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Should innovation be driven by experiments or experience?

There are two ways of building new products, whether it’s an open source library, large SaaS platform, small Android app or the next iPhone. You can sit down and think about the experience the product should provide and then look for the ways of getting it, or you can experiment with the technology you already have and see what interesting comes up. The approach you use will determine the results you’ll be able to get.

Experience-driven innovation

This is the top-down approach, driven by your vision of how the end product should look like. What problem should it solve? You envision the perfect product and then look for the means to implementing it. When you don’t find the tools or technology you need, you’ll invest in developing them yourself. The implementation is as successful as close you can get the final results to your vision.

This is the natural way of working for designers. They start with a problem and come up with what they think the solution should look like. If the designer is good, the product is likely to make sense, because there’s a central story driving the whole process (whether it’ll make market sense, that’s different story).

This can render good things and bad. An 1-click laundry service app, a revolutionary way to manage your photo library or perhaps a cloud platform where you can deploy with just git push. If you’re relying solely on this approach, you better have some really good vision, because that is what limits the end result. You won’t make anything you can’t think of.

In an example from the world of fiction writers, this would be writing a novel from a predetermined outline. Authors such as Jo Nesbø plan their books from the beginning to the end in advance and deviate only a little from the prepared plot. But if you’re not Jo Nesbø, you might not be able to come up with such a mind-boggling plot from the top of your head.

Experiment-driven innovation

Experimentation goes bottom up. You take things you know or have, combine them and see what happens. This opens a whole new realm of possibilities where serendipity works on your behalf. You can use the technology outside its usual scope or apply uncommon procedures, do things you wouldn’t normally do. There’s not really that much to it, just try stuff out and hope for the best.

This is the engineering way of doing things and surprising number of inventions had been discovered by a lucky chance. The problem is that since it’s lucky, its pretty tricky to manage.

Google famously used to give their employees 20% of their time to do whatever they wanted and it had worked well for them more than once with services like Gmail, AdSense and Google Talk, rising from experimental side projects that would hardly get past the company direction meetings at the time.

Arguably, blind experimentation can produce a lot of crap and the pearl may remind hidden away from you for a long time. Should you find it though, the reward is too high to be missed. A product that changes the way we think about the industry takes always a whole lot of effort and good bit of luck.

On a less successful note, smartwatches are the latest artefact of innovation based on existing technology. We know how to make small computers so why not shrink them a bit more and put them on people’s wrists? That sounds great, but far as experience goes, you end up with overpriced, nagging notification centres with screens the size of your thumb.

You probably wouldn’t arrive at what smartwatches are today while focusing on the experience. “We want to change the way people think about watches. Imagine a bulky, three line display, instantly accessible on your hand that will show you the first 15 characters of your email’s subject, provided you have your phone on you.” Oh, wait…

Back to fiction: this would be how the famous horror author Stephen King usually works. He starts with a specific character or scene and writes away to discover what happens next. He lets his characters decide. But if you’re not Stephen King, your story might just end up being a really boring chain of events.

So which one?

It probably won’t be surprising that the best approach to innovation is a clever combination of both. Different companies and products may require a different mix and the ratio can vary greatly. Early validation and user testing are invaluable in any case. However, if you decide to stick with just one, make sure you’re at the top of the game, like Jo Nesbø or Stephen King.