Innovating on usages

Innovation usually focuses on bringing new features to markets through « innovative » products or services invented by technology researchers and blessed by business managers. « Innovative » usages are rarely planned or expected even though the previous « next big things in the Internet » (Web, P2P, blogs, …) went big because of emergent usage dynamics rather than of « innovative » products or services pushed to markets. Usage innovations has been one big credo at the FING (a French think tank dedicated to Internet technologies) for quite a long time. They now mention this nice France Telecom R&D article that summarizes how usage innovation differs from product innovation and why applied research should focus on usage innovation. Here is my attempt at translating and paraphrasing some of the nicer bits found in this article:

If innovators don’t focus on they innovation efforts on usage first, their inventions then face the following risks :

  • Technical risks: offering features that do not address real needs or remain incompatible with other systems, networks, protocols or interactions and are then not used; or those only features that will be used face a risk of rapid obsolescence and over-serving features will slow any update process
  • Economic risks: making clients pay for mandatory additional features whereas the price for addressing real needs would be lower; clients will then see a low value for their own use (10 to 20% only of all features are useful to them while 80% remain hidden and latent…)
  • Human factors risks: difficulties will appear in the use and the representation of the product and services, users won’t be able to anticiapte work around « wrong uses » of the product and will not accept product limitations; users will rely on some « hot line » to learn how to use product or service, will make frequent calls or ask for refund but expected uses are not fulfilled.
  • Social risks: product or service may be massively rejected, retracted from market, distrustful or disinforming campaign may arise, investigations about bad impact on health or environment may be launched; this would lead to delays in the distribution of the product, needs for reorganization to answer arising needs or market pressures or major bad impact for corporate brands
  • Combined risks: risk of significant overhead for the user in terms of technology, usage, service adoption, need for skills or knowledge, price to pay for the tool to be really adopted; risk of dividing even more the ones who know and can profit from the offering to those who can’t; reducing the market impact

Those risks are not addressed by the current inventor habits for product innovation because those are specific to the field of expertise of researchers whereas usage risks emerge from the combination of these fields into a single complex offering once it is brought to the market. It is difficult to combine discipline-specific predictions related to usage because they are scattered among siloed scientific disciplines.

  • Technology researchers focus on solving tough technical problems and give answers to such questions as « How and why it works », supported by demonstration of technical capabilities and technical benchmarks. They can predict the level of disruptiveness of this new technology in terms of new capabilities and features offered to users and can anticipate how well this new piece of technology compare to the current state-of-the-art in terms of features and performance.
  • Social researchers, supported by interviews and observations, may answer users questions such as « what is it useful to? how could it be useful to me? ». They predict the level of disruptiveness this piece of new technology will bring to user habits, how well (or bad) this technology complies with the current user habits and usage. They advocate the anticipation of emergent usages.
  • Human factors researchers perform field trials and in-lab tests. They focus on user questions such as « how does one use it? can I use it or not? ». They anticipate how this invention will conform to the representation users have of similar products or services and can predict their needs for support.
  • Economist researchers will answer « how much does it cost to users? how much profit would users expect from it? » and use total cost of owernship analysis and niche market analysis. They can anticipate such users decisions as deciding to wait before getting equipped or as deciding to renew one’s equipment.

It is difficult to anticipate and address risks emerging with usages. It is even more difficult to invent usages. Is it even possible? Maybe with the use of early simulation and rapid prototyping such as this article seems to sugges? I lost myself while reading the rest of this nice France Telecom R&D articles. And I yet have to be convinced that corporations such as France Telecom would be able to innovate through usages.