How to “innovate” when you’re so damn busy

4 min read
Sean Blanda  •  Nov 7, 2018
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Watching notable product designers talk about awesome conference-worthy innovative work can be frustrating and inspiring all at once.

On one hand, they let us know what good looks like; on the other, how the hell does anyone make time to work on those fun, quirky, innovative projects that we see on design blogs everywhere?

Earlier this month, InVision head of Design Education Aarron Walter asked two people who would know: Kim Williams, Senior Director of Design at Indeed and John Couch, Vice President of Experience Design at Hulu. Both have seen their companies grow by hundreds of people, while still managing to maintain a culture of shipping innovative new products.

So what advice do they have to product designers who still have to ship while thinking of the next big thing—especially with an ever-growing list of “must do” tasks? We’ve distilled down their best advice.

(Not into reading right now? Throw on some headphones and watch the entire conversation here.)

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Show, don’t tell

When he first arrived at Hulu, John Couch had trouble communicating where he saw the product going, but then his team had an idea: let’s make the product roadmap into a film of people using Hulu in their day-to-day life.

A chef can’t “test” a meal without getting the ingredients and cooking it, but a product designer can quickly use prototypes, mockups, and, yes, even a film to show where they want to go. One benefit of being a product designer is that your craft allows you to help others visualize the future. Use it.Twitter Logo

The result? “When we showed that to the whole company they said ‘Oh that’s what we’re doing!'” he says. After that becoming clear on how to get there (and knowing what innovative intermediate steps needed to happen) got easy.

“It may not be your favorite thing, but when it comes to doing innovative things you have to sell the concept of design as much as you have to sell your idea”
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It’s your job to sell your design internally

It may not be your favorite thing, but when it comes to doing innovative things you have to sell the concept of design as much as you have to sell your idea.

Picture your product knowledge on a scale. You know what good looks like; you’re starting at an 8 out of 10. Your counterparts in marketing or engineering? They’re at a 2 out of 10.

You have to do a lot of design education to get them ready to hear your idea, especially if you work for an older organization. What should they care about design? How does it help their goals?

“Innovation becomes a thing you can do,” says Couch. “It’s not pixie dust.”

“Innovation becomes a thing you can do. It’s not pixie dust.”
John Couch, VP Experience Design at Hulu
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Make it easy for your coworkers to participate

“Lower the stakes,” says Williams. Especially if you’ve worked for clients as a freelancer or as part of an agency in a past life, you may be used to always having the perfect presentation of your new innovative idea.

“You may be conditioned to polish everything before presenting,” she says. “Tell them this is a working session. You want feedback. There are no bad ideas.”

Another idea? Involve someone from every relevant department whenever you kick something off.

“Engineers usually feel like they are just being given something and told what to do,” says Couch.

cut to every product designer nodding in solidarity

So bring them into the fold. Over-communicate. Invite marketing, branding, engineering to your ideation and kickoff sessions. “They may not have something to contribute, but they’ll have skin in the game,” says Couch—and that means fewer messy surprises when you pass things off between teams and a more trust in what you and your team are doing.

When presenting a product, Hulu teammates will actually pass the microphone (or Zoom call) between team members from different departments. It’s more than just symbolism: it lets everyone watching know that you and your department are open to collaborating.

And that’s how you get buy-in for your fun new idea the next time around.

Ask your manager for better success metrics

If you’re held to unforgiving metrics like subscribers, downloads, and pageviews, you’ll find it hard to spend time experimenting and innovatingTwitter Logo. Couch and Williams agree: how you’re measured is how you’ll be managed.

Come to your next review with more process-based metrics, rather than outcome-based metrics. Things like:

  • How many experiments have you led?
  • How many initiatives have you kick-started?
  • How have you ingrained space for innovation in our day-to-day processes?

Creative thinking doesn’t come from nowhere: you need things to remix, reuse, and reapply.

You’re not optimizing for hitting 100% of your metrics; you’re optimizing for learning quickly.

I know, I know — easy to say but hard to do. That’s why your metrics can help you set your day-to-day measurements to help facilitate this. Getting a manager to respect that may take you showing a few (very rough) prototypes. But as soon as they see the light, bake it into how you’re measured.

“Sometimes innovation isn’t a multi-year strategy. Sometimes it’s about winning at the table stakes,” says Williams.