Category Archives: Innovation

How to design a killer app for the iWatch

iwatchThis article originally ran on on Nov. 6, 2013.

The wrist is the next frontier for technology companies. I believe this because I wear a FitBit activity tracker on my wrist; when I tap it, I am rewarded by tiny lights that blink for about two seconds, telling me how many steps I’ve walked today. While I need at least one minute to pull out my iPhone, type in my password, and open an app, I need barely three seconds to tap my FitBit and get a delightful, satisfying morsel of data.

Imagine, then, the seductive power of Apple (AAPL)’s much-rumored iWatch, which is expected to deliver not only blinking lights but also emoticons, photos, ringtones, tweets, and status updates. If you think the 140-character constraint of Twitter prodded us to be more creative, think of a future in which your watch supersedes your phone and delivers what you want in less than three seconds.

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Why 2014 will finally be the year of online grocery

Live music at my local Whole Foods

Live music at my local Whole Foods

This article originally ran on on Jan. 16, 2014. 

Some people go to bars or clubs on weekend nights. I go to the grocery store. I love to mosey through the aisles, looking for new snacks, picking up five apples before I decide on the right one. I’m apparently not the only one. On a recent Friday night at the Whole Foods (WFM) in Cambridge, Mass., I encountered a pair of musicians, on flute and classical guitar, playing lovely melodies near the wine and cheese section. Clearly, the natural foods chain believes a lot of people see food shopping as entertainment.

Recently, however, disaster struck: I ran out of oatmeal. I realized it would be much easier to order a six-pack of Quaker Oats on (AMZN) than to make an extra trip to the store. I was even willing to eat (shudder) cold cereal for breakfast two days in a row while I waited for delivery. Thus, my pantry entered the Internet age.

My pantry is not alone; 2014 could be the year of online grocery. Traditional brick-and-mortar chains should be worried. The fact that AmazonFresh expanded to two new cities in 2013, after six years operating only in Seattle, is just one cause for concern. Currently, 3.3 percent of total U.S. grocery spending—a $500 billion industry—is online, according to a report from Brick Meets Click. It could reach 11 percent by 2023, a growth rate of nearly 13 percent per year.

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How Electrolux revamped its consumer-focused innovation

BusinessWeek is one of the best publications covering innovation today. I’m finally making it through the Nov. 4 issue and found this great story about how Electrolux revamped its innovation efforts by focusing on the consumer and highlighting design. Here are a few of the things the company did:

  1. Incorporated ethnography. Market researchers spent hours in consumers’ homes watching how they vacuumed in order to develop the new bagless model.
  2. Built an “innovation triangle.” The company brought together the design, R&D, and marketing departments to make joint decisions on new products.
  3. Elevated design: The company created a position of chief design officer, and is now “one of just a handful of companies – Apple is another – where the chief designer reports directly to the CEO.

Read more at BusinessWeek.

Wheelchairs in low-income countries: a lesson in user-centric innovation

In the developed world, wheelchairs have become high-tech (see: The Five Most Incredible Stories of Pimped-Out Wheelchairs). But that doesn’t help people in poorer countries, where lower-tech products are often more useful. MIT Technology Review describes the problem that Amos Winter faced in 2005, when he traveled to Tanzania to study whether existing wheelchairs fit the needs of Tanzanians:

Conventional wheelchairs worked fine indoors, but they were hard to use in rural areas because they wouldn’t let users traverse uneven ground. Hand-pedaled tricycles were useful in those conditions but they were too large to work indoors. The missing product was a chair that worked well on both flat and rough terrain and was small enough to use inside. It would also need to be simple and easily repairable — and cost approximately $200.

Winter, then a graduate student, recruited a team of undergrads who worked with him to develop a prototype. When they took it to Vietnam, Kenya, and Tanzania for a test, however, they learned an important lesson.

“We had created this prototype, we were all gung ho about it, we had actually won an award for it already, but you bring it to the users and they’re like, ‘No, this isn’t gonna fly.'” It was too heavy, too hard to get in or out of, and too unstable on hills.

This is Innovation Lesson #1: Users Are King. Developing a product without consulting users can waste a lot of time, as in Winter’s case. For larger corporations with huge R&D budgets, it can literally waste millions of dollars.  That’s why Innosight, for example, frequently begins a project with in-depth customer interviews, focus groups, and observational studies.

Winter’s story has a happy ending. He returned to the field repeatedly while redesigning the chair, which is now available for sale.

