Needability Trumps Usability in Product Innovation

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Ford Model TWhat is innovation? It is the moment when all recorded observations, published results, conference presentations, random thoughts, ideas, previous patents and prototypes, and previous products come together into an innovative “new” product. As we look at the history of modern products and product innovation, we realize that R&D and product development teams do not always ask what people want, but jump ahead to bring them something they didn’t even know they needed.

Henry Ford said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Let’s go back to 1908. There were many designs and production models for “horseless carriages” before the Model T by Ford. They ran on everything from steam to whale oil. Each part of each car was made by hand, produced in slow motion compared to today’s manufacturing standards. Since there was no great demand there was no real pressure to supply.

Henry Ford saw a world of “automobiles” replacing the horse and buggy and was determined to make it happen. He believed that if you made enough and sold it at the right price, the world he saw would be realized. His innovative product was the 20th-century assembly line that mass-produced a low-cost automobile. It was a product that was adopted all over the world to produce many different products, and it started the modern mass consumer culture.

The assembly line concept began with the 1776 publication of Adam Smith’s aptly-titled book, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in which he examined the manufacture of pins and the division of labor. From there, we had 100 years’ worth of innovations developing interchangeable parts, studying workflow, and creating the science of management of labor. Ford was the first person to put it all together (the “innovator”).

From Model T to Apple

Steve Jobs was quoted in 1998 in BusinessWeek as saying:

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

That was before the iconic “i” was born. Yet looking at all the products that poured out of Apple in a remarkably short time span, they too all had roads leading to previous innovative products. From the cellphone to the Walkman, and all the points before that led to those products, there were innovations stacked on innovations.

This takes nothing away from the amazing products Apple has made (and, full disclosure, I use all the time). It’s an observation on product innovation. The lesson is that many products do not result from groupthink with customers.

I need to explain what may seem to some a contradiction on my previous posts. I believe that the voice of the customer is critical to product innovation after there is a product to use. The smartphones of the world have dramatically improved since the debut of the first smartphone. The horseless carriage became the automobile — and changed exponentially — after people started honking their way around places in their Fords.

So the equation is: Innovate a product you think people need even if they have not voiced that need. Then, if you’re right about the “needability,” you can listen to what customers have to say about the product’s “usability.”

The “Eureka!” Moment

The “Eureka!” moment, supposedly experienced by the 3rd-century B.C. Greek scholar Archimedes, who is generally considered to be the one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, after he stepped in a bathtub and realized the water level rose as he put more of his body in the water. He had been looking for a way to measure the volume of an object and — “Eureka!” — realized that the volume of water displaced equals the volume of the part of his body he had submerged.

I imagine that the sunken tub was filled to overflowing and as he stepped in, and some of the water sloshed over the side. As he entered the tub more fully, more water overflowed the top. Suddenly the action and reaction turned into a seminal scientific idea about how to measure the volume of an object. It was preceded by hundreds of attempts to solve a problem posed by Hiero II of Syracuse, who was attempting to discover the difference in volume between pure gold and silver. The point is that there were lots of seemingly dead ends that were in fact the roads leading to the Archimedes moment.

Source: “The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983-2009,” Webdesigner Depot, 05/22/09
Source: “The History of the Sony Walkman,”
Image from Sheila in Moonducks.