The art of innovating

A few weeks ago I watched a Samsung keynote. And last week I watched an Apple keynote. What a difference.

As far as the Samsung event is concerned, this was the second I watched. And like the other one I wasn’t able to watch it through until end. The first event I watched was the announcement of the latest Samsung Galaxy IV. I saw dancers on a Broadway stage. A step-dancing child! And I saw a confusing mess of features being mentioned, interrupted by some weird show. A lack of proper demos. But most importantly, a lack of focus. Provided I had recorded the event, then stripped off all bullshit, to just learn what’s new about the phone, I guess I had just a few minutes worth of watching. Let’s not forget I also had to re-order sequences to make any sense out of the presentation.

The latest Samsung event I watched introduced a Galaxy Note and the Gear. A smart watch designed with an obvious lack of taste. I admit this is a very personal thing, and there are maybe people out there liking it, I wouldn’t take money wearing it. Independent of features offered. And that’s the other thing. What on earth has Samsung packed into the device? Why the heck do they think I need that on my arm wrist? Why is there a Galaxy Gear? Just why?

I was thinking for myself, what was driving Samsung? Engineering pride, certainly. It’s very obviously a result of a thinking to pack everything in that’s technically possible. And a bad desire to be first to market. To be the ones who define a new market. The product is just not ready. Lack of device support. Lack of being small enough. Lack of battery life. Lack of doing the things that matter most as easily and obvious as possible. All clear signs of a product that was rushed to market under a deadline. And the end result? I don’t think it’s worth to quote the reviews.

But then, what is “Innovation”?

Many years ago Steve Jobs put it perfectly:

You have to start with the customer experience and then work backwards.

And while that seems so reasonable. So obvious. It’s one of the hardest things possible. The difficulty in any product management or innovation process starts with your ability to imagine. Well, most companies take customer input as the number one source for making product decisions. Sales, support, analysts, press, and an endless list of other stake holders as well. And there’s nothing bad about that. However, what you get from any of these sources is typically pretty good ideas on how to improve a product. And all of these groups are driven be specific, often times conflicting, motivations. Customers are certainly closest to reality, except that in most cases companies don’t talk to the average customer, they talk to their largest, most prestigious, most educated, customers.

But how can you “start with the customer experience”? What exactly is “experience”?

Let me jump to the Apple keynote I’ve seen last week. And let me pick iWork. First I have to admit I tried to use iWork in the past. Simply because there is some reason to try to get rid of Microsoft Office (price being one, too many features being another, and there’s more). But iWork was a bit difficult to use, too. It took me a little to discover the Inspector, to get access to a bunch of features. But this floating thing, with extra floating windows for color selection and other tasks. Argh. So with a few years since the last version of iWork, and with the beautiful Web app they’ve demo’ed at WWDC earlier this year, I was really hoping to be able to get a decent iWork suite. One that would help me move away from Office.

And what I saw made me instantly feel like, yep that’s it. I’m going to give that version another try, and I’m pretty sure I’ll stick with it. Why? Because it looks simple to use. It does the day to day job, in a much more intuitive way than the previous version of iWork. I was really happy after watching the keynote. Now, a lot of people have come up lately and said, this new iWork sucks. Because Apple dropped features all over the place. So I have to go and dig deeper than what I’ve done so far, which was randomly opening Office documents to see whether they import ok, and I can edit the content (which by the way worked fine so far). But I have to do more before I’m convinced I can migrate. And maybe I find a few missing features that will make me hold off until a future incremental update adds them back in.

But the key here is this. I’ve seen so many people – including myself at times – get lost in Microsoft Office when it comes to doing the simple things. And sometimes it’s happening over and over again. I mean the same old stupid things I explained a few times. People don’t use them for a while. And they call again to ask where it was. Why? Because it’s buried under a ton of stuff, feature, options, menu items… that no one ever uses. Except that power user who uses one or two of those exotic features, and another one uses some other exotic feature. And so over the history of doing Office all those features made it in. And Office can be everything ever needed for the last power user on the planet. And at the same time it’s absolutely confusing and frightening to the average user. People who’d like to write a letter. A one or two page document, maybe with a table in it, or some images they import from iPhoto. Here’s your average user. And their experience is what’s to define the product. And the new iWork delivers.

This is not about how complete iWork is. It’s about the process. It’s about how you attempt to do product management.