No matter the forum or platform, designers, executives, and consumers love to discuss (and use) products and services that seem to break the mold. These ideas are disruptive, creative, and often counterintuitive. A decade ago, who could have predicted that mobile phones would take the place of digital cameras, for both still and video images, in the minds and hands of consumers? Or that serious chefs would consider food-truck businesses, once the domain of low-end services but now a trendy, fast, and cost-effective way to open a “restaurant”? Onlookers often think that such marketplace and marketing successes are products of one-off "aha" moments of inspiration or unique research methods. But there are actual strategies that designers and businesses can follow to create such disruptive technologies, objects, and experiences. Here are my three tried-and-true tactics:
1. Support what is likely to fail.By this I don’t mean prioritize experiments and concepts that look like they might not sell; I mean consider technology and designs that might not seem to work for their intended purposes. This is the approach of James Dyson, the British engineer and vacuum entrepreneur, and the company that bears his name. While developing breakthrough products, such as the energy-saving hand-drying machine known as the Airblade, Dyson and his team take note of what ideas and prototypes aren’t achieving their goals and then find new uses for them.
Dyson takes note of prototypes that aren’t working and finds new uses for them.When Dyson’s engineers were working on early designs for the Airblade hand drier, they realized a prototype was creating strange aerodynamic effects. Rather than ignore these, they examined them, looking for new applications. The engineers eventually developed the technology that would lead to the successful Airblade hand drier, but they also retained the failed Airblade prototype and brainstormed ways to turn the design that trapped air into another device. In doing so, they ended up inventing a totally new product: the Air Multiplier, a novel, critically acclaimed fan that Dyson released in 2009. The media lauded its safe design, which relies on carefully trapped and directed air instead of the dangerous rotating blades of typical fans. The product line for Dyson has since expanded its offerings based on the success of the first Air Multiplier. Dyson has admitted that his company had never intended on selling fans. But by paying attention to what didn’t succeed in the lab, he and his colleagues were able to invent something new. Building a “library” of failed experiments, as Dyson has called this approach, can result in a library of successes, too.