In a culture like Google’s, having paid time to innovate is celebrated. But most of us don’t work at Google; most of us work at places that are less than thrilled when someone has a bright new idea that will be amazing.
After all, who has time to try new things when the things we’re doing now aren’t broken? No one wants to be forced to use another app, to have yet another thing they are expected to log into, only to see it die out in six months.
So how do you push an idea through? How can you innovate if you work in a less-than-innovative place?
It takes more than a big idea
Let’s say you just saw a demo of someone using a prototyping tool like UXPin and you’ve got this big vision of your team incorporating it into your development process. With a tool like this, you realize, you can quickly put some concepts together for a website and make it real enough to do user testing within two days! Seems pretty invaluable. Why haven’t we been using this all along?
You create an account and start exploring. It’s pretty damn awesome. You put a demo together to share with your team at your next meeting.
Your excitement is completely drained within five minutes.
“Seems like a lot of extra work.”
“Why would we create a prototype just to rewrite it all in code?”
“Let’s just build it Drupal.”
Knife. In. Heart.
You can see the value in the product, but you didn’t take the necessary steps to frame the problem you want to solve. You didn’t actually use this exciting new tool to build a case around the value it will have for your company.
So right now, to your coworkers, this is just another shiny object. In the web development world, a new shiny object comes along every couple seconds. You need to do some legwork upfront to understand the difference between what shiny object is worth your team’s time and what is, well, just another shiny object.
Anyone can come up with an idea on the fly or think they’re having an Oprah Aha! Moment, but real innovation takes hours of work, trying and failing over and over, a serious amount of determination, and some stealth guerrilla tactics.
Frame the problem
The first step in guerilla innovation is making sure you’re solving the right problem. Just because your idea genuinely is amazing doesn’t mean it will provide genuine value. If it doesn’t solve a tangible problem or provide some sort of tangible benefit, you have little or no chance of getting your team and your company to buy into your idea.
Coolness alone isn’t enough. And “cool” is always up for interpretation.
Framing the problem allows you to look at it from many different angles and see different solutions that may not have occurred to you.
By diving deep into the impact and effects your idea will have, you will start to see the larger picture and may even decide your idea wasn’t so amazing after all. Or, this discovery could lead you to a different solution that truly is innovative and life-changing.
Start at the end
When your idea is implemented and everything goes as planned, what benefit will it provide?
Make a list of people who would theoretically benefit from this idea. Write down who they are and how the idea would help them.
Let’s go back to our prototyping tool example. Who would benefit from it the most? The end user looking for specific content on your website. Using a prototyping tool would allow you to do more user testing earlier in the process, letting you tweak and iterate your design based on feedback that could improve the overall site experience. An improved experience would, ideally, allow visitors to find the content they are looking for more easily; the content would therefore be more useful and usable for them.
If visitors have a better experience, that could result in a better conversion rate—which in turn would help your manager’s goals as web sales improve.
That benefit could extend to your team as a whole, too: a prototyping tool could improve communication between the marketing group and the development group. Using a prototyping tool would help quickly visualize ideas so that everyone can see how the site is evolving. Questions could be asked and addressed sooner. A prototyping tool could be just the thing you need to get everyone on the same page about content and identified goals.
Identify your target audience(s)
The top two audiences with the potential to get the most benefit from your innovative idea are your target audiences. If the end user of the website will receive the most benefit, then that is your primary target audience. If your manager receives a benefit as a result, then that is your secondary target audience.
Take some time to develop a persona around each of your top target audiences. A persona is a document that summarizes research trends and data that have been collected about a key audience segment. Although a persona depicts a single person, it should never be based on one real individual; rather, it’s an amalgam of characteristics from many people in the real world. A persona is usually one page and includes characteristics such as attitude, goals, skill level, occupation, and background. For more on developing personas to improve user experience, check out Usability.gov.
When you’re waist deep in this idea in the next six months and your coworkers are complaining about the extra workload, and you’re wondering why you ever decided to do this you will look at your white board where you have your personas displayed and you will remember they are your target audience, not you. All of this extra work is for their benefit.
