Innovate big time or just go home

Here’s a secret of successful innovation: Change big, not small. No, that doesn’t just mean you should think big when it comes to innovations. It means literally that you should only make big changes. Leave small things the same, and you’ll be better off. And your users will be much better off.

Want proof? Just take a careful look at your cell phone. Or your car’s dashboard. Or your kitchen sink. And if you’re still not convinced, ask users what they hate most about the changes that IT forces down their throats.

But let’s start with your cell phone. Compared with the clunky desk telephone you probably remember from a decade or two ago, it’s tiny and immensely more sophisticated in design. Almost everything is different from that old clunker.

Except one thing: there are still the same four rows of keys: 1 2 3, 4 5 6, 7 8 9, * 0 #. The keys may have funny shapes. They may be virtual keys on a touch screen. But it’s the same 12 keys in the same setup.

Why not three rows of four, or two rows of six, or turned upside down like a calculator keypad? The key arrangement would be the smallest, cheapest and easiest thing to change. But that would break users’ dialing habits. It would slow them down. Eventually, they’d trash that oddball cell phone for one that isn’t such a pain to use — one with a regular set of keys.

Your car’s speedometer probably has an indicator that moves from left to right (or, if it’s circular, moves clockwise) to tell you you’re speeding up. That’s the way it’s been for decades, though nearly everything else in the instrument panel has changed. Why not right to left or counterclockwise? Because that small shift would break drivers’ critical ability to read the speedometer.

Kitchen sinks in the North America have hot water on the left and cold on the right. That’s true whether you run water by twisting faucet handles, pulling a knob or moving a joystick-like lever. It doesn’t have to be. But anyone who’s ever been scalded by plumbing set up the opposite way knows why left hot/right cold is a valuable standard.

Now let’s talk about users. What drives them nuts about new systems? Broken habits. Users can take major process changes in stride. But keyboard shortcuts that no longer work, buttons that no longer do what users expect, defaults that have changed, they all create errors when users try to keep working the same old way on new software or hardware. And if the systems can’t be adjusted to accommodate users’ habits, the habits have to go.

Users hate that. And they’re right to hate it. Broken habits aren’t just an inconvenience. Habits are part of a user’s work process. And a smoothly running process means productivity. Break users’ habits, and you’ve broken the process, spiked productivity and forced users to develop new habits. That takes weeks at best, and months if the old habits are deeply embedded.

That’s the price of small-scale innovation. It’s a price that can be measured in lower productivity and higher training and support costs, user dissatisfaction and damage to IT’s reputation.

Look, IT people like little innovations. They’re easy and cheap…for us. But for users, those small, cosmetic “improvements” can be pure misery. And too often we ignore just how much they really cost.

Is there a benefit to your innovation so big that it’s worth that price? Then go for it. Never underestimate how disruptive small changes can be, but never let that prevent changes that are really necessary.

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— Hayes, Computerworld (U.S.)’s senior news columnist, can be contacted at [email protected].

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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