hiring the milkshake for.

The second mistake was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents.

The innovation in both cases is in what the product means. None of the features of the milkshake changed to turn it into a breakfast meal – the innovation was driven by customers, who invented a new use (and a new meaning) for milkshakes. The change that Ariely talks about with the Prius is not feature-driven either – he is arguing that the Prius has been successful because it means something different.

This is exactly what Roberto Verganti is talking about in Design-Driven Innovation – the role of design in innovation is to create new meanings for things. This is a huge innovation opportunity.

The lesson here is this: don’t get hung up on features, or on what things do. Instead, think about what they mean. One good way to approach innovation in meaning is to focus on the job to be done. If you can innovate meaning you have a chance to create a significant competitive advantage.

(you can see the academic article from Berstell and colleagues discussing jobs to be done here – via Graham Hill).

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “Innovating Meaning

  1. Tim,

    For me it is a matter of degree – I think that meaning has always been a factor but in the “information age” it is becoming a bigger factor.

    If the world shifts from a concrete/industrial age to a soft/information age then meaning plays a bigger part.

    I am thinking of this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy – we can only worry about meaning when our other more basic needs or met – or do we worry about meaning even in a struggle for survival.

  2. If you believe Viktor Frankl, we’re always primarily concerned with meaning, even when survival is threatened. However, talking about meaning in terms of innovation is fairly trivial compared to Frankl’s concerns, so that’s maybe not the best comparison.

    My initial reaction to your idea about the shift in the importance in meaning is that I agree, but it’s something I’d like to give some more serious thought to…

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