Types of Innovation – Know Where You Fit in

Years ago, whilst studying to be a designer I was asked what I wanted to be. I thought this was a strange question. Surely, as I was studying Industrial Design, I wanted to be a designer!

After much frustration and gesturing, I finally understood the question and so here I am asking you, “What do you want to be?”

But to save you the trouble of working out what it all means, I’ll explain it here.

Firstly, there are three types of innovation:

Sensual- concerning the senses, including how a product looks, sounds, feels or even tastes and smells.

Functional – How the user interacts with the product. This might include how easy it is to install or operate, or it might do something for the user that was not previously possible.

Technological – We are more familiar with this as it relates to the technology behind the product. If it is truly innovative then you will be able to protect it with a patent.

Every manufacturer will have their own strengths, and every brand will have their own associations. For example, Pepsi Cola is marketed on it’s flavour. It is very strong in the sensual arena. To have the most credibility in the market, Pepsi would be best to keep all future products in the same sensual area. Moving over to a functional product such as a bio yoghurt would be a very difficult and risky move, even if it is a growth market.

Technology does not sell! I appreciate that this statement might go slightly against the grain, but remember that you can not sell technological products purely for their technical brilliance. Technology must always be converted into an aesthetic or functional benefit for the user. For example, a Dyson vacuum cleaner has Dual Cyclone technology behind it, but it is the functional benefits of not having a bag to deal with that sells the product to the user.

Secondly, think about what your strengths are as an organisation or brand. If you are best known for great aesthetics in your products, then keep on selling on that basis. Conversely, if you are best known for your easy installation methods and low maintenance, then don’t try to launch a product that majors on the aesthetics, because it is likely that your customers won’t buy, and your competitors will eat you up.

Having said that, it is unusual for any product to be solely either sensual or functional – most of the time there is an element of both types of innovation in any product.

So when planning your next new product development, make sure you ask the following questions:

  • What do your customers know you best for? What are your core strengths?
  • What are your most successful products and why were they successful?
  • Is there real user or customer benefit in your new technology?
  • How can you turn a technological development into a user benefit aligned with your core strengths?

Changing from aesthetic to functional or from functional to aesthetic is possible, but it should be carried out with caution and a good amount of understanding of the associated risks.

So with all that in mind, what do you want to be?

Enjoy the opportunity