Stop being different, be better

Just re-read Martin Neuimeier’s A Designful Company along with a bunch of my co-workers. Reading a book at the same time as other people is a fantastic thing to do — it sets of neuronic chain reactions and builds common language — and the book itself was pretty good. However, it highlights one of the things that continues to bother me about our collective obsession with innovation.

Neumeier has a passage where he describes his “good/different” chart. It’s not rendered as a quad graph in the Kindle version of the book, but given that it involves two variables with 2 possible values, it practically screams for one:


Like any good quad graph, “up and to the right” is the sweet spot, or, as Neumeier put it “as you might have guessed, ‘good and different’ is the combination that produces home runs.” This bugs me. While I know marketing is all about the whitespace, the onlyness, the thing that no one else does, it seems like a distraction from the real issue: quality and betterness. Good and different could translate into Netflix and the Prius (examples Neumeier cites). But it could also translate into another rev of Microsoft Word that has yet another feature which not only doesn’t make it better, it actually makes it marginally worse because of the clutter and confusion. This would still be “good but different” (making it worse didn’t make it bad).

“Good but different”, as a construct misprioritizes and muddies people’s thinking. Good can very easily become good enough (the Microsoft example) and can cause people to rush to novelty or newness as the goal. Rather than focusing on being better/best, we pick the most obvious and lowest possible standard (who would actually argue on behalf of not good?).

Netflix is much better understood not as different (they used the mail), but as better than the current space. Yes, they used mail, but they did so in order to address the flaws of the video store model: availability of films, locational convenience, and perhaps most important, late fees. Prius is still actually a car, but it’s a better car, not a different one: it burns fuels more efficiently, it runs quieter. The point wasn’t to be as good as the past, with a difference, the goal was to solve problems with fossial fuels and internal combustion engines.

We should really throw out the notion of being different and focus on being good, better, then best. Not only does it avoid the rush to novelty, but it forces product creators (marketers, designers, engineers) to get customer- and user-centric in their thinking. It forces us to step back and ask first questions: what is good/ what would be better? is our belief that the status quo is good really accurate? is our understanding of the category (video distribution) correct?

Scott Berkun has a great post about why we should stop saying innovation, with the great line, which to me says it all: “Just be good. That’s hard enough. Most things made in the world suck. They really do.” This is a big cultural change for most places because an understanding of quality, of what is actually good is usually missing (or not shared or driven by individual tastes) and a conversation to understand what’s good requires time. Much easier to assume that what’s in front of you is plenty good and look for something that makes it stand out. But that’s the real lesson of the above examples, a focus on doing something better, on solving the pain points.

Stop talking about innovation, stop looking for points of differentiation, build a better ________ and people will beat the proverbial cliche to your hackneyed portal and you’ll be all win-win in the sweet spot of whatever quad graph you have.

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