Enabling Innovation and Bicycles

Want innovative products? Start with robust objectives!

Recently, I was working on a project to design a sales enablement application for a financial services client. As we talked through the goals and requirements for the application, a question arose which is pretty fundamental to product design. Should we design for how the users do things today, or should we design for desired user behavior?

As usual, the answer to that question was a compromise, but it made me think about the importance of innovation in product design. When should the product lead, and when should it follow?

Since I’m an enthusiastic bicyclist, I decided to use biking and bicycle infrastructure as a thought experiment. I looked at the most bike friendly country in the world, the Netherlands, and compared it to the United States.

Two Countries - A Comparison

  • In the Netherlands, 45% of trips are made by car and 30% by bike.
  • In the U.S., 84% of all trips are made by car, and only 1% are made by bike.
  • In the Netherlands, for every 4 miles of automobile roads, there is 1 mile of dedicated bicycle paths.
  • In the U.S., I wasn’t able to find a road to bike path comparison, but about 43% of Americans have access to neither bike lanes nor bike paths.
  • In the Netherlands, the government recently spent about 130 million Euros ($159.5 million) annually on bicycle infrastructure projects. That’s about $9,944 per square mile of territory.
  • In the U.S., about $422 million is spent annually on bicycle specific projects. That’s about $111 per square mile of territory.
  • In the Netherlands, only 15% of the adult population is overweight.
  • In the U.S., 42% of the adult population is classified as overweight.

When questioned about bike usage, a significant percentage of the U.S. population says they would bike more if bike-safe infrastructure were in place. Reality matches perception, as dedicated bike paths get 2.5 times more usage than shared lanes and have 25% lower injury rates as well.

It seems pretty clear that increasing bicycle usage is beneficial for individuals as well as society as a whole. People get fitter, cities are less congested and cleaner, and we spend less on health care. It also seems pretty clear that building more/safer bike infrastructure results in higher bike usage. Study after study proves it to be true.

Getting to the Wrong Answer

Now let’s pretend you’re a city planner in charge of creating an infrastructure budget for your community. You take your laptop to some focus group meetings with residents and ask them “how do you get to work every day?”

“Oh, I drive my car.”

“Okay, and how is that going for you, any problems?”

“Well, traffic is pretty bad. That intersection at Oak and Main is always slow because so many people turn left there to go downtown.”

“I see. So if we added a dedicated left turn lane at Oak and Main, it would make your commute better?”

“Much better, that would be great!”

After a dozen focus group meetings, you go back to the city council with a plan to widen streets, add traffic lights, and improve intersections. None of this is going to make traffic better, by the way. Because you’ve just invested in the infrastructure that enables more cars, you’ll have more cars.

I’ve sat in meetings just like the hypothetical focus group above. It’s a bad way to design a city or to design software. Enabling the current state as articulated by your user community can be a trap. Your software will always be a step behind and your organizational goals perpetually out of reach.

A Better Way to Innovate!

So how can we avoid falling into this trap? Let’s go back to my sales enablement project. We worked with the business sponsors to ensure that the organization’s goals for sales were clearly articulated, documented, and understood. Our high-level objectives were:

  • Ensure that every sales opportunity is correctly documented in our sales pipeline so that we can manage and forecast.
  • Reduce the amount of time it takes a salesperson to create an accurate quote.
  • Reduce the number of pricing errors.
  • Provide consistent and standardized quotes for customers in all regions.

Brainstorming with a Purpose

Then we met with sales users in focus groups and got their input on product design. Every feature we added to our backlog had to be filtered through the objectives list to ensure that they helped us get closer to those goals. This was the “sanity check” that controlled our scope and ensured that the software investment would return value. Product designers have to use creativity and discipline to ask what and how. We need to uncover the real problems and goals if we’re going to create innovative solutions instead of just another dead-end project

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