Observing our fellow human beings work their way through life can be a rich — arguably the richest — source of inspiration for innovations. Sony’s Walkman grew from Akio Morita’s insight that, given a choice, people want to listen to music whenever possible. Henry Ford’s Model T, and later Pierre Boulanger’s incredible 2CV, both came from the realization that would soon be wealthy enough to want and use basic, affordable transportation devices. Scott Cook succeeded in a crowded market by building Quicken’s user interface around insights gleaned from watching people — including his wife — balance paper checkbooks.
But getting out of the office to go observe real people can be intimidating, difficult, maybe even impossible. As organizations grow and work roles become more specialized, talking to real people becomes the job of the research department instead of the people actually doing the development work. And as things grow even bigger, the research department hires outside research firms to do the work. Bye bye human empathy! Real people and their vibrant stories and true needs get reduced to PowerPoint bullets, statistical tables, and cheesy clip art. Can we really expect inspired, breakthrough innovations to come from that?
If you work in the kind of situation I just outlined above, I think you have three choices:
- Accept the status quo, get your "user insights" from your research group’s hired help, and watch your organization slowly ossify and become functionally unable to innovate.
- Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, go observe users, start a blog, listen to support calls — anything. You might hit a home run. Or not. This takes guts and runs the risk of derailing your career because you’re undermining the research bureaucracy.
The third choice? Ask yourself this: how hard is it to go out and observe real people in an age where, without leaving your desk, you can:
- observe humans at a conference in Tokyo
- watch people stroll through an aerospace museum
- quickly learn what 120 believe to be true even through they can’t prove it
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is yet another case where the Internet really does change everything. Let’s embrace Internet-enabled observations as yet another source of innovation inspiration. It’s cheap, it’s there — why not?