Nine Ways UX Can Power Innovation

Kevin is the User Experience Lead at Pie Insuranceinsurtech leader for small businesses.

Innovation within an organization is necessary for businesses to remain competitive, attract and retain customers and employees, and build lasting brands. In many organizations, the user experience department, or UX for short, is in a unique position to bring great ideas to market. Indeed, UX teams are inherently close to the customer, conduct regular user research and facilitate cross-departmental brainstorming. They are also adept at influencing management and other stakeholders by keeping everyone focused on customer value. Here are nine tactics UX professionals can use to foster greater levels of innovation in their organizations.

1. Company-wide communication on the importance of innovation. UX must work hand-in-hand with management to signal to the entire company the importance of innovation. IRMBR research shows that perceived leadership support is key to creating an innovative environment. This message can be communicated in many ways, including at general meetings. If a team brings a new idea to market, management should celebrate the success in style. The expectation to come up with new ideas can even be communicated in job descriptions and onboarding sessions. Standardizing innovation at every level and in every team will create a culture determined to stay one step ahead.

2. Form cross-functional “tiger teams”. In large companies with multi-level hierarchies, it can be difficult to implement differentiated ideas while working within the existing organizational structure. Large organization controls and standards are great for optimizing current practices, but can unintentionally kill off-the-shelf concepts. UX should work with management to set up cross-functional tiger teams with the flexibility to operate outside of the status quo norms. These teams typically have the support and buy-in from management not only to conceptualize, but also to implement cutting-edge ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day.

3. UX can fuel the generation of new ideas. It can be as simple as setting a business innovation goal and asking anyone in the organization to email ideas to a suggestion inbox. Amazon Prime was the result of an engineer emailing a suggestion to offer free shipping to achieve the goal of offering a better loyalty program.

4. Strengthen innovation capacity. Challenge your UX team to systematically schedule time for innovation during the discovery phase of a design process. Some employees of companies like Intuit are encouraged to spend 10% of their time exploring new and innovative ideas. If everyone is forced to do tactical work all the time, you’ll probably only get tactical results. Give your team time to dream!

5. Go fast and be brave. As Timothy Clark advocates, innovation requires a culture of intellectual bravery. UX should encourage challenging the status quo. This can be done through brainstorming, encouraging debate, or advocating for truly new and differentiated experiences. UX can uphold Jeff Bezos’ mantra of “disagree and engage” when facilitating conversations between stakeholders. This will allow your business to scale quickly while creating a “test and learn” culture.

6. Encourage innovation. UX teams can also reward innovation by publicly recognizing people who have brought new products to market. This recognition could be a widely shared case study or rewards for outstanding efforts. User experience should also partner with the rest of the organization to incentivize team members in other ways, including bonuses, shares, promotions, time off, or greater autonomy. The Harvard Business Review has found that financially rewarding innovators with 10% of the value of their idea may be the most effective reward mechanism.

7. Evangelize a culture where innovators are allowed to fail. As the Harvard Business Review points out, Coca-Cola, Amazon, and Netflix all realize that to be truly successful, employees need to feel safe taking calculated risks. If people in your company are punished when an educated guess doesn’t come true, others are unlikely to take similar risks.

8. Set realistic return on investment expectations. The 2017 Digital Banking Report found that more than half of surveyed financial institutions measure the success of their innovation efforts over a one- to three-year horizon. Being realistic about the time it takes to see results can avoid potential disappointment that could otherwise undo your innovation program.

9. Help manage the innovation process. User experience should solicit ideas, perform discovery to refine ideas, and work with other groups to decide which ideas move forward. As product design experts, UX can collaborate with other departments to assess expected business value and level of effort to better prioritize ideas. It is essential that someone takes responsibility for providing feedback on why initiatives are not progressing, as well as offering updates on initiatives that are progressing. Managing an innovation funnel takes time and effort, so having a group that can commit the time to it is half the battle.

I believe everyone has the same opportunity to scale up and drive innovation within their organization, but time and again I’ve seen UX professionals who don’t view this as something they can or should do. Too often, the difference between the most innovative and the least innovative organizations is just a few people ready to light the fire. So this is a call to all UX designers, product designers, and other human-centric professionals to pick up the slack and drive innovation. You are well positioned to be agents of change and ensure your business is set up for long-term success.


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