If you’re from Apple, there is no need to read this column. Otherwise, today I want to talk about innovation, why your company isn’t doing well, and possible ways to get back on the right path.
This is not an Apple fanboy column, or at least it is not intended to be. But I am frustrated at how companies have seemingly forgotten how to innovate, forgotten how to put their users first, and are afraid to move forward in creating terrific user experiences and products.
While driving our new Acura RDX the other day (and trying to find something via the navigation system), my partner and I both looked at each other and said, “When will Apple make a car? They’d get it right.” We say the same thing about cable TV interfaces, wishing that Apple TV would finally become a higher priority for Apple. We say the same thing looking at the new slew of Android phones, and are frustrated that Google has chosen to emulate Microsoft’s way of designing software instead of Apple’s. Google’s “everything is open, and vendors can totally customize the platform” is backfiring on the company in much the same way that Windows software is now a joke to me – it often comes bloated with crapware and customized in ways that only serve to remind you of the horrible brand from whom you bought the computer.
Every mobile phone company feels like they have to tinker with Android: coming out with a new skin, various pre-loaded applications, etc. They even have to rebrand everything so as not to be confused with competitor phones. The Galaxy S II is getting good reviews and is about to come here, but every mobile phone company has their own variant of it. Luckily, this time around they are learning from their past mistakes and actually including Galaxy S II in their branding. Sprint is calling it the “Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch.” Really, Sprint? Do you think that’s easier to remember than “iPhone”? And no, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T, you are not better software designers than Google. So could you please stop tinkering with making its platform “better” for your customers? It’s not working.
What is it about these companies that make them so unable to innovate in a way that doesn’t seem idiotic? In many cases, it is plain ego. The mobile companies re-skin their versions of Android so their users are clearly in a “T-Mobile” or “AT&T” experience. That would be great if these companies didn’t generally suck at doing most things when it comes to user experience. Could you imagine if the DMV were a mobile vendor, and Apple told the DMV it could rework the iPhone’s user interface to better brand itself to its customers. The phone would instantly become garbage. But these companies can’t simply sit back and think that someone else can do the job better than they can. Or, they are so entrenched in their own world, they can’t fathom why all this bad customization (and pre-loaded crap programs) would have any downsides at all.
Maybe it isn’t ego-driven innovation. Maybe it is idiot-driven innovation. What is that? It’s certainly the way some major companies I’ve worked for try to innovate. Middle managers, who tend to excel only at delegating responsibility and blame, sit in a room while the product managers brainstorm, and then say things like “I have an idea: black buttons. Let’s go with that.” I’ve been in these meetings. The managers are then afraid to say anything, because the boss now feels important because he contributed.
I know that modern companies are supposed to have corporate cultures that let new ideas thrive. Well, some do. But most don’t, and most still operate in this idiot-driven innovation way of doing things, or in the “lead by following” mentality that plagues so many companies.
So what can you do? Gandhi said (in an overused quote I can’t believe I’m using now) to “be the change you want to see in the world.” Well, be the innovation you want to see in your company. Simply do it. Or, be smart enough to realize you are part of the problem and not the solution. Are you the idiot middle management I’m talking about? Are you the CEO making egocentric decisions? Probably not, since you are reading this column. But if you are, self-actualize and then step aside and let your team do work without fearing a meeting will be derailed by your “I must feel important and weigh in” ideas. Or, anonymously print this column and leave it on your boss’ desk. Maybe he’ll get the clue.
If you are the innovator, then remember the important things:
- Keep the basic point of the new product or site simple.
- Keep the marketing message simple and focused.
- Solve problems, don’t just “build functionality.”
- Eschew your company’s ego in favor of your users’ needs.
It honestly starts at these simple steps.
Apple succeeds partially because it has no competitors. None. There is no other company currently problem-solving the way Apple is. No other company puts design and aesthetics first the way Apple does. Sony used to, but it has lost its way. Microsoft has a “too big to fail” mentality; and Google, while encouraging innovation, rarely sees its side projects succeed, partially because it tends to create technology instead of solve problems, and partially because its projects are so unfocused. Every time Apple releases a product or enters a new category, it renders every other player in that category irrelevant. But there is literally not one company I can name and honestly say “Apple better watch out for Company X.” Can you? I doubt it.
So, be the innovation you want to see in your company, or be smart enough to get out the way so innovation can happen around you.
Until next time…