As you implement a workflow using a prototyping tool and the decision gets made to only do only one round of user testing instead of the three rounds that were initially discussed, you can reference your personas and ask who stands to benefit from that decision. Are you just saving time for the developers and the stakeholders in an attempt to pump out websites faster? Or will this really benefit the target audience?
Do a pre-postmortem
Understanding the risks of innovation does not mean backing away from your idea and giving up. When you understand the obstacles in front of you, you can more easily identify them and develop solutions before potential failures take place.
One useful exercise is to do a postmortem report even before you begin. Start anticipating the reasons the tool or project will fail so you can avoid those pitfalls. Some questions you might ask in a postmortem:
- Who was involved in the project?
- What went well with the project?
- What did not go well?
- What can we do next time to improve our results?
With our prototyping example, a possible reason for failure might be the team not adopting the tool and it never gaining traction. You need the team to be on the same page and using the same workflow; lack of adoption could be detrimental to progress.
Analyze your current situation
What sorts of effects are you seeing right now because of this identified problem? Gather some data to prove there is an actual problem that needs to be addressed. If your help desk continually receives calls about users unable to find a specific button on your website, for example, then you have some evidence of a bad user experience.
Do some research
Ask your coworkers what they know about prototyping. Ask if they have ever experimented with any prototyping tools.
Ask your end users about the content on your site. Gather some information about just how bad the user experience really is.
This is not the time to pitch your idea. You are in complete listening/observation mode. Save the elevator pitch for later, when you have all the information and are confident this is the right solution to a very specific problem and you are prepared to answer the questions that will come.
Assess your tools
Are there any tools you use now that are similar to the tool you are proposing? If so, what are their benefits and downfalls?
Take the UXPin example. Does your team use paper to do prototypes right now? Does the graphic designer use Photoshop to start with wireframes/prototypes before doing a high-res layout?
Having a ready list of pros and cons for the tools you currently use will help you build a case around why your solution is superior and will show that you’ve done your homework.
Check your ego
Scrutinize your motivations for wanting to introduce a new tool. Do you want to try something new just to take control of a situation? If the graphic designer does a fine job using Photoshop to develop a prototype but you don’t know how to use Photoshop, that’s not a great reason to try a new tool.
However, if you have a team of six and only one person knows how to use Photoshop, choosing a more accessible tool with a shorter learning curve could be the right move.
Explore other solutions
Are there other tools out there that will solve the problem you discovered?
If you don’t yet have room in the budget for UXPin, can something else get you by while you prove the value of this type of tool? can you use paper prototypes for a few months while the team adjusts to this new part of their workflow?
Sometimes starting with something less complex can be beneficial. Anyone can use pen and paper, but learning new software can be daunting and time-consuming.
Still think this is an awesome idea?
You now understand the tangible benefits of implementing your innovative idea and you know who stands to gain from it. You can foresee both the rewards of implementing it and the potential risks of not implementing it.
Your motives are good, you’ve analyzed your current situation for similar tools or processes that may already be in place, and you’ve explored other potential solutions. You are well on your way to building a strong case around your innovative idea. At this point, you’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing it. Do you still think it’s a good idea, and are you as excited as you were when you started?
If you’ve lost your drive and excitement at this point, or have been unable to visualize any real benefit, the idea may not be worth implementing. That’s okay. The way you will land on a really great idea is by testing many not-so-great ideas until you find one that fits.
Your continued excitement and drive will be necessary as you start to implement your idea and work toward gaining supporters.
Start small and fail as soon as possible
Even if you’re still quite sure this idea is amazing, start small and keep an open mind. A thousand questions will come to mind as you begin using an actual product with real users.
As you start running a couple of tests, use language like “experiment” instead of “implementation.” This leaves room for error and growth. You want to know what’s not going to work as much as you want to know what is going to work. And if someone asks what you’re doing, it sounds way more innocent if you say you’re running a few experiments that you’re going to share with the team than if you say you’re implementing a prototyping tool into our web development process.
If you’re working on a current website project, try creating just one page using the prototyping tool on your own time, not as a part of the official project process. See how it goes building just one page for now. Even better, try making just one element of the page, like the header or navigation. By starting small you will have fewer variables to take into consideration. Remember, right now you’re evaluating the tool itself, not necessarily the user experience of your website.
