A Multidirectional Swirl of Innovation
The ‘good old days’ are often couched within hyperbolic context, good or bad, but to be certain, the past is filled with lessons that shouldn’t be forgotten. When it comes to innovation and the internet, there’s plenty to reflect upon.
In the early days of the web—after the furious rounds of initial R&D within academia and government —the evolution towards a commercial medium in the mid-to-late 90’s was fueled by Fortune 500 brands outsourcing work to agencies (an approach that has undoubtedly changed since). Out of necessity, this collection of early adopters made development decisions around architecture, code, user interface, and the resulting experience as if each production were an individual snowflake with unique DNA.
Individual clients didn’t co-op to make a collective, nor conscious decision to fund the evolution of the entire web by paying outside the margins for web sites, yet known to all involved was that early adoption of new technology came at a premium cost; prices that would fund deeper exploration, broader advancements, and eventual best practices leading to cost stabilization.
This is how ‘the early days’ of any industry (or technology) works; the web was no different.
With a market ripe for the infusion of information sites, retrieval services, web applications, etc. across a wide array of industries, the vast majority of businesses had little option but to strategically position themselves in this new-fangled online space with innovation as a point of differentiation.
That’s not to say that businesses weren’t doing their best to streamline processes to reach this much smaller, unknown market of potential users sooner, but without the modern day checks and balances of industry patterns and data-driven analytics—hell, without a wheel to point to in a ‘don’t reinvent the wheel’ conversation that we now take for granted—operational efficiencies couldn’t be prioritized.
Innovation was considered a business line item, and over time and across a myriad of funded projects, it proved to be a solid investment for all involved— in particular for the medium itself.
The web rapidly evolved from an academic tool with a high barrier to entry to supporting a wealth of business and interaction models ranging from entertainment to e-commerce to personal publishing, all by the turn of the century, quickly making the web accessible to people with a wide-range of tech savviness.
Fast following the first wave of commercial investment online, retail, productivity, social, and narrative interaction models advanced with the advent of Flash, Ajax, and compression algorithms—to name a few—leading to novel business models centered around embedded video and audio, and input/output models rendered through asynchronous displays.
Snowflakes evolved into snowstorms.
The Patterns & Innovation Paradox
Fast-forward to 2016, well beyond the personal trends of online transparency and branding that delivered billions of consumers to the walled gardens of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and similar social media, and disruption has continued.
Business products have shifted from singular software expressions into platform independent, collaborative, decentralized, cloud-based productivity suites. Age-old business models, such as the newspaper and media industry, have been completely democratized into weaker profit models of themselves, with the trade-off for just the potential of exponentially greater reach and reward. Hotels are now run by home-owners; personal taxi services based on location convergence is now a reality.
Environmental objects — from wearables to appliances to vehicles — have been added to the fray when innovating how we intelligently sell, make, control, deliver, and express stuff through cloud computing and user interactions. The very notion of the web has broadened and deepened to feed experiences far beyond the browser into the contextual nature of smartphones that strive to understand what we deem to be important, the nature of our physical surroundings, and how to iteratively present actionable interactions of commerce, productivity, entertainment, and more.
You know all this; you’ve experienced it firsthand as either a user, a creator, or both. I only present this historical reflection to contextualize the very notion of innovation, which until recently was considered a rather simplistic construct within the walls of business:
The classic definition on disruptive innovation has two main parts. One is the existence of organisations that have the power and resources to scale a new but untested technology; the second is that incumbent organisations focus on the current and near term needs of their existing clients. That means they spend their resources on responding to these with incremental or sustaining innovations rather than being radical.
Such an explicit definition of how innovation is pursued within industry fits modern tech. Ridiculously funded organizations, such as a Google, can venture forth through R&D into the realm of the unknown to innovate (e.g. autonomous vehicles), whereas lesser funded tech companies (including a Google) incrementally iterate to increase value for their existing customers.
But the difference with the internet (of things or not) and traditional, non-tech companies, is something similar to Moore’s Law—as we move forward, designing, building and deploying connected systems, the ability to rapidly innovate and disrupt increases as the foundational elements of these systems evolve, broaden, and deepen.
Consider that aside from a handful of visionary souls, no one in1995 could have predicted the sheer number or nature of established patterns that are available today to build upon with nominal investment.
From the macro of successful business and interaction models across a wide array of industries to the micro of architectural, development, and design patterns—all commoditized in different flavors as services; from open source to cloud solutions; from Google Material Design to Wordpress Themes—the barrier to entry for a competitive product is no longer beholden to the innovation investment that it once had previously.
Copying and pasting might seem dishonest—a circumvention of craft or thought—but that’s exactly what Google did to match Yahoo!’s product footprint in the early 2000s. Competitive analysis found gaps in offerings and then Google minimized their investment and maximized their return by adding the known missing features of the more popular service. From Gmail to Maps and a host of other features, Google invested with either just enough differentiation to sway market share or copied 1:1 what their competition had defined in market in order to create parity for future innovative iterations.
This example of a ‘short-cut’ may sound like a non-challenging position to find oneself in if one has expectations greater than simply getting paid for services rendered. I get it, mission matters and the ends don’t always justify the means, especially when it comes to craft for engineers and designers alike. Personally speaking, I’d argue that would be a shortsighted perspective to take. Consider the second part of Shaughnessy’s definition: the need for big bang innovation itself isn’t ubiquitous because not all companies have the resources to do so, but I’ll add that more importantly, the need isn’t present.
Executives understand that by initially addressing problem spaces and closing market gaps with minimal investment opens the opportunity to further innovate down the line in a more targeted manner to solve human needs while being much more cost efficient.
Speaking to design in particular, solving problems by not reinventing the proverbial wheel isn’t the mark of a conservative product design team. As a matter of fact, wheels shouldn’t be replaced in a move to transcend without deep examination, as wheels achieve wheel status due to their foundational DNA.
The deeper we move beyond the age of the internet and further disruption, the greater number of foundational wheels will be present for realigning and repurposing within different context to solve different problems.
When one realizes that the best approach to create a snowflake is by leveraging the tools and ingredients that are readily understood, reliable and available—cold water, a power washer, and < 0°C —the ability to solve more pressing needs, such as shelter via an igloo, will manifest.