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Design, Affordances, Emergence, Appeal: An Innovator’s Primer

A lot of people talk about innovation in terms of fulfilling an unmet market need. Specifically, there’s a lot of emphasis on “solving problems.” (I’m looking at you, Dave McClure.) The theory is that entrepreneurs should work on solving a problem that lots of people have, and not get too focused on some technology. That’s fair advice.

However, when entrepreneurs hear this, their first instinct is to often to go ask people about their problems and then try to solve them. Or they look for markets where there is a lot of money being spent.

“The best innovations are those that solve a problem that people didn’t even know that they had,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at MoMA. Twitter certainly falls in this category. In fact most people were sure they didn’t need Twitter, but now it’s a central part of our media landscape.

This class of innovation is the sort you have to shove down people’s throats at first, but then changes the world forever. And they’re tricky to find because no one will tell you they need them. And there’s no market study that outlines the opportunity.

Thinking about this, and stealing some good ideas from design thinking pioneers like Don Norman, Tim Brown, and Daniel Pink, I’ve settled on four key elements that entrepreneurs can use to think about innovation: design, affordances, emergence, and appeal.

Design

Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying, “design is how it works,” and he’s right. How it works is determined by the design specifications and constraints. If it is software, the major design elements include aspects like synchronous vs. asynchronous, private vs. public, one-to-one vs. one-to-many vs. many-to-many, market size, viral reach, and mode of access. There are many other elements that determine the nature of a product’s design.

The outward aspects – how it looks and feels – are important insofar as they impose an additional set of operational constraints: what’s possible, what’s most likely, how the “happy path” feels, and how brittle the experience is.

When most people think about design, they think about “how it looks.” We’ll get to that in a minute. When you think about design, you really are determining “how it works,” and it’s the most critical part of creating an innovative product.

Affordances

Affordances are the possibilities that a particular design allows. If your product allows for a particular use, then its design affords that possibility. Sometimes there are negative affordances (a part allows for a hinge to open too widely, possibly damaging the product), as well as positive affordances (an iPod Touch can display streaming video, so it afforded the possibility for HBO to make a mobile subscription TV app.)

Every design offers a wide range of affordances, and you should think critically about what they are.

Emergence

Sometimes a design enables new behaviors that its creators did not predict. Users of the product start behaving in a new way that was not anticipated, though it is allowed by the original affordances (say hashtags on Twitter).

Sometimes the emergent behavior is incorporated back into the original design (such as when Twitter adopted hashtags and @ replies, and tracked their trends).

Emergence is usually a happy accident. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, says, “always allow a seat at the table for the unknown.” That is an excellent design goal. By leaving a few doors open, one allows for this kind of emergent behavior to occur, and to capitalize on it.

Designers almost never consider all of the emergent possibilities that their designs afford. Being open to emergence, and incorporating it into later designs, is key to innovation.

Appeal

This is really a subset of design, but it’s worth discussing all by itself. Your product should have curb appeal and create an emotional connection with people that causes them to return to it again and again.

The finest Swiss clockwork will not go anywhere if it is packaged in an ugly shell. While design is “how it works,” your product’s human appeal has everything to do with “how it works with people.” Because without ongoing engagement from people, most products cannot survive.

So, how it “looks” certainly matters, but only insofar as it affects its ongoing appeal, and “how it works with people.” We know the best products are those that create that emotional, nearly-religious connection, and this can’t be overlooked.

Utility Is Difficult to Predict

I think asking about utility is often the worst way to evaluate a design in its early phases. “Why would I use this? What’s it good for? Who needs this?” are questions that are worth contemplating, but it’s also OK if the answer is “I don’t know yet.”

If a design affords a range of emergent behaviors, if it can be distributed to a large group of users, and it can be made appealing and inspire devotion, odds are it’s something worth experimenting with. The odds that the ultimate utility of an interesting design will exceed early predictions is very high.

I love engineers, and do some engineering, but engineers are particularly prone to evaluate concepts in the frame of “how is it different from XYZ that already exists,” or “what technology does it employ?”

The success of the Wii is one of the wins that stymied many engineers. “The graphics sucked, the games were primitive, and there were better technologies on the market.” And those things were not the point. The Wii won because of its design, it affordances, its appeal, and the emergent behaviors (and user communities) it enabled and reached.

So be playful in your designs. Give things a chance. See what happens. Learn from emergent behaviors. And always leave a seat at the table for the unknown.

  • Justin Michaliga

    I really like how you consider to infiniteness of design. You mention it in every paragraph. Design is _. Design takes thought. Design takes time. Well designed ideas here.

  • John Casner

    I recall my Black & Decker mangers telling me, when I invented the Dustbuster (yea, not a ‘techie thing in today’s world) that no one wants a vacuum cleaner without a cord. Fortunately, I was in a ‘skunk works’ position to get it to market. 100 million+ units later and still selling.

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