Nest, Dyson and innovating the mundane

I have started to become fascinated with the wave of innovation around everyday items. Two particularly recent favourites are the corrugated paper bike helmet, and the thermostats and smoke alarms from the ex-Apple designers at Nest Labs. What is fascinating is the way in which innovating around little things on highly functional products can drastically change them. For the helmet, using a different material means absorbing three times more shock; for the smoke alarm cutting out the annoyances of constantly flashing lights, chirping low battery noises and annoyingly frequent false alarms vastly improves the user experience.

Innovation around the seemingly mundane isn’t particularly new. Dyson not so long ago made a step change in the design of the vacuum cleaner by removing the bag, and then set about hand dryers (amongst other things); not to mention my possibly all-time favourite, wheels on a suitcase. What astounds me most about these steps forward, in particular the suitcase wheels, is the fact that they seem so obvious that you are left wondering why nobody thought of them sooner? And, even better, that they then command a premium: Dyson vacuum cleaners became a status symbol and Nest Labs has today been acquired by Google for $3.2bn. Whilst these changes appear simple, they wouldn’t have happened without the freedom to forget what the old product was like or the bravery to do something different.

We didn’t have the luxury of wheeled suitcases until the early 1970s, but we had known about the wheel for thousands of years and we have probably been lugging our personal stuff around from place to place in something resembling a case for a long, long time. How can it be that these two inventions did not come together sooner? Changes in travel behaviour, in particular flying, obviously created a greater need for suitcases to be more mobile, but the underlying need to move a large amount of stuff around more easily will always have existed, yet the non-wheeled suitcase was the status quo. In this case (excuse the pun) genuine needs were overlooked through a focus on ‘good enough’ products, and a failure to prioritise innovation. What sets Dyson and Nest apart is that they go out of their way to innovate around the everyday and to bring specific skillsets to enable them to look at innovation first, not product first.

As humans, we come to accept the way things are from birth: they work and we don’t question it. To take one example: flush toilets became common in the late 19th century, and may have represented the peak of engineering at the time. Yet more than 100 years have passed, and despite all the technical advances since, the design has remained relatively unchanged. Is this really as good as it can get? Are we so willing to accept the functional as ‘good enough’, while we focus innovation on what is new and flashy? The impact of innovation on the everyday has the potential to be massive: does anyone really need Google Glasses? Everyone needs a smoke alarm or a flushing toilet!

Innovation is undoubtedly a difficult process; maybe because there is no real process. However, the way we work is partly to blame. If an employee leaves a product team, their replacement will be recruited to have ‘X years’ experience managing Y product’. In recruiting a replacement with similar experience, the inability to look beyond what is already known is built in. And how many times have you heard the phrase ‘let’s not try to reinvent the wheel’ on a project where the same senior managers seeking “innovation” are also looking for delivery on time and, if possible, under budget? Looking beyond the normal is not the ‘safe’ way to go about things, and where failure to deliver can often mean a missed bonus or promotion, or even cost someone their job, an innovation culture will be difficult to breed. If more companies apply truly innovative thinking, looking to improve what already exists, as well as looking towards future technologies, who knows what other revolutionary innovations we might see.

In insight, too, we must be sure to look beyond the usual borders. An innovation session that only includes members of a product team, and consumers of that product, can only really hope to provide tweaks to the norm (quicker, cheaper, different colour, more reliable etc.), rather than the seismic shift that is expected (and rarely seen) from true innovation. We must bring together experts from different industries and professions, to feed off their inspiration, experiences and stories, so we can truly look at something with a fresh pair of eyes and have our own ‘Eureka’ moments.