Innovate What You Know? part 2

Here’s an actual conversation I had a few years ago with a programmer for whom I was doing some work:

Tim: I did some usability testing on your website.

Tim’s Friend: Great!

Tim: There are some problems though – it renders poorly on Netscape and looks like garbage on a Mac.

Tim’s Friend: I don’t care – anyone that isn’t using Internet Explorer on a PC isn’t serious, so we don’t need to worry about them.

This is the flip side of my last post talking about innovating by solving your own problems – sometimes, your own problems are fairly unique.

The situation back then was that my friend was a brilliant programmer. He had written a nice piece of database software taht was meant to manage inventory for his company. Once it was done, he and the owner of the firm decided that it would be a good program to sell to web developers that needed to integrate websites with databases. In particular, it seemed like it had potential for people making e-commerce sites.

The problem was that the software was very good at solving their initial problem, but it was no good for solving any other peoples’ problems. The issue with cross-platform compatibility was just the tip of the iceberg. After that conversation, I didn’t even dare mention linux, and one of the problems with the software was that while it did a few extra things, it was essentially the same as php. But they wanted to charge over $10,000 for it.

There were other problems too. It didn’t really have a user interface at all – the presumption again was that only programmers would be using it, and they’ll know what they’re doing, so why waste time on usability?

Also, the program required its own server, so if you were using it to build sites, they had to be installed on machines with the server installed. Again, not user friendly.

To recap: my friend had built a really nice program with very poor usability that only worked on one platform, and wanted to sell it for $10k more than the really nice free program that did basically the same job, while working on multiple platforms with a pretty nice user interface.

This venture was unsuccessful.

It’s pretty easy to say in hindsight that my friend should have been more aware of what was out there. But this is one of the difficulties with solving your own problem when you innovate – it’s often very hard to keep track of these things.

This is why I am cautious about the “scratch your own itch” approach to innovation. Solving your problems has many advantages, but I think that this approach must be combined with a reasonably good knowledge of what others might need themselves.

The best approach is to use empathy to drive innovation in solving a problem that you care about as well. The focus you get from solving your own problem is important, but so the ideas you generate through having empathy with the needs of others is just as critical.

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

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