The Innovation Imperative

April 29, 2016

Why every innovation can’t be the next iPhone

Jacob O. Wobbrock
Associate professor, The Information School, University of Washington
Founder, AnswerDash

It’s clear to me that “innovation” is not an unquestionable good. Some innovation is clearly better than other innovation — and not all innovations are created equal.

I measure innovation by its ability to improve people’s lives. An innovation may only improve one person’s life or the lives of millions; regardless, a life-improving innovation is better than an idle innovation that gathers dust. As Thomas Edison said, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.”

Another way I look at this is by adhering to the principle that technology innovations that help us achieve the goals we already have – ideally in much better ways – will always be more successful than innovations that cut across the grain of our existing goals, or distract us from smoothly achieving our goals as we already do.

In other words, technology innovations do not succeed by giving us new goals – certainly not their goals or their makers’ goals. Sure, technologies may reveal aspects of our existing goals we weren’t aware of, or open us up to new possibilities, but the fundamental goals we have are pretty stable. And our goals are not usually technologically-driven at all; they are relational — to love and be loved, to matter, to do meaningful work in service of others, to experience pleasure, to be delighted, to express ourselves, and to achieve purpose. These and other fundamentally human goals are what people have sought through the ages, and technology innovations that succeed are often in service to these enduring goals.

The iPhone, that now clichéd emblem of gadgetous innovation, does a lot of fantastic things, but peel away the layers and you discover that most people regularly use under five apps, and these have to do with furthering their enduring human goals, such as communication with others (via phone, text, email). Facebook, that now clichéd emblem of social media, also furthers enduring human goals to maintain relationships and enjoy a sense of human connection (however “deep,” though, is up for debate). These innovations catch the train already rolling from the station, the human train that’s forever seeking better ways to do the things we have always valued and done.

Every new innovation isn’t the iPhone or Facebook. But I still see a lot of promising ideas out there. And among innovative people, really good product ideas are a dime a dozen. This doesn’t mean that inventing is easy; it’s not. But you can get good at coming up with clever ideas that, were they suddenly to exist in society, would no doubt make a positive impact. The hard part after coming up with the clever ideas is making those ideas a reality, and that takes more than product work. That takes business people who can take technology breakthroughs, get them profitably to market, and then change the world. That’s the really hard part of the process.

I work in the area of human-computer interaction (HCI), and often the actual product innovation is easier than what comes after, which is trying to get that innovation into as many hands as might benefit from it.

In my field, we employ user-centered design methods and principles to invent new technologies for people to use. But our innovations almost always provide value to an end user, and yet, if brought to market, they would have to make money from a customer who is not the end user at all. Perhaps the customer is a business, and their goals are not always in sync with what’s best for end users. In such cases, how do we establish value for an economic buyer who is the not the audience for whom we’re designing? Tensions arise between doing right by end users and doing right by the people who will pay.

I’ve learned that there’s a fundamental limit in terms of human attention. When designing interactive technologies, it’s tricky because there are more and more screens and alerts, more and more bombarding of people, and our capacity to focus is under siege. So, again, our product can be leading-edge, but can people take it all in? There’s a bit of a bottleneck here, because our technology can consist of fancy displays, knobs, bells, and whistles, but they have to fit into our human capacity for use.

I think in 20 years, we’ll be able to solve this, to some degree, through personalization. Every breakthrough will be exactly what you want it to be; you’ll get what you want, what you don’t want will be left out, and there will be technology essentially designed for one, thanks to artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data.

A startup that I co-founded shows the complexity — and extra value — of coming up with an idea that truly meets customer needs.

The project started with the research question, “How can we make it easier for people to get answers to their questions that arise when using a web site or web app?” We’ve all had the experience of being confused or frustrated when online, and we wanted to make a big dent in that problem.

We found that a simple, clean and easy-to-use question-and-answer interface that lets people point on the screen to whatever is confusing them was really effective. Instead of typing and searching and having to read lots of help articles, you could just let people click on whatever they’re uncertain about and show them the most common Q&A associated with that thing. Search still drives the retrieval of Q&A, but the user has to do much less cognitive and physical work than when formulating search queries.

Early on, to see if our breakthrough had commercial potential, we created a prototype and tested it at the UW — at the School of Medicine, UW Libraries and the UW Information School, our home department.

We came away realizing that this new cutting-edge tool could deflect 30-50 percent of the questions that would normally go to help desks in the form of email, phone calls, or live chats. The solution also played well with Millennials, who prefer self-service over assisted service. They’re used to solving their own problems online, not asking others to do it for them.

Channeling our inner Edison, we chose to use this idea to help companies save money, increase sales and improve their site designs by seeing where people had questions or became confused on their Web pages.

Today, what started as a good research question and led to an answer in the form of an innovation is now a growing company called AnswerDash, a leading provider of contextual, self-service help for desktop and mobile Web sites.

So, returning to the central question — “Is Some Innovation Better Than Other Innovation?” — the answer is yes. When innovation combines with the right business acumen and works well with the capabilities of end users to serve enduring human goals, its potential to transform the world is truly limitless.

This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit

This article also appeared April 27, 2016, on Real Clear Technology.