How to move from imitation to innovation

4 min read
Sarah Doody
  •  Jan 26, 2016
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When I start a new project, I immediately go into research mode. I spend hours looking at other sites, products, and apps to see if the purpose of the product is clear.

I’m looking at the ease of navigation. I’m looking to see if every part of the experience helps guide the user to their end goal. I’m looking to see how the content is organized and if the story is consistent. I’m looking at everything.

As I’m doing this, I’m creating a library of mental notes and taking screenshots that I save to an inspiration folder for each project. I’m always referencing ideas from other products, drawing parallels to help me see what’s working and what’s not, and what could be applied to anything I’m working on.

Inspiration is critical to the design process.Twitter Logo It’s a catalyst for new ideas, it forces us to push the limits of our own innovation, and it can serve as a way to explain an idea to collaborators and clients.

But what happens when teams get a little too attached to inspirations and ideas from other sites and products?

“Inspiration forces us to push the limits of our own innovation.”

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It’s easy to get married to solutions without stopping to consider the thinking behind them. The risk: people get attached to solutions that were right for another product but may not be right for their product.

This leads to a dangerous cycle of trying to imitate rather than innovate. Every feature or idea is unintentionally put through the filter of the inspiration site. If the inspiration site did it, then great. If not, forget about it.

It’s a form of decision bias that has huge consequences in product design.

Teams that fall into this trap risk designing and developing features that may not be right for their product and audience. The ultimate penalty is paid when a product or feature launches and the audience doesn’t respond in the intended way—or, worse, doesn’t respond at all.

This happens because the feature may have been great for the other product’s audience, but it doesn’t resonate with theirs. It’s a good feature, but it’s the wrong context.

“We must be careful to not become too attached to inspiration sites.”

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When I’m working with clients, collecting and interpreting feedback is one of the most challenging parts of my role. Here’s the truth: people are good at telling you what they don’t like. When it comes to articulating what they do like, that’s a huge challenge.

In the design process, clients and stakeholders have a bad habit of withholding their key inspiration sites. Sure, they might reveal a few sites and apps early on, but there’s often a single inspiration they’re married to. And for whatever reason, they can’t bring themselves to let go of it.

The problem with inspiration sites is that a lot of times, clients and stakeholders fail to consider the context of why a feature exists and why key design decisions were made. People become enamored with shiny objects and don’t stop to consider the intention behind the interface, user flow, and design.

When you copy without considering the context, you have no idea if that solution was successful. You might be copying something that’s being tested—or something that’s not working at all.

So what do we do when we can’t seem to get a client or stakeholder to let go of the inspiration they’re married to? How do we stop them from taking inspiration too literally and creating a product that lacks the right context for their audience? How do we help clients move from wanting to imitate inspirations and instead let us do our work and together be true innovators?

Signs your client is stuck on an inspiration site

Sometimes getting good, actionable feedback from clients and colleagues is like pulling teeth. You’re often stuck with vague responses, and phrases like “I just don’t like ______” run rampant without disclosing the “because” behind the objections.

Your job as a designer: listen for these clues.

1. They only give prescriptive feedback

One huge clue is when the client consistently gives prescriptive feedback. Are they always telling you exactly how to design it or what to do? This is a strong sign that they’re getting that functionality and design from somewhere else. They’ve latched onto another site or product and can’t seem to let go.

“The problem with copying: you have no idea if that solution was successful.”

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In this case, you should respond with questions such as, “Do you have any examples of where you’ve seen this?” It’s possible they just might cave and reveal the site that’s causing such bias in their decisions and design feedback.

2. Project requirements and scope keeps changing

If each round of reviews is met with new requirements, this could signal that your client has found a new inspiration site mid-way through the design process. The more time a client or colleague spends with an inspiration site, the more new ideas they’ll have for their actual product. And thus, the more the requirements will likely keep changing.

To address this, try to have the client map every new requirement and feature request back to the key user goals or needs that were established for the product during discovery and kickoff. If the new requirements or feature requests can’t be justified, then it’s a strong sign that maybe they’re not needed.

What to do once you’ve identified the inspiration site

If you’ve uncovered the exact site or product that a client or stakeholder is married to, then congratulations—you’ve reached a big milestone. By now you should have a clear understanding of why certain feedback and ideas have been present during the design process. You can now see through the lens the client has.

But it’s important to dig deeper. Your client’s been captivated by this inspiration site for a reason, and it’s critical to understand why. The best way to decode this is to have the client walk you through the site or product, in real time, and show you what they like about it.

“Teach your client to innovate, not imitate.”

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This exercise will give you ample opportunity to gently nudge them and understand not just what they like about it, but more importantly, why.

I once had a client who was obsessed with doing a real-time animation of user activity in the form of a map. I tried to explain that it wasn’t a good user experience. Users aren’t going to linger on a homepage just to watch animations of user activity on a map.

Then the client walked me through a competitor’s site that did exactly that. After I asked questions and started to connect the dots, it became clear that the client believed the animated map conveyed usage, aliveness, and global reach of the product.

Getting that “why” enabled me to design some solutions around those goals instead of instead of imitating the features and bad user experience of the inspiration site.

How and when to introduce your own inspiration sites

Once you have a solid understanding of why a client is stuck on key features of inspirations sites, you’re equipped to introduce your own inspiration sites that will show features of true value.

You’re an expert. This is your chance to show clients features that will actually map back to users’ needs and goals instead of chasing trends. Sometimes it helps to have your own inspiration sites to showcase these ideas, but the difference is that your inspiration sites will be rooted in context.

People are funny. Sometimes when you introduce a feature idea or specific design element, it’s possible the client might hate it. But show the client that feature idea or design element already being done in another product or app, and they could fall in love with it.

It’s your job to carefully select inspirations that showcase ideas you have and then let that become the client’s new inspiration site.

In effect, you’re replacing the client’s inspiration with new ones that are based on insights and not just exciting trends or design elements that seem worthy of being copied.

One key tip when introducing your own inspiration sites is to always be educating people about why you selected the inspiration site.Twitter Logo Why is it appropriate? What does it have in common with the client’s product? What goals might it share? What proof is there that this has been successful in the past?

Inspiration: moving from imitation to intention

When creating something new, starting with a blank canvas can be intimidating. So it’s only natural that we distract ourselves with seeking inspiration to jumpstart ideas. We must be careful to not become too attached to inspiration sites.Twitter Logo

The challenge is that inspiration sites have power over us and possess the potential to influence our decisions. It’s important to consider the intention behind a feature or idea on an inspiration site. But when people get married to an inspiration site, that step of considering the thinking behind the solution is often skipped.

In your design process, make a concerted effort to seek out your client’s inspiration sites. See the world through their lens. Understand the whys. Teach your client to innovate, not imitate.Twitter Logo

Want more? Check out Sarah’s guide: 10 questions to ask a client who’s married to an inspiration site and just wants you to copy it. Header photo by Blue Mountains Library. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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