When Good Innovation Breaks Bad

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Most innovations are only as good as their weakest link. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 may have been a great phone, full of new innovation, but most of us will never know.

Obviously, that is an extreme example, but a great many innovations are let down, albeit to a lesser extent, by a weak link. As innovators, we are often passionate about a core idea. But if any part of an execution is flawed, it will likely not achieve its full potential, and in some cases may fail altogether.

I’d like to share a couple of examples of innovative products that are doing OK in market, but that also have a weak link. I think they both illustrate how we can reduce, if not completely eliminate the likelihood of our innovations hitting the market with a significant vulnerability that can potentially prevent them from achieving their full potential.

Ironically, these are both innovations that I personally like a lot. I bought them, and still use them. However, I use them despite their failings, and am also unlikely to buy either of them again, or recommend them to friends. Multiply that across a user base, and it represents both an issue and an opportunity for future upgrades.

#1. FitBit Charge. Whether wearable technology will ultimately create as big a market as originally hoped is a matter of much debate at the moment. A lot of people have bought and use wearable tech, but particularly in the fitness space, there are also challenges establishing long-term usage patterns. Much of this is due to the issues that plague any attempt to build exercise and wellness habits. But wearable tech is meant to help address some of these by supporting habit formation, providing real time feedback, creating goals, and introducing social support and competition. In the case of the FitBit Charge, there are other issues that probably impact sustained usage and habit formation. The design is a classic example of form over function. The core device itself works really well, but its strap, while it looks great new, is poorly designed.   It falls off all too easily, and falls apart far too quickly.   I am personally on my third device in a year (FitBit have great customer service, and are good at replacing broken devices), and you can see from the photo that this device is also in a very sorry state. And I am not alone, the web is full of people complaining about the same problem.


#2. Fuji FinePix X100 camera. This is another example of form over function.   It is in many ways a beautiful camera, with great performance, terrific, vintage inspired looks, and a hefty price tag to match. However, it is also plagued by a basic design flaw.   A great looking exposure control dial on the top of the camera (see photo) tends to catch on peoples pockets or camera bags as the camera is pulled out for use. As a result, X100 users find their photos sporadically but dramatically over or under exposed, unless they remember to check all of their settings every time they use the camera.


What can we learn from these examples? I take three fundamental insights from these examples:

  1. They are both victims of form over function.   Both look amazing, but the quest for aesthetic beauty has created, or at least masked performance issues.   I’m not suggesting by any means that we shouldn’t make our innovations beautiful. But that should never be at the expense of core performance.
  2. Both have issues that occur over extended product use. In the case of the FitBit, sweat causes the glue to fail on the strap. That is a pretty fundamental flaw for an exercise product, but one that only becomes apparent when the product is used constantly for many months. Likewise, the issue with the clasp coming undone, and the device falling off occurs sporadically. In the case of the Fuji camera, the problem with catching the exposure dial tends to occur when a user pulls the camera quickly out of a pocket or camera bag.   All of these are perfectly normal user behaviors, but because they occur after extended use, or only under specific usage conditions, they present time and frequency challenges for an innovator and innovation researcher. These are not design issues that will surface in a focus group, or by giving people a prototype to use for a couple of weeks. To catch them, we need to place product with users, under real conditions for extended periods.   I don’t know what research was actually carried out on these two products, but I have to assume neither did enough extended, in context research to ferret out these issues before launch.

The way to address this is to begin critically testing prototypes as soon as possible. As an innovator, the sooner we can get prototypes to our team, and start using them in the real world, the more chance we have of finding low frequency, time dependant issues. Obviously, we want to get them into representative consumers hands as quickly as possible, but even early prototypes with in a team can highlight issues if we observe them critically. But that ‘critical’ mindset is key. It is all too easy to get into a mode of proving how cool an innovation is, when what we should always be doing is trying everything we can to uncover its potential weaknesses. It’s better if we beat our prototypes into failure mode during development, than have our users do it for us once we are in market!

  1. Aftermarket Products are a signal and a potential solution. There are a variety of Fitbit bands and alternative straps available to address the issue with the clasp coming undone, or to attempt to replace the strap altogether. This is a really important signal that you have flaws in your design, but it is also a wonderful source of free research that can guide optimization of 2.0 designs.

Interestingly, there are also a range of aftermarket products for the Finepix x100 as well. Typically photographers who spend more than $1000 on a camera screw a protective glass filter onto the front of the lens to protect it. A second design flaw in this camera makes this impossible.   However, there are an array of non Fuji attachments available that allow owners to a filter. Once again, a signal of a problem, but also great fixes to incorporate into subsequent designs.

In summary, I’d distill this down to three golden rules for finding ‘delayed’ or ‘secondary’ design flaws.

  1. Test early, and often. Grab all prototypes, and engage all members of the design team in an early, fault focused research program. .
  2. Play Devil’s advocate. Design research to fail. Encourage scenario evaluation that searches for potential weakness, and NEVER kill the messenger.
  3. Monitor after market add-ons. They can be an early warning for issues, but also provide a great source of market tested innovation for next generation upgrades.