Solution-First or Human-First?

Throughout history, innovation initiatives have typically followed one of two distinct paths. Some begin with a solution, imagining its potential to fulfill a specific need. The others commence with recognizing an unmet need of a target audience and then crafting solutions to meet it. Each path has its unique set of challenges and risks. However, the former is often deemed more challenging and perilous. Steve Jobs, after multiple attempts on the first path, eventually recognized the merits of the other.

Steve Jobs had been ousted from Apple for a period of time. When the company ran into trouble, the board of directors asked him to return in 1997. Once Steve Jobs took over Apple, he initiated a new program to help the company overcome the difficult times it had faced in his absence. This program, called “Think Different,” emphasized focusing on the customer rather than technology and products. In a speech at the 1997 Worldwide Developer Conference, Steve Jobs said:

“One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it.“

(Steve Jobs, 1997)

In the years leading up to the early 2000s, many companies would first develop solutions centered around emerging technologies, then search for markets that might benefit from them. This approach, which often lacked a clear understanding of the actual needs, led to significant financial setbacks, sometimes amounting to billions of dollars. Take, for instance, Motorola’s Iridium satellite phone. Launched with high hopes, this technology promised wireless calls from anywhere globally. Predictions foresaw a vast user base, and Motorola invested over five billion dollars into Iridium’s development. However, to access the service, users were required to buy hefty phones with a price tag of around three thousand dollars and endure call rates of seven dollars per minute. It soon became evident that the product appealed to a niche audience. This miscalculation cost Motorola five billion dollars in a virtually non-existent market. The venture concluded with Motorola selling Iridium for a mere twenty-five million dollars.

Google, too, has grappled with the complexities of initiating innovation from a solution-first perspective. Google Glass is a good example of technology-driven innovation initiatives. Prior to its launch in 2014, it gained significant popularity through promotional videos and generated a lot of excitement among technology enthusiasts. After the product was released, the excitement continued for a while. Yet many potential users balked at its steep fifteen-hundred-dollar price point. The product’s capabilities for covert recording of audio and video led to public scrutiny due to looming privacy concerns. Even though Google tried to ban such practices, the product’s usage was eventually restricted in certain areas. In response to the growing criticism, Google discontinued sales to the public. Today, Google Glass is predominantly marketed to businesses, serving as a tool that enhances efficiency and hands-free operations for industrial workers.

Many entrepreneurs and companies still strive to innovate starting with a solution idea. When they find an appealing solution idea, they conduct feasibility analyses. If their informed predictions and analysis, supported by various assumptions, provide a reasonable picture, they proceed to detailed design of the solution. Then, they create a few prototypes or pilot applications. If they receive positive feedback on the solution, they aim to develop a business model and bring the solution to life. However, these entrepreneurs and companies often fail because critical assumptions are tested and understood in the later stages.

A solution idea is essentially a claim. When someone presents an idea, they’re asserting that they have a solution concept to a specific problem. However, this claim often rests on several key assumptions about the identified need and the solution concept itself, which might not have been thoroughly examined. Is there really such a need? How valuable is this need? For whom is it valuable? Is the solution technically feasible? Does the solution truly address the desired need in a way that the target audience desires? Is it financially viable to implement the solution with a reasonable business model for both the customer and the solution provider?

Innovators can bolster their likelihood of success by seeking answers to these questions early in their journey. The key? Beginning their innovation endeavors by focusing on those who need a solution.

Until recent times, a human-first approach to generate innovation was not well-known. In fact, since the Industrial Revolution, for many decades, the main concern of businesses has been to deliver their products or services profitably to as many customers as possible. Technological innovations took decades to emerge and become widespread during those times. Consumers had limited choices. Therefore, the most important success factor was to create something different and put it in front of people at a reasonable price.

In the years immediately following World War II, W. Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM) approach determined how efficiency could be increased throughout the entire business workflow. Later-developed methodologies such as lean production and Six Sigma taught managers how to reduce waste to improve efficiency. All these methodologies were developed in line with the conditions of the early industrial era, aiming to enable businesses to deliver a defined value efficiently.

However, the conditions in today’s business world have changed significantly. Technological change is rapid, and access to technology is easy. Consumers have numerous choices, and they are both willing and capable of switching to another solution that offers a better experience. In such circumstances, different methods must be used to create new solutions for human needs. This is where the Human-Centric Innovation (HCI) approach emerges as a way to increase the effectiveness of innovation initiatives.

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