Your next big thing: The secrets of product success

Written by Kim Shiffman

Microsoft principal researcher Bill Buxton, a Canadian product-design expert and former entrepreneur, shares his thoughts on how to spur innovation.

PROFIT: What do companies get wrong in product design?
Buxton: Products are being driven by technology, not the [end-user] experience. I don’t care what kind of product we’re talking about: the experience that it engenders is the real product. A drug company is selling wellness; a mountain-bike company is selling an adrenaline rush. We have to figure that out much better.

PROFIT: What should companies be doing differently?
Buxton: Every CEO should ask himself who’s making the design decisions that really impact the experience of the product. In all likelihood, the one making those decisions has no training to know what they mean to customers. CEOs need to put user experience front and centre in every decision.

PROFIT: You’ve said that creativity in business is “somewhat wanting.” Are we that bad at innovation?
Buxton: The Conference Board of Canada released a report card in June giving Canadian companies an “A” in skills, education and employee quality, but a “D” in innovation. There’s a significant lack of upfront investment in the structured generation and evaluation of ideas. The number of companies that hire PhDs to do real research, as opposed to just build products, is almost non-existent. There are fewer today than in1980.

PROFIT: But is that something SMEs can really afford?
Buxton: When I joined [Toronto-based software maker] Alias in 1994, it was a US$100-million company with about 500 people. I set up a research group with five people whose job description was to publish peer-reviewed literature, create patents and have an impact on product. And we did a [computer graphics and modelling] product called Maya that won an Academy Award. This demonstrates that a medium-sized company can support pure research like IBM or Microsoft does, and that it can affect the bottom line.

PROFIT: How can entrepreneurs make their company’s culture more innovative?
Buxton: It takes leadership. The most interesting thing about the Apple story, for example, is that the people who really turned Apple around were already employees there. It was the leadership and culture that changed, not the employees.

PROFIT: You believe brand-new innovations take 20 years to become profitable, and talk about “mining” for existing ideas instead.
Buxton: Think about it: the gold’s been in the earth for centuries, but you can still profit by it if you just picked it up yesterday. You can mine ideas that are 18 years old and have them profitable in two years.

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