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Innovation in the everyday: designing for disruption

From the Nest smart thermostat to Uber’s global assault on traditional taxis, many of the most successful innovations of recent years have come from the most mundane problems. Enabled by shifts in technology and global consumer expectations, they’ve transformed forgotten corners of our lives into massive businesses. What will be next?

nestPaul O’Connor, executive creative director at Ziba Design, says true disruption challenges our assumptions about fundamental human values and creates new ways of fulfilling basic human needs. In his breakout huddle at Delight 2015 Innovation in the Everyday, attendees will identify new opportunities for disruption and consider the principles and pitfalls of redesigning them. We talked with Paul about some of the challenges and opportunities he’ll be exploring.

How do everyday tasks and objects lend themselves to disruption?

Paul: Everyday things are a fun starting point. They are so present and ordinary that we often forget to even think about them–often foregone conclusions. We assume that nothing needs to change at all, that everything is fine. But in fact they often represent sizable opportunities to make real improvement. Innovation is presumed to be made up of moon shots, but in fact there are plenty of pot shots to take, and they’re equally valuable.

Apart from Nest and Uber, what are some other everyday things that are ripe for reinvention?

Paul: Parking is one example of an everyday problem that Ziba has been addressing through our venture called Citifyd, starting out as peer-to-peer parking and eventually integrating all forms of parking. In principle we’re taking underutilized resources and making them readily available—putting the unused or wasted to work and creating new value. There are many examples of innovation through the lens of abundance. Uber lets people take their private cars and do more with them as a taxi service. Airbnb is another example. If you look at innovation and opportunity through those lenses you can often get some surprising results.

Another notion is that of controversy—why the new idea is seemingly impossible. We don’t usually think to drive the innovation conversation with the controversy. That’s usually a missed perspective. All of those car-sharing (or home-sharing) programs challenge the notion of what it means to own something. If I chase that back to the most root human value that’s being called into question there, it’s the concept of ownership that is really being challenged. And that’s a fundamental part of the human condition, because we presume that it’s just naturally so important that people want to own things. We have seen so much innovation just in the last 10 years, based on challenging such a fundamental thing as the concept of ownership.

How does that change the criteria for designing a successful product or experience?

Paul: When you’re challenging things that are so presumed to be true, you’ll often find a behavior change at issue. Humans are really stubborn when it comes to changing behavior. So from a design standpoint you have to figure out the right way to bring people along on that ride without shocking them or maybe asking too much of them. If you think of a future state that’s really radical and disruptive and innovative, it’s ill-conceived to think that you can just flip the lights on right away. Instead of going for the north star, you need to build a staircase, so to speak, and let people take the step that they’re ready and willing to take and maybe give them a sense of where it’s going. There’s a very cautious moment there, where design plays the most key role. The hard part isn’t thinking of the big idea; the hard part is figuring out how to align the parts and pieces, how to figure out the size of the first step, and so on.

What is the nature of a disruptive experience? What’s the difference between something that’s just kind of cool and something that has the power to change stubborn habits—or industries?

Paul: There are two halves to that answer. The simple half is on the functional side, and it’s about creating efficiencies. People are like a river. They’re going to find the path of least resistance through any set of obstacles. If your disruptive innovation happens to have efficiencies built into it, it’s just naturally going to work its way through. In addition to efficiencies, it might also be about giving people access to core human values in new ways.

beatsYou know Beats headphones? What they did was kind of like lightning in a bottle. They learned from what Nike does, which is to combine Nike products with amazing athletes that people want to be like or be near. What Beats did was take athletes and musicians together and apply it to a new category. And whether it’s Nike or Beats, what people are buying into is essentially the chance to belong. It’s part of the human root code. You can’t change or challenge that any further back; it stops right there. Those two brands are great examples of being part of humans’ tendency to want to belong. And you could even say they allow people access to worship.

Where does delight fit into that?

Paul: We’ve been joking in the office that a movie can only have two car chases; a movie can only have two good love scenes in it. And so, over the course of a person’s journey with any given innovation or brand or product you have to build those car chases or love scenes into the experience. Those are the moments of delight. If you think of it like an EQ board, you cannot let it be flat. And you cannot let it be jacked to level 11 all the time, because people will get fatigued. It has to have these spikes in it. It has to have moments when something unexpected happens, some kind of surprise and delight.

With the concept of the hero’s journey, there are all these peaks and valleys that naturally happen in a narrative, and you can map that understanding not just onto story but also onto an experience that you’re trying to design. You have to be an orchestrator for all those high and low points. Of course, any designer will nod their head at this. But you need to be driven by it. You need to hold yourself accountable to it. A design review needs to demonstrate where the car chases and love scenes are. How are you building this story so that it has elements of surprise and delight in it?

Delight 2015 is over, but you can follow year-round via the #DelightConf hashtag and by subscribing to the Delight Digest for updates.

About Paul O’Connor

Paul O’Connor is a strategist of brands, people and design, steering the craft of creative direction and spearheading business development efforts at Ziba. With a background in hands-on industrial design and more than 15 years’ experience as a visualizer and storyteller, Paul ensures comprehensiveness across the studio’s work, balancing creativity, logic, technical detail and narrative. He weighs organizational cultures, competitive landscapes and industry biases in the light of consumer insights and practical know-how, tackling tough questions and leading innovation-oriented projects with each of Ziba’s business groups.

Most recently, Paul worked with Heinz to evolve one of the world’s most iconic packages. web services Past clients of note include Intel, TDK, Sony, Konica, REI, Best Buy, Toshiba, Nike, Sirius XM, and Procter & Gamble.

Paul holds a BA in Industrial Design with honors from the University of Illinois at Champaign–Urbana and spent a year abroad at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, England. His writing has been published in Fast Company, and he frequently lectures on design and strategy.