Then take your prototype and see what kind of feedback you can get by testing it with real end users.
Is the prototype responsive? What URL did you need to use to access it? Was it easy to direct users to this URL? Can you record mouse movements or clicks, and do you need to? How are you documenting their feedback to the site? Were they able to use their own device, or did you need to provide it? What are you going to do with the feedback and observations you’ve gained?
Do several tiny experiments like this, making adjustments as you go, until you’re more comfortable with the tool, its features, and the results you get from it. Your confidence with the tool will give your team confidence with it as well.
Don’t get fired
Most companies don’t mind their employees doing research about their work on company time. Unfortunately, some do mind. Using your own device on your lunch hour or before and after work may be your only option.
Even if your job does allow you to research and learn on the clock, be respectful of time. Spending several months straight iterating on one idea might not be good for your next employee review. 3M designates 15 percent time for employees to focus on innovation; Google has famously allowed up to 20 percent of employee time to focus on new innovative ideas. Try to gauge what percentage of time you could reasonably spend on your research without neglecting your real job.
Be transparent about what you’re doing. Hiding it and sneaking around will give the wrong impression. Let your boss know you’re curious about a new tool and you’re just running a few experiments to explore it more. Curious, experiment, explore—as I suggested earlier, these are all safe words implying no level of commitment or pressure.
Presumably you have a few friends in the office; take them out to lunch and toss them the idea. Let them know about the experiments you’re running and the results you’re getting. Ask if they want to see what you’ve been working on.
It might take a while for anyone to show some interest. Don’t give up if your excitement isn’t mirrored immediately and don’t be pushy. Remember, you want your colleagues to be in your corner.
Also, bouncing your idea off your coworkers is great practice for telling your boss. Your coworkers will definitely ask you a bunch of questions you haven’t thought of yet and will express viewpoints you haven’t considered.
Listen to their opposition and use their concerns to build your case. Do they think adding a new tool to the workflow will slow down the process? Explore that concern; next time you talk, offer some data and insight about how that assumption might not be true.
Having your team on your side will go a long way when presenting this to your boss, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker if they’re not. Sometimes our coworkers are just so scared of change that no amount of data will make them comfortable. They will likely express their concerns when you bring your idea up in front of the boss; having a prepared response makes you look confident.
Get your boss’ support
Time to go up a level. Please do not put together a giant presentation, wear your best power suite, and pour your heart out onto the line. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll just spend the rest of the day crying off and on in the bathroom.
A definitive, polished presentation can be offputting. It makes you look like you’ve already solved the whole problem. You want to appear open to suggestions—because you are.
You know your relationship with your boss, and how to approach them, better than anyone else. For me, the best way is to wait for the right opening and mention the new idea in passing. Be prepared to show all of your progress and make some sort of proposal right on the spot. Make it seem easy and low-risk, with clear next steps. I’ve found it beneficial to address the concerns of your team up front to show you value their opinion and input. Bosses love teamwork.
If there isn’t clear interest from your boss, ask them what other data or information they would like to see to help support this idea. What are their concerns or hesitations?
At this point, consider asking for permission to continue to experiment on a broader level. The word “implement” really freaks people out. Trying a prototyping tool in the web-development process for three months instead of implementing it forever sounds a lot less risky.
If you can’t stick with your idea long enough to do some research and run some experiments, why should anyone else? If it truly matters to you and you can see your idea making a real change in your company or within your work environment, hang in there for the long haul.
When the graphic designers agree to use UXpin as a prototyping tool and the User Experience team (if you’re lucky enough to have a UX team, really I’m not jealous) says they will give it a try for end user testing, ask to be a part of their process. Ask them to invite you to the end-user testing sessions and the design reviews with the stakeholders.
Be in those sessions and meetings as the the idea is implemented so you can continue to reference your personas and make sure decisions are made for the right reasons. That way, you’ll be in the front row to see positive change happen as you guide your idea and hard work into something truly innovative.
As your idea starts to gain traction and your experiments turn into a real process—see things through. Don’t just hand off your idea and hope for the best like a child waiting for the school bus. Drive the damn bus.