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Simple or Simplistic
By Cordy Swope

There are far too many books that I want to read. But I must confess that books about "innovation" are not really among them. I do not doubt however that there might be some good ones out there. And yet, whenever I read business books (invariably organized in case studies) I am usually disappointed by what always feels like a continual repackaging of the same story--the one that goes something like: "Team A faces challenge X; uses new business buzzword B to create breakthrough Y."

At the root of what profit hunters seek to exploit, but find elusive, is real empathy with consumers. While there are many business books that claim to offer corporations ways in which to develop this, any of us working in the field know that business books have their uses, and their limits.

I read to fuel my interpretive powers and to strengthen my perspective. And I continually find books further away from Innovation, Business and Design more useful for this than business books intended for people like me. Perhaps this is because these other books examine subjects that I do not already know about, and are usually written from perspectives that are not exclusively growth- and profit-driven.

Right now I am reading Tony Judt's new epic Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. It is at times chewy, but more useful in understanding the current state of the world than most of what passes for commercial journalism today. Taking as its starting point the physical, political, economic and spiritual devastation that existed in Europe in 1945, Judt's book exposes the fears, motivations and maneuverings that were behind the building of the present age. Reading this book would certainly fortify anyone in the innovation business; the Marshall Plan (and its impact) was arguably the most influential innovation the U.S. ever brought to the world--and I include both the iPod and the atom bomb in that assessment.

Some designers I know dislike reading, and others among them hate to write. For some designers, the written word is too complicated a way to extract and exchange ideas. The education methods around design do not often encourage verbal skill, which is perhaps why designers are pleasantly surprised when they encounter it in their own profession. (The simple aphorisms of that great Canadian, Buddha-like figure of design, Bruce Mau, come to mind.)

To Mau's list, I would dare only to add the following:

Simplicity is complexity - resolved.

It takes skill and hard work to make something verbally and visually simple. But anyone can make something simplistic.

In the innovation business, one treads this line daily. An example is a project I am working on at the moment. Our team has done field research in three countries and has observed and interviewed 30 people. Each session took about 2.5 hours, so that means we now have about 75 hours worth of data from which to extract "innovative" opportunities for our client. In market research, a group of 30 people is considered too small a data set to "prove" anything. (In fact, some of the clients' marketing group have already voiced reservations about basing a rather large development investment on a sample set of just 30.) On the other hand, we are faced with the unpleasant fact that in contextual research, 75 hours is considered a lot of data to parse indeed.

We know it is a lot of data because we go over each person's habits in painstaking detail, looking for unique routines and workarounds, unarticulated needs and (in this particular project) areas where cultural norms might differ from person to person. We are also dealing with the added complexity of doing fieldwork in three different languages. This is quite simply a lot of visual and verbal data to try to simplify in an elegant and useful way.

Our team is trying to build a framework--a simple "map" built on an amalgamation of observed behaviors of our 30 respondents across their entire process of awareness, purchase, and consumption of goods and services in our client's category. This framework will likely be expressed diagrammatically with graphics, maybe with numbers and definitely with words. If this framework is done well, it is likely to become a far more useful tool than most focus group studies (almost always rendered as lists of bullet points) that often tend to get filed away. As a tool, our framework should ideally live its life both being used as a tool for brainstorming, and as an evaluative device to see if certain ideas are worth developing.

But we will have to do a good deal of persuasion as to the validity of our framework and its implications. We will have to be persuasive with words, pictures--and if budget allows--maybe mock-ups and prototypes. Given all of the media available to us to make our point, why is it so excruciatingly difficult to make it? Because we are trying to render a set of (often conflicting) behaviors into a simple tool to be used to inspire creative work within a business setting. This is both a creative and analytical enterprise.

In such an enterprise, the simplistic is the enemy of simplicity.

Our team is operating under a kind of unspoken awareness that any nuance lost in our understanding of our 30 people is an enormous potential opportunity lost for our client and us. That is why we are meticulous note-takers, debriefers and list builders. And this is also why it is so difficult to simplify our findings.

I once had an engineering colleague who occasionally scoffed at the visual priorities of designers. He declared, "The only valuable ideas to me are those that fit on standard sized bond paper in courier type." I replied that perhaps the value of, say, a Matisse might be lost on such a rule. But in a sense I know what he meant. After all, bond paper and courier type is the medium of choice of most great scriptwriters. But then again, it is not the ideal medium for a cinematographer.

There are design instructors who mistrust language so deeply that they dismiss verbally adept students as "hand-wavers," (i.e. those who are "good presenters" but cannot communicate visually.) The truth is that it takes all sorts of people who are articulate in all sorts of media to do "innovation" work...and to effectively communicate its outcomes.

There are a lot of people who want a job in the innovation and design fields, and do not always understand the skills required to get one. It is a mistake to simplistically equate skills (e.g. to use a piece of software, the ability to sketch, or even to have novel insights into human behavior), with tools (e.g. a computer, an X-Acto knife or a how-to guidebook on "doing innovation".) Understanding the difference between skills and tools is the point at which innovation books appear dubious to me. These books appear to promise the reader skills, when they are in fact only tool manuals. Owning a hammer does not make one a carpenter--let alone a good one. It would be simplistic to think so.

The innovation (consulting) field will always look for people adept at simplification, particularly in interpreting and clarifying human behavior. And in my experience, the best people at interpreting human behavior and making something useful out of it have often come from different fields than design or business. For instance, people trained in literature and theatre do in-depth human interpretation all the time, and arguably better than a lot of us professionals. Writers and actors understand behavior, motivation and even movement. They then communicate the nuances of these human qualities by rendering them in either written or oral form.

While corporate culture is more comfortable with orthodox research that fuels decisive (and often wrong) actions, it is perhaps through unorthodox inquiry into human beings that true innovation occurs. At the root of what profit hunters seek to exploit, but find elusive, is real empathy with consumers. While there are many business books that claim to offer corporations ways in which to develop this, any of us working in the field know that business books have their uses, and their limits.


Cordy Swope is a design strategist and co-founder of normal life, a research and product development consulting firm.