I'm trying not to be in a bad mood about the rhetoric around innovation right now. One of my favorite industry commentators, Scott Berkun, is writing his next book on innovation, and innovation has somehow gotten nicely linked with the concept of design, "user experience," and good customer research. There's an article on ethnography's role in market research on the new portal site (The Science of Desire). Google claims in its recent job ads that one of their core philosophies is "Focus on the user, and all else will follow." eBay claims in its last job ad for a UI designer that the position involves "contributing to a culture of innovation and teamwork."
It all sounds like Mom and apple pie, but the truth is it's oversugared store bought corporate pie, not the kind you want to get from your own oven. The truth is that innovation on the job isn't what most managers can handle or want to see because it's disruptive, and management is hard enough without people being creative right and left while you have schedules to meet. (Er, but not me. Did I say I'm hiring? And to be fair, this report by Donna Bear does point out the difficulties inherent for management execution of the innovation goal.) But, clearly, innovation and good design don't necessarily run together at all times.
Google is an excellent case in point. It's foolish to conflate the new, different, and envelope-pushing with stuff my parents will understand, if they make a good yardstick. Flickr doesn't yet pass the parent test for me. Yes, I know that Yahoo -- with a better history and culture of usability than Google -- owns them now. But that fact also gives me hope that one day Flickr will really work for my photoblogging needs. Google's eternal early-launch betas with iffy design and functional incompleteness aren't yet professional caliber user experience, no matter what they claim in their job ads. And I think the stock market forgives them and even celebrates it, which goes a ways to explain my bad mood. Gmail is incomprehensible to my massage therapist who doesn't understand the difference between what's on her hard drive and what's in her email. It's undoubtedly different -- hence "innovative" -- but is it too different for ordinary people to use? Perhaps.
My massage therapist does not care about Google Earth, incidentally.
eBay. Many of their UI designers (and other customer-focused staff) are now bailing for new gigs; what does this say about their culture of "innovation" for designers?
Finally, what does it mean as a company to say you are focused on customers and design, but to employ no researchers with social science background or designers who are non-technical? Where is the diversity that leads to true creativity? I've seen this at a number of companies, of course.
Remember when the major R&D labs shut down or radically downsized in the late 1990's? I don't see enormous evidence of a change of heart, apart from perhaps the new Yahoo Labs. I have friends at other research labs that are feeling underappreciated, underpaid, actually bored, and are looking around now; some of those labs are profiled on the innovation portal.
It's not very convincing, is it, even if you want to believe. Ethnographies of companies that claim to be doing ethnography, or more mundanely, claim to be promoting "innovation" and/or claim to be focused on design and customers, could be damning. Business hype is easy, execution is a different thing.