It is light and cheap, contains readily available bike parts, and uses a form of steel that can be easily repaired …. a wheel rim had gotten bent while being transported on an airplane, but Winter banged it back into place in a matter of seconds.

Need a few thousand wheelchairs? They’re available here (and pictured below), but the company can currently only sell them in large quantities.

Amos Winter's wheelchair for low-income countries is light, cheap, and easy to repair.

Amos Winter’s wheelchair for low-income countries is light, cheap, and easy to repair.

Why anyone with an MBA should worry about the immigration bill

If you’re a foreigner seeking a U.S. green card, here’s a little advice: forget about getting an MBA. Study air conditioner repair instead.

If the Senate immigration bill becomes law, immigrants who study dairy science, urban forestry, pulp and paper technology, and air conditioner repair, among other fields, will qualify for special treatment when seeking visas. Those with MBAs will not. That’s because the first four fields I mentioned all fall under the category of STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math.

But MBAs don’t.

That means fewer foreigners will apply to MBA programs, which will reduce the quality of the MBA experience, decrease the selectivity and prestige of top business schools, and have a negative impact on the U.S. economy. I surveyed 40 recent MIT Sloan grads from outside the U.S., and 30% said that getting a visa was one of the primary factors they considered when choosing graduate schools. Only 25% said it wasn’t a factor at all.

To be clear: I support the bill overall – I think it’s incredibly important to raise the number of H-1B visas and to increase immigration from STEM graduates. But I think MBAs should be included as well. I’ll describe what’s in the bill and share a few ideas for how b-schools should respond. The bottom line: b-school deans should make the case to Congress for including MBA grads in the immigration bill. Otherwise, the legislation could seriously threaten the value of the MBA degree.  Continue reading

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How Clay Christensen predicted Android’s ascendence (in 2003)

I’m re-reading The Innovator’s Solution, Clay Christensen’s landmark 2003 book, because I’m going to be working at Innosight, the consulting firm he founded, beginning this fall. This morning, I realized that he predicted precisely what has happened in the smartphone market: the initial success of a product like the iPhone, produced by a vertically integrated firm, followed by the ultimate ascendence of a phone with a modular architecture – components that can be made by different companies. I’ll start by summarizing his theory, and then describe what this means for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple as a whole.

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How LinkedIn just became indispensable

When it comes to staying organized, I have two big problems. Well, I used to — LinkedIn just solved one of them.

I’ve been using LinkedIn as an address book for a long time. After all, why bother loading someone’s information into Google contacts, when we can just connect on LinkedIn? But there was one issue: LinkedIn didn’t contain a history of my relationships. With many contacts, I had to dig through old emails to figure out when we last talked or whether we’ve even met in person at all.

LinkedIn just solved that with its new contacts tool, which can integrate with Google, Yahoo, Outlook, Evernote, and my phone. Now, LinkedIn knows who I’ve spoken to and even when we’ve met in person. The Contacts tab includes my daily agenda and provides suggestions of people to whom I should reach out. I already visit LinkedIn frequently, but now I have a reason to make it a daily destination.

Now, if only someone would fulfill my other major need … but I’ll write about that in a future post.

When going green is NOT good business

Sustainability experts are constantly touting the fact that “going green is good business.” But what do you do when it’s not?

Kathrin Winker, who leads the sustainability team at EMC (and has a great blog) recently visited MIT Sloan, and told a story about how a bad business case actually fostered innovation.

EMC’s largest product is called a frame, and it can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. It’s shipped to customers in a cardboard, steel and plywood box that can itself weigh 200 pounds. A team at EMC thought it could potentially save money and reduce carbon emissions by using the boxes more than once. But there was a big problem. Recycling the boxes was far from cost effective. The team calculated that it cost $800 to ship an empty box back to the plant, compared with $300 to make a new box. This points to an uncomfortable fact: all too often, there is NOT a good business case for going green.

The video below chronicles the story, and the key moment comes when associate product manager Matt Popieniuck says: “At this point, it becomes evident that we have to make the empty box smaller so it becomes cost-effective to ship it back to the plant.”

Of course, at many companies such a conclusion would not be evident at all. It’s easy to simply drop a project that has a bad business case.

Instead, EMC staffers collaborated with their freight company and worked extra hours to redesign the box. The new box is strong enough to ship a frame, but can be collapsed to 1/4 its size. It can be reused 7 times, saves the company more than $1M a year, and keeps 1.2M pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere each year — the equivalent of taking 121 cars off the road.