EP 007 - The Design Innovation Fallacy

We've all heard it before: "We need to innovate."

But what does that actually mean? Top-down commands for innovation, disruption, or differentiation don't really mean anything without using consumer needs as a backbone.

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Howdy friends and welcome to the XD Podcast - as usual I’m your host, Tony Daussat.

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Now then, let’s chat...

Have you ever heard your boss, CEO, or manager say...

We need to innovate.

We need to differentiate.

We need to think of a disruptive idea.

or, my favorite combination of all three:

We need to differentiate with disruptive innovation.

If you answered yes to any of these...you aren’t alone. You’ve been caught in the crosshairs of what I call: The Design Innovation Fallacy.

Too many organizations believe that innovation can somehow be born from a top down demand, or declaration. And more often than not, people believe that in order to be innovative or disruptive, you have to be the first to market, or invent something new from a blank canvas--and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

First does not equal innovation.

Take Apple’s iPod as an example. In 2001, Steve Jobs stood on the stage in Cupertino California and announced an incredible device that allowed you to carry 1,000 songs in your pocket. Immediately, the iPod changed the way people consumed music and revolutionized the perception of a once computer-only company. And yet…they weren’t the first company to make an mp3 player. In fact, they weren’t even the 10th.

So, why was this considered innovative? Because innovation isn’t about being first--it’s about being better. They took an existing product, poked holes in it, found the flaws, examined the shortcomings… and improved upon it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you dig deeper, you can see how this efficient approach to innovation created the container for eventual disruption. You see, with each subsequent iteration, Apple would be able to measure the product’s evolution against a baseline of innovation they’d created--opening the door for actual disruption, because their baseline was already miles ahead of the competition. By coming to market with an improved idea, instead of one that was innovative for innovation’s sake, they were able to create a solid foundation for an idea that would eventually revolutionize their company, brand, and--let’s face it--the world.

Unfortunately, this is the exception instead of the rule. As designers, we’re too often handed a solution in search of a problem--instead of identifying problems in need of meaningful solutions. In order to find the true problems, ones that can eventually open doors for innovation- we must ask “Why” over and over and over again. Like a three year old.

For example, a client says, “we need an app.”


“Because our competitors have an app.”

Why do they have an app?

“So that their customers can use it.”

Why would they use the app?

“For buying things.”

Why do they need the app to buy things?

You can see where I’m going here. The solution was the first thing presented: “We need an app.” But an app isn’t solving a problem. It’s a solution in search of a problem. And there’s nothing innovative about that approach.

I promise you, if you were to walk into the offices of AirBnb, Netflix, YouTube, Uber, Tesla, Apple, Facebook or Google, you wouldn’t find an innovation suggestion box right outside the CEO’s office with scraps of brilliant ideas pouring out of it. What you would find, is a culture of curiosity--an overwhelming number of people questioning everything. Challenging everything. Never settling for any one answer, because behind each answer are a thousand other answers to a thousand additional questions. They examine the status quo, poke holes, identify the problems, and continue to solve for them. And even still, there is restlessness with each solution--because each solve can always be better, and more thoughtful, and more meaningful than the one before it. They don’t try to innovate just for innovation’s sake. They know that dreaming up new ideas is a fool’s errand unless it’s grounded in solving a need.

The more I think about it, the more I think innovation--a word tied too closely to this concept of ‘new ideas’--is a buzzword that needs to go away. The word to take its place is: iteration. Meaning, trying things based on research and consumer needs. Now, some of that research might lead you to ideas that are outside of the box--iteration is a learning cycle--You learn very little from someone telling you to make something “cool” or “outside of the box.” You learn from listening and watching your customers. That, to me, is what companies and designers should be focused on. Providing real value to customers and their needs--always learning how those needs evolve day in and day out. Small improvements can result in giant leaps forward, but if you can’t tie the small steps to real consumer pain points, that means you’re walking in the wrong direction, and probably following road-signs that read “innovation.”

In the end, innovation isn’t about a CEO standing on a stage proselytizing disruption, or a team locking themselves in an office for a week thinking up brilliant ideas. It doesn’t happen that way. Innovation, disruption, differentiation…they’re all byproducts of elegant human-centered design and problem solving.

So, next time you’re faced with the task of ‘innovating’...ask why. Get to the root of the problem you’re trying to solve, not the solution you’re trying to build. And as you keep digging, listen to consumers and iterate.

Your first idea probably isn’t your best one--if nothing else, it isn’t the only one. This shift in thinking may be disruptive in and of itself, but this is the only way to build the foundation for true innovation.

You’ve got this. Go forth and iterate.

So - with that, I think we’ll call it for the week.

Now I know this topic is probably a little polarizing and definitely leaves room for debate, so I’d love to actually hear what you have to say. You can find the XD Podcast on Instagram or Facebook. I always respond to comments and DMs. I won’t leave you hangin.

Thank you again for listening, and be sure to leave a review and subscribe. It’s always greatly appreciated.

And until next week friends, stay curious


This week’s episode was produced and mixed by, me Tony Daussat

Written and edited in partnership with the Continuo Group.

Hosting and publication for the XD Podcast is on Buzzsprout.