Innovation Lessons from a Mouse

ImageOn July 3 2013, Douglas C Engelbart died. He was the inventor of, among other revolutionary computer advances, the computer mouse, and his history is worth considering for what it says about innovation.

In 1968, Engelbart made the first public demonstration of the mouse at a computer conference in San Francisco in front of over a thousand of the world’s top computer scientists. The public introduction of the mouse at that presentation, today called “the mother of all demos”, had little impact on the acceptance or use of the mouse at that time. In fact, the computer mouse languished for over a decade at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center until Steve Jobs saw the mouse during a Xerox PARC visit and in 1984 introduced the mouse to consumers with the Macintosh. Jobs knew that acceptance of the mouse by consumers would be difficult, though, so he eliminated cursor keys from the Mac to force consumers to use the mouse as the only means of moving the cursor. “Jobs did not believe that the customer was always right; if they wanted to resist using a mouse, they were wrong.” (Steve Jobs, p. 137).

The facts that the computer mouse did not naturally get accepted upon its public display in 1968 and that consumers in 1984 had to be forced to use the mouse define two of the top challenges to innovation: (i) customers can’t tell you what innovation they want, and (ii) customers will be resistant to innovation that changes their current way of doing things.

Henry Ford famously said of his development of the car, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Customers are well known to be unreliable sources for innovative ideas and for assessing the value of innovative ideas because their only point of reference is what they already know—they can’t tell you that they need something new unless it is an obvious modification to what already exists. This makes sense when you consider that one of the key characteristics of innovation is risk: if customers are asking for a technology, there’s no risk-taking in giving it to them and therefore there’s no innovation being created. No one was asking for multiband compression in 1989, and the introduction of wide dynamic range compression in hearing aids was initially rejected by experienced hearing aid wearers; they wanted more gain, having only experienced linear hearing aids, while compression actually provided less! No hearing aid wearer ever said that they want their next hearing aids to have frequency lowering—in the early 2000s, most hearing aid experts predicted that frequency lowering would not have value in a hearing aid—yet today frequency lowering has provided benefit to hundreds of thousands of people with severe high-frequency hearing loss.

“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” said Jobs. This is because customers often don’t realize that they have an unmet need until a solution appears. Humans are adept at finding and getting used to workarounds to problems so they don’t realize that the potential for an improved solution exists. Proctor & Gamble employees once conducted consumer research about the user-friendliness of their detergent boxes. Their customer focus groups did not reveal any problems, but one of those customers was observed to keep a screwdriver beside their box of Tide. Why was the screwdriver there, the P&G researchers asked? To open the box of Tide, replied the customer, not recognizing that they had so gotten used to a workaround to a problem with P&G’s product that they were unable to recognize the opportunity for improvement. This is why superstar innovators like IDEO, the world’s top design firm, rely on customer observation rather than focus groups for their breakthrough customer insights.

Some innovations are accepted right away by consumers but, like the computer mouse, many take time for people to recognize the benefit that the innovation provides. This is not unlike acceptance of gain by first-time hearing aid users, who initially don’t want their full gain prescription and are satisfied with insufficient audibility but eventually learn to value the full gain prescription that meets the needs of their hearing loss.

As technology advances—with wireless technology accessories, new signal processing features, advanced user interfaces, connected hearing health—you will be faced with these innovation challenges of how to get your patients to accept innovation and to accept the change in behavior that some innovation requires. You yourself will also be faced with this challenge as new tools for fitting your patients are created and new hearing health solutions for better meeting the unique needs of your patients are developed. Similar to the introduction of innovation throughout history, many of the innovations that will be introduced to your business may not be obvious solutions that you have been asking for and may require a change in your process with patients. When the new computer mouse of the hearing aid field is introduced, will you give it a try and see if it benefits your business and your patients?

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