Innovation and the Cloak of Invisibility
How noticing the invisible problems around us changes everything
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A few years ago, I watched a talk from Tony Fadell that has stuck with me ever since. You may not know who Tony is, but you’re most certainly familiar with his work.
Tony was one of Apple’s most influential designers. He oversaw the design and development of the iPod and was part of the team behind the first iPhone. Two products that completely disrupted their respective categories.
In his talk, he says that the secret to great design is noticing.
Noticing problems that others don’t. Noticing the little frustrations of everyday life that we’ve gotten used to. Noticing how the normal things around us can be improved.
These problems go unnoticed because of habituation, meaning we get used to the current state of things without questioning or trying to fix them.
I watched the talk at a time when I was still an engineering student trying to decide between following a traditional engineering career or getting into Product and UX design. I ended up choosing the latter.
Tony’s talk has stuck with me ever since, and I started noticing this recurring pattern all around us.
The most recent example of this is what ChatGPT has done to Search. But there are many other examples too.
Before ChatGPT came out, Google Search was our preferred (and only) method of searching. We might’ve complained about it occasionally, but most of the world still uses it exclusively to retrieve information in an instant.
How many times have we told ourselves things like:
“How did people find information before Google?”
“Any information I need is only a Google Search away.”
“I can’t imagine not having Google.”
But something changed when ChatGPT came out.
We saw a radically different experience for how to retrieve and consume information. Suddenly, everyone started noticing the problems they had with Google. Frustrations that had been lingering under the surface for many years:
“It has too many ads.”
“I can’t tell the ads apart from legitimate search results.”
“Scrolling and clicking through a million links is such a waste of time.”
These invisible problems are like Harry Potter walking around us in his cloak of invisibility, and we’re Argus Filch. We feel something lurking in the shadows and making noise, but our faint oil lamp fails to reveal what’s hiding in plain sight.
I’ve also complained about these things recently, even though they criticize elements that have always existed in traditional Search.
But now, we can’t imagine going back to the traditional search experience for some of our work because we experienced something better in terms of speed and convenience. The quality of search chatbots is still questionable, but that deserves a separate post.
ChatGPT, despite its many gaps and flaws, is a testament that innovation can happen by noticing the problems in relatively mundane tasks and processes that have become ingrained in us.
Google Search has been one of the most established, dominant, and successful products in the past two decades. The 2nd most popular search engine, Bing, has a minor 8% market share compared to Google’s 85%.
And yet, Microsoft’s new chatbot-powered Bing has kicked off a paradigm shift. Every company with a search engine or a browser is building a chatbot search engine. Even Google.
Thank you, Tony Fadell, for teaching us one of the most timeless lessons in design and innovation.
If you’re trying to disrupt a product category, industry, or the world, pause and look around. Invisible problems are waiting to be noticed all around you.
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Bonus: Innovation + Fender Stratocaster
Like I said, there are many examples of innovative products that were the result of noticing invisible problems. One of my favourites is the Fender Stratocaster:
The year is 1954.
Leo Fender released the Fender Stratocaster, an electric guitar eventually used by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The Stratocaster kicked off a revolution.
Before starting his company, Leo Fender was a radio repairman and didn’t even play the guitar. But he noticed all the invisible problems with guitars while fixing them:
Their shape used to dig into the guitarist’s rib cage
They took a long time to fix because of how they were assembled
So, Leo Fender invented a better electric guitar than any other one available at the time. The Stratocaster had a much more comfortable shape, and was built with enough modularity to repair it and return it to the musician quickly.
It was a smash hit.