Creating a step change in an era of incremental innovation

Creating a step change in an era of incremental innovation

All product designers, builders and owners strive to create true ‘ah-ha!’ moments in the products they create. But how do you do so in an era of incremental innovation? GM of Design & Digital at Yellowfin, Tony Prysten, shares his experiences.


Realizing the coveted ‘ah-ha!’ moment is truly something special in product design.

It happens when someone engages with your product, stops in their tracks, notices true innovation, and realizes their world, in some way, just changed, and won’t go back.

That technology, or an experience, has enabled something new; they’re taking it all in.

Speaking from my own experience, most of my personal ‘ah-ha!” moments have been with Apple products. I remember buying my first iPod (I even remember getting a Walkman) and first iPhone; I literally could not put these game-changing devices down.

Thinking purely digital, I recall booking (and staying) in my first AirBnB and the carefully curated digital journey along the way. Boarding a plane or just paying for a coffee using my phone or running events and managing events using Eventbrite. Even checking into the shopping centre during COVID for the first time had a bit of an 'innovation' moment.



But the reality is, the opportunities to make big jumps in user experience are few and far between. Most of the work we do in digital products involve subtle improvements, not watershed moments - an incremental tweak to the way a product works to get to a better, easier and more intuitive (or profitable) outcome.

Working in big teams on mature products, in particular, rarely offers an opportunity to have a step change moment with our end-user. Unless something was really bad, product enhancements often, intentionally, go  unnoticed. It’s interesting, then, to read we're currently living in an “incremental innovation” era - in reference to the iPhone 13 release.


So why is this happening?

Large products with huge product teams tend to move pretty slowly.

Their major innovation, which got them to scale, sits at the heart of their product, and depending where they sit against their competitors, there is a hesitancy to shift. This is obvious in category-leading products, where incremental change has become the norm. They often don’t want to take ‘risk’, as being a leader means you have everything to lose.

But by not continually looking to evolve past incremental change, I believe there is a greater risk that someone will come along and do it better, leaving them way behind.

For the designers and UX folk out there, think how fast Sketch and Invision lost market share to Figma. Unless you have deep pockets, scale, or depth to quash, buy or quickly rip off disruptive challenges to your space; see how Facebook handled innovation.

But if you are the challenger product to your category (like Yellowfin are to analytics), you have everything to gain from going hard and fast on big product innovations. That’s because you most likely have smaller teams and resources, and even smaller budgets.

But there lies your advantage. Small means streamlined and fast, and your ability to get new innovations developed and to market should eclipse larger competitors who most likely need 20 meetings and multiple product teams to change the radius on a button.

If you are doing exactly what your competitors are doing, remember the old line: “no one got fired for buying IBM”. If products are like-for-like, people tend to choose the bigger, ‘safer’ option. It’s what keeps the big players hesitant to try new stuff and stay in the ‘if it ain't broke, why fix it’ space. They don’t want to upset customers, but it should motivate you to think big with product innovation. You must have a different story to tell.


Acknowledging the problem

Great innovations start with a big problem, even better if your competitors don't acknowledge or understand the problem. It has to start with something apparent across a category or consistent for most customers, not a minor UX issue.

In the Sketch/Invision v Figma example, collaborative design was cumbersome and feature sets were limited. The category leaders failed to acknowledge this was a problem and did very little to address the issues and innovate their products accordingly. Subsequently, they lost significant market share in the blink of an eye. This was not a made up problem; there were countless forums, user groups and Reddit threads that clearly articulated the frustrations and issues the users were having.

But to acknowledge your product or the category is perhaps broken, especially when from a position of success, is far from easy. It takes honesty and transparency. Often common company values that are sometimes very difficult to truly implement, as ultimately it means not drinking the Kool-Aid.


The ingredients for bigger product innovations

Innovative Culture: On top of a big problem to solve, there needs to be an organizational culture that allows open and honest acknowledgment of internal and external problems and a desire and ability to do something about it. Being safe by not wanting to ‘offend’ or acknowledge issues in a successful product will completely stifle innovation.

A small team with a splash of dictatorship: As it has been said, ‘If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.’ This probably explains why smaller, start-up, challenger products can innovate where their bigger competitors have stumbled. This doesn’t mean larger, more established companies with a legacy product can’t deliver significant innovations. It just may require establishing a smaller team with the remit, ability process and vision to focus on solving the problem, backed by a champion to ensure the innovations can cut through any organizational blockers. This ‘champion’ could be a visionary CEO, or simply a very trusted product owner.

Product market fit: It’s no point releasing innovations that don’t match the needs of customers, or worse still, creating solutions for invented problems customers don’t really have. Solutions need to align with both a business and market need. Whilst many people believe (thanks to Steve Jobs) that innovation doesn’t come from asking customers what they want, but rather visionary thinking, this really must be backed with a very well researched understanding of customer issues. Without product market fit, innovations may confuse the user experience and end up as unused features, adding to the complexity of the product. Strava does a great job of introducing features around their core fitness activity platform as part of their Strava Labs. Occasionally these features make their way into the core platform, but often they are eventually phased out.


Do you want to move a button, or move a business?

I applaud products that consistently push to improve what they do, creating disruptive moments that make you wonder how we ever managed before that innovation.

More so if it is an established, legacy product as we all know how much energy, effort and often risk it may have taken to get through, when it would have been so much easier to leave things as they were.

But the implications of taking the easy path can be disastrous - just ask Sketch, Flickr, Blockbuster, or Kodak.


As Visionary as 1-2-3: Yellowfin rated in Gartner MQ for Business Intelligence and Analytics 2022 again

The 2022 Gartner® Magic Quadrant™ for Analytics and BI Platforms report is published, and we are thrilled to announce that Yellowfin has been named a Visionary innovative product for the third consecutive year. Find out why.

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