At the beginning of Steve Jobs’s presentation of the iPad, a slide showed an image of God delivering its commandments, paired by a quote from The Wall Street Journal: “Last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.” Although a touch arrogant, this quote powerfully captures the essence of the event.
While tech experts were busy commenting on the qualities of the iPad, what struck me was the level of excitement that the event created. On Tuesday, the day before the product was unveiled, a Web search for “Apple tablet” produced more than 17 million links! On Wednesday, hordes of people attended the news conference remotely. Everyone was anxiously waiting for Apple’s interpretation of what a tablet is.
This was validation of Apple’s peculiar innovation process: Insights do not move from users to Apple but the other way around. More than Apple listening to us, it’s us who listen to Apple.
This contradicts the conventional management wisdom about innovation. In fact, one of the mantras of the past decade has been user-centered innovation: Companies should start their innovation process by getting close to users and observe them using existing products to understand their needs.
I disagree with this approach for these kinds of efforts. User-centered innovation is perfect to drive incremental innovation, but hardly generates breakthroughs. In fact, it does not question existing needs, but rather reinforces them, thanks to its powerful methods.
With the iPad Apple has not provided an answer to market needs. It has made a proposal about what could fit us and what we could love. It’s now up to us to answer whether we agree.
The iPad, of course, is not the first time Apple has taken this approach. If it had scrutinized users of early MP3 players downloading music from Napster, it would have not came out with a breakthrough system (the iPod + iTunes application + iTunes Store) based on a business model that asks people to pay for music.
Consumers don’t always swallow Apple’s notion of what they should love. In 2008, when Jobs unveiled the MacBook Air, he said “No matter how hard you look, one thing you are not gonna find in a MacBook Air is an optical drive. If you really want one, we have built one. [He showed an external CD-DVD drive] . . . But you know what? We do not think most users will miss the optical drive. We do not think they will need an optical drive.”
Apple is not alone in thumbing its nose at the notion of user-centered innovation. If Nintendo had closely observed teenagers in their basements using existing game consoles, it would have provided them with what they apparently needed: a powerful console with sophisticated 3D processing that could enable them to better immerse in a virtual world. Instead, Nintendo did not get close to users when developing the Wii. According to Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s senior marketing director, “We don’t use consumer focus groups. We got a lot of feedback from developers in the industry.” This allowed Nintendo to completely redefine the experience of game consoles.
The iPod and the Wii were outside the spectrum of possibilities of what people knew and did. But they were not outside what they could dream of and love, if only someone could propose it to them.
Firms that create radical innovations make proposals. They put forward a vision. In doing that, of course, they take greater risks. And it may even be that the iPad will not succeed. (My feeling is that its success strongly depends on developers. If they create applications specifically tailored for this device, instead of simply adapting existing applications running on notebooks, then the iPad could mark a new era in mobile computing. The potential is there, given that Apple is using the same collaborative innovation strategy devised for the iPhone.)
My 10 years of research on breakthrough innovations by companies such as Apple, Nintendo, and Alessi, which are summarized in my book Design-Driven Innovation, shows, however, that these radical proposals are not created by chance. And they do not simply come from intuition of a visionary guru. They come from a very precise process and capabilities.
Thanks to this process these companies are serial radical innovators. Their non-user-centered proposals are not dreams without a foundation. Sometimes they fail. But when they work, people love them even more than products that have been developed by scrutinizing their needs.
Roberto Verganti is professor of the management of innovation at Politecnico di Milano and a member of the board of the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management. He has served as an executive advisor, coach, and educator at a variety of firms, including Ferrari, Ducati, Whirlpool, Xerox, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Barilla, Nestl??, STMicroelectronics, and Intuit.