Ensuring Innovation with User Experience Design

Kevin Richardson, Ph.D. / Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Innovation Problem

Business tends to believe that innovation means “one big idea”. It also tends to believe that innovation erupts from the minds of a chosen few “creative” individuals. And finally, sadly, business believes that innovation results from the tireless work of marketing teams. We should not be OK with this.

Over and above the obvious problems associated with the costs of slow and steady progress is the fact that innovation occurs unreliably and infrequently using these models. Don’t believe me? Make a list of all the truly innovative products, services, processes and software you can think of. It’s a pretty small list. Most creations are derivative works that attempt to eke out small improvements on existing designs. Now take a look at how often these innovations occur. They are few and far between.

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Is this just the way it is? What if there was a way to ensure innovation on every project timeline? A process that, if followed, would inevitably lead to the creation of artifacts that improved people’s lives in ways in which they couldn’t have requested? What if we could have consistent, repeatable innovation?

We can and design holds the key.

Design Process

Design is a research-based, highly iterative process with a focus on exploring different models of the user-system interaction. It is not sitting around until a good idea strikes you or comes to you in a dream. It consists of gathering requirements from end users as well as business and technology stakeholders coupled with the rapid creation of exploratory models of how the user and system can interact. It includes fast, early and iterative testing to determine the ultimate form of the design to ensure that the artifact (product, service, process or software) is shaped not only by the opinions of design professionals, but also by the needs, expectations and desires of users. With the end user as a participant in the design effort, stakeholders are assured that the final system design will be accurate, lasting and, most important, innovative.

Ensuring Innovation

How does this process translate into innovation? By employing a team of individuals (researchers and designers) trained to elicit user requirements based on what users need to accomplish as a result of their interaction with a particular artifact (physical product, software application or process) as opposed to simply asking what they want, design is able to determine user needs even when users cannot express them (“latent” user requirements). This is the core of innovation. Armed with these “constraints”, the team is able to focus on creating solutions (in the form of design artifacts) that support users in ways they could neither have articulated nor imagined. Data can be explicitly translated into information and presented to users in ways that support their decisions and actions while freeing resources (attentional and financial) to be spent on problems previously hidden or untouched. Disparate systems can be coordinated and aligned. Processes and even entire businesses can be reformulated to serve user “needs” as well as user “wants”.

Design, therefore, does not lead to mere incremental improvement or increased complexity. It leads, inevitably, to innovation. It can be applied with equal success to the design of software, cars, houses and government programs and incorporated successfully into every project and timeline. That’s right. Requirements-based design leads to innovation.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Traditionally a very government-centric organization, FEMA has, in recent years, decided to refocus their policies and procedures by taking a “survivor-centric mindset”. On the surface, this sounds like an excellent way to improve how it responds in the aftermath of an emergency. But let’s look at the details.

Survivor-Centric Requirements Gathering

Key to becoming “survivor-centric” is the collection of new sets of requirements. Key to innovation is the process that determines how such requirements are collected. From the FEMA website: fema

“FEMA recognizes that the best solutions to the challenges we face are generated by the people and the communities who are closest to these challenges. It is essential that these partners are invited to the table to actively participate in thought-provoking discussions.

That is why we are reaching out to state, local, and tribal governments, and to all members of the public, including the private sector, the disability community, and volunteer community, to seek their input on how to improve the emergency management system. FEMA wants to hear your ideas and suggestions, to both explore best practices and generate new ideas.”

Based on what’s needed to ensure consistent, reliable innovation, it is obvious that FEMA’s approach to requirements gathering is nothing more than order taking on a grand scale. Innovation is almost certain not to be generated by the people and communities who are closest to the challenges. Personally, I don’t want my national disaster relief plans crowd-sourced. While FEMA deserves praise for recognizing the need to become more innovative in the ways they provide relief to disaster victims, the path they are following will not succeed. Asking people what they want will only give you what they know. Asking the entire country what they want will produce so much noise that discerning any meaningful patterns will be all but impossible.

Designing for Innovation

An innovative system is the result of a well-defined design process. That process includes the expertise of an interdisciplinary team that has the training and experience to bridge the gap between business, technology and human requirements. They practice a design process that is mindful of the features, functions and legacy systems that must be somehow united, implemented and maintained. They are equally mindful, though, of who will be using these systems (doctors, emergency response professionals, the general public), where they will be using them (an emergency room, a field command center, a neighborhood school), and what they need from technology to improve rather than impede outcomes. This process of eliciting requirements coupled with fast, iterative design exploration allows the creation of artifacts that go beyond matching features to a checklist. It provides a pathway to innovation.


Kevin Richardson has been working in the area of user experience for almost 25 years. With an advanced degree in Cognitive Psychology, he has experience across business verticals in the fields of research, evaluation, design and management of innovative, user-centered solutions.

Kevin’s experience includes web sites, portals and dashboards, enterprise software and custom business applications for medical, pharmaceutical, communications, entertainment, energy, transportation and government users.

On the weekends, you can find Kevin on his motorcycle, riding for Infragistics Racing at a number of different racetracks on the East coast.

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