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I find that many companies have developed a collection of stories that can limit their potential and often blind them to the possibilities of innovation. They know what didn’t work in the market in the past, what ideas were developed but not introduced, what their competitors are doing or might do; but it’s difficult for them to see how an idea can be reinterpreted or recognize that new behaviors can emerge and be supported.

The stories of the past are rooted firmly in our minds. Design has the power to bring the stories of the future to life and to change the path of innovation in the process.

Moving beyond features and functionality

The search for innovation and a detailed product definition often does little to inspire a compelling design. Consumers are interviewed and observed to understand latent needs. The features and functionality of competitor devices and experiences are analyzed in excruciating detail. Forecasts are given of future technologies and limitations in costs and timing are made clear. All of this is summarized in a functional product definition, and then design comes in and must find a way to engage people. It’s the aesthetic add-on to make the product appealing, usable and a good experience.

How do we move beyond features and functionality in a technical world? Many companies face competitors that are their equals in technical expertise. High tech companies known for innovation are forced to move beyond competing solely based on technology. Innovation is now about looking beyond functional comparisons.

Let’s take the very familiar story of the iPhone and Apple as an obvious example of a company that knows how to weave a good story. Frequent introductions and function-heavy products mark the cell phone industry. We all know the problems with these devices and have marveled at the way the iPhone resolves many of these issues.

The iPhone will inevitably come up in a conversation with a technology company. They will analyze the functionality, discuss what they might be able to copy and what Apple didn’t get quite right, but will ultimately fail to realize that the success of this product is due to the overall story that is told through the brand and the user experience. To copy this kind of strategy by simply adding a few features without considering the overall story does not lead to innovation and market success.

Creating a compelling story

The urge to compete at a functional level often displaces the importance of creating a compelling story that connects with consumers higher level needs and desires. Many companies find themselves looking to the next product introduction without articulating a larger strategy. These short-term goals serve to excuse managers from creating a vision for the story they want to tell with their own products — a story that articulates the emotions that will drive consumer decisions.

Designers naturally empathize with users; understanding their needs and desires. Before we become immersed in the product definition, let’s take some time to understand what stories might have personal meaning for consumers. From this base understanding and framing of the opportunity, we can develop designs and strategies that bring stories to life. We must, of course, satisfy consumers’ basic functional needs; but to truly win them over we must move beyond and connect with them at an emotional level.

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