Mobile design differs from the previous technology design techniques we used for creating desktop applications. The needs of businesses, governments, and the military drove the desktop computer revolution. The mobile technology revolution has primarily taken place in the consumer space. Because users usually pay for apps themselves, their expectations for usability and fit and finish of the applications they buy are far higher. Users don’t put up with a buggy, poorly designed apps on their mobile devices, and will alert fellow consumers of defects in apps via social media and word of mouth. Users also take for granted that newly purchased applications are progressively smarter than older apps. They expect the applications to take advantage of the full range of capabilities that their mobile device offers.
Consider a simple example to help explain this concept. It’s not enough to provide a map in an application to give people directions. The map application should leverage the device’s GPS sensors to triangulate the user’s current location. The desired destination could even be inferred by the link that was clicked in the message that triggered the map to load. The map should make all of this easy by understanding past usage patterns of the device, and the map could be invoked by scheduling data, meetings in the device’s calendar, or any other contextual triggers.
Why does enterprise persist in designing old-school approaches to workplace problems? If innovative app design rules the day in your personal life, why do we keep building apps for mobile workers that are essentially shrunken-down versions of their desktop counterparts?
The need for new design processes for improved performance and productivity is evident. User requirements and functional or business case rules for the application design process are fluid and iterative. It’s unlikely that an app will launch will all the features it may eventually have. Only through constant testing and updates will it will tune an app to meet the needs of the mobile professional.
Introducing Recombinant Innovation
Device technological affordances can be combined to create innovative, useful tools to solve everyday common business problems. This occurs through the use of “recombinant innovation” — that is, taking two or more things already in use and combining them to create something brand new, often with disruptive or astounding results.
In music, you might call it a remix or a mashup. In cooking, you could call this fusion — combining American cuisine with numerous Asian food styles, for example. We encounter this recombinant innovation in the digital space all the time.
A few examples:
- Dating + Social Networking = eHarmony, Tinder, and other Web romance technologies
- Taxicabs + Mobile Apps = Uber, Lyft, and other emerging transportation platforms
- Videos + Recommendation Engine = Netflix, YouTube, and other video platforms
- Restaurant Reviews + GPS = Yelp and other localized social eating apps
That’s just the start. When you take a service like Yelp and then layer over it things like communication capabilities and an application programming interface (API), you can make reservations from the app, a la OpenTable. This effect is not geometric or additive — it’s exponential.
What Does This Mean For The Possibilities of Innovation?
The problem is that with about 30 identified affordances of mobile technologies, the number of potential combinations is impossible to test, even if you only combine three or four different features. With 30 choices, when you combine two affordances, there are 870 possibilities, which is manageable, but when you combine three sets of features, it jumps to 24,360 possibilities. Combining four sets out of 30 affordances yields 657,720 different combinations, which jumps to over 17 million when combining five. And, the amount goes on and on, reaching astronomical numbers. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out in the excellent book, The Second Machine Age, even when combining a small number of affordances, it’s clear you would need lots of eyeballs to produce and test all the possibilities that can be created in an innovation economy.
So, listen to your users. Hear their problem. Understand their issues and ideate on how the tools in front of you can solve the problems in new or unique ways. Don’t analyze each piece of tech by themselves but rather by being enhanced and bolstered by the other supporting technologies present on the device and in the cloud.
As part of its technical design process, I recommend recombining two or three affordances of digital technologies to design innovative solutions to problems that users bring to the table, or which provide exciting market opportunities.
Taking This Innovation To The Workforce
So, the examples posted before are apps for your personal life. Tinder and Netflix at work? Yeah, not so much. Let’s apply this thinking to getting stuff done.
If this all seems a little abstract to you, let’s dive and look at two examples of how recombinant innovation could create a unique solution to some age-old workplace problems.
- Collaboration + Clock = Automatic meeting requests and responses, group scheduling
- Notification + Geolocation = Geofences and reminders including to-do lists or checklists
- Contextual + Cloud = Files and info always available, tailored to your needs.
If you layer all of those things together, you might end up with something like this:
Collaborative Clock + Notification Geolocation + Contextual Cloud = A universally accessible team scheduler and task delegation system that uses Geofences
So, what could you do with such a beast? How about creating a “Team To-Do List that automatically adds maintenance calls for customer locations when you drive by the location (including relevant documentation or maintenance records), removing the call from another co-worker’s to-listed at the same time to maximize serendipity and productivity, minimizing wasted drive time, etc.”?
All right, that was fun. Let’s try another one.
- Intelligent Camera = A camera that understands what it is taking a picture or video of (semantic computer vision)
- Wearable + Geolocation = A wearable device that knows where you are or where you are going.
- Search + Cloud = A large-scale repository of data and media, easily tagged for later retrieval
Intelligent Camera + Wearable Geolocation + Search Cloud = A work blogging platform that records and tags videos, marking the contents of the video with objects it recognizes for later retrieval and search. It would bring valuable information to people that need it as they travel, contextualizing, and making real-world objects and images searchable and meaningful.
So, what could you do with that? How about equipping your workers with wearable cameras to record service calls and then allow other service technicians to search for solutions to problems using keywords that were used to tag photos or videos of the job sites. A search for “rain” could, for example, provide a list of images on how techs handled their duties when Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating. A search for “power outage” could provide a video or image to help explain how to restart a specific machine when a blackout occurs or when a generator kicks in.
The Power Is In Your Hand
Hopefully, you get the idea. We need to explore and combine a variety of technical possibilities to be innovative, finding the combination that works. Innovation doesn’t just belong in the home or in our personal lives. The next burst of productivity growth will come from building on the platforms we’ve created and combined the building blocks of technology to design and develop powerful next-generation business tools.
Share recombinant ideas here in the comments. What kinds of mystical beasts can you come up with? Maybe you have a unicorn there.
This blog post was first published here on Medium.com by Chad Udell. Follow Chad on Medium and Twitter via his handle, @visualrinse.
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