A Little Ditty about “Innovation”

November 19, 2008 in Notes from the Field
David Bishop
Lead Designer & Researcher

I went to The Technology Collaborative’s annual meeting last night where, amidst random hors d’oeuvres and other presentations, I heard Rob Daley from Thorley Industries speak. Now, Thorley’s a Pittsburgh company that’s developing new products for established industries; they’ve done a lot with only a little funding. Daley talked about “following the rules” as their formula for success, but what he really meant was “understand the invariants in your market” and “make sure your product satisfies it’s main function absolutely before you add any more features or include technology for technology’s sake.” (Example: Toothpastes must prevent cavities. End of story. Then you can compete on whitening, breath freshening, taste, the color of the packaging, etc., etc.) So, Thorley is a holding company that includes the 4moms brand and they have 4 products they’ve developed. I may be buying into some of the hype, but they’ve done an impressive job of starting with nothing and getting market share even in crowded/saturated markets. I think their tub is the top-seller at Target, and 4moms didn’t exist 2 years ago.

Innovation?

But what caught my attention was that Daley talked about “innovation” as the key to their product designs. For example, their tub has a unique (would you say innovative?) feature that keeps the water circulating as you wash your baby. Everyone else’s is basically a baby-shaped bucket that keeps all the dirty, soapy, poo-infested water in with your kid unless you determine how to throw the bathwater out without the baby.

It’s (just) research and iterative design, not magic

Turns out, once I talked to Rob about his definition of innovation, that they don’t have some special brainstorming technique, or some savant that comes up with “game-changers” in the shower.

What do they have?

  • A penchant for research (imagine that!) into potential users and how they might use products
  • A willingness to change the product if the research points them in a particular direction (imagine that! requirements emerge)

Examples

  1. The baby tub started out as a color-coded thermometer thing for adults that would help you set your shower temperature. But when they talked to people and researched the idea, people cared much more about the bath temperature for infants than their own shower water. Then when they started talking to people about an infant tub with a built-in thermometer, they observed that moms would go through all sorts of gyrations to get clean bathwater partway through the bath while struggling not to dump their baby out. And they iterated the product to include a small drain on the side to let the dirty water flow out.
  2. They noticed that there are swings and there are springy seats for infants, and they swing and spring. But if a parent is trying to soothe their infant (direct observation again), they don’t swing and they don’t spring. They hold their child on their shoulder and rock back and forth while bouncing gently up and down. Thorley observed this directly, and made their Maramoo seat so it mimics this motion. In fact, they went to people’s homes and velcroed a little accelerometer to moms’ and dads’ backs while they rocked their kids, then made their seat so it has the same motion. So there’s no secret to “innovation.” There may not even be such a thing. There’s just talking to your users and iterating your designs.
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