Three levels of design and innovation

An electronics company has just won a patent claim against another electronics company. It’s not relevant to this post which companies and what patent were involved, it just served to remind me once again of the different types of innovation that are subject to these patent claims–where there is a patent there is at least a claim of innovation, and that is what interests me. Specifically, I find it interesting that some of these patent claims are for antenna design, others certain user interactions, and that links to an idea I heard presented by Adam Procter a year or so ago which has stuck with me,–that there are three levels to design and innovation:

level one: the base technology. In phones this would be the physical design of antennae, the compression algorithms used for audio and video, the physics of the various sensors, and so on.

level two: the product. That is putting all the base technologies to create features of a working unit that (if it is to be successful) fulfills a need.

level three: user experience. Making the use of those features a pleasure.

I’ve found this useful in thinking about what it is that Apple gets right compared to, say, Nokia. It’s my impression (and I think the various patent claims bear this out) that Apple are very good at innovating for user experience whereas Nokia and others did a lot of the work somewhere around technologies and product.

I’ve also found it enlightening to reflect on just how hard it is to work out from the technology alone what would be a set of features that make up a successful product. I was using CCD cameras for science experiments in the early 90s, when the technology had been around twenty-odd years, and never once did it occur to me that it would be a really good idea to put one in a phone. Light sensors so that your curtains would open and close automatically, sure they were certain to come, but a camera in your phone!–why would anyone want that?

Put those together, and I think what you get is a picture of some people who are good at spotting (or just prepared to experiment with) how technologies can do something useful, and others who are good at spotting what is required in order to make those features pleasant enough to use. So Diamond and Creative and others showed that really small MP3 players were devices that people might find useful (others before them had put together advances in audio compression and storage technology to show such devices were possible), Apple made something that people wanted to use. What was it that made the difference? The integration with iTunes maybe?

Sometimes identifying the useful feature comes before the technology that makes it usable, at least to a certain extent: Palm showed how touch screen devices could be useful but Apple waited until the technology (capacitive rather than resistive sensors) was available to give the user experience they wanted. Of course that area of human endeavour which puts creation of innovative products completely ahead of technology developments is called science fiction–how’s that flying car coming along?

2 thoughts on “Three levels of design and innovation

  1. God…this is so boring. I fell asleep at “An electronics company…”

  2. Omar, if you think this post if boring then you haven’t read much of this blog.

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