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5 ways to innovate using simple math

Pieter De Vocht

Innovation & Service Designer
Innovating must not always be about the crazy ideas. Sometimes the best way to innovate, is to use nothing but simple math thinking techniques.
The popular approach
You’ve been told to look outside if you want to come up with innovative solutions to your problem. You need to combine seemingly unrelated insights into surprising new ideas. You should look for opportunities where no one has been searching before. You must connect the most distant, most unrelated dots with each other to reach breakthrough innovations. Yadi-yadi-ya.
Say you’re a bike manufacturer. Asking yourself what you can learn from game developers like Nintendo can help you to innovate. You could improve the physical control buttons on the bike computer for more convenient navigation through the digital interface. Or you could gamify personal cycling goals maybe. This radical approach to innovation can lead to highly creative ideas.
But what if you could also innovate by looking not for solutions in other industries or knowledge areas? What if you could innovate by looking at what’s right in front of you? That would be easy, right?
The math approach

A different approach to innovation

It is easy. It’s called Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT). This thinking technique was born in Isreal in the ‘90s. SIT is a simpler version of the TRIZ approach that Russian engineer Genrich Altshuller proposed half a century earlier. With SIT, you only consider 5 easy thinking methods for creative problem solving. They are easy because all 5 methods look at what’s ‘inside the box’. What does that mean? That there’s no need to look at other industries or unfamiliar solutions. All you need to look at is the product you are trying to improve. Break it down into different components and reshuffle them.
SIT is fun because it forces you to come up with solutions within a given frame -the box if you like. There are only so many elements in your frame that you can play with to find new ideas. These constraints make it fun to ideate, and it also provides a much-needed focus. With open innovation, you can look all around you for solutions. The limits that SIT sets will help you to take multiple looks at the few elements in your frame. Another benefit to SIT is the speed at which you can generate relevant ideas to improve your product. A classic brainstorm encourages wild ideas, resulting in a big pile of Post-Its with random ideas that are often no direct answer to the problem you try to solve. SIT gets you the relevant ideas right away.
Simple math
Looking for solutions inside the box is actually very similar to easy mathematics. Here are the 5 ways that you can innovate with SIT. Nothing but simple math.

Remove

Are there elements in your design that you can get rid of? Many innovations are based on this method. Think of iPhones. Designers removed physical buttons and audio jacks. The first removal was a direct added value to the end user, while the latter was a clever way to boost AirPod sales. Also the digital interface of iPhones got redesigned by removing elements. Graphics got simpler and user steps are reduced so that users can get a job done with fewer taps or swipes. Or think of Apple Pay, which makes payments more convenient by the reduction of steps a user must perform. Just to say that removals can also be applied to service design.

Multiply

This is the opposite of the first method. Here, it’s all about what you can add. Is there something in your design that users might want more of? Maybe your user wants more cable length, battery life, pixels or more data storage? Staying within the Apple ecosystem examples here; Apple sells consumers an expensive phone with shitty storage capacity. But for a marginal extra cost, users can double that capacity to get a fair deal. It’s a dirty technique to convince people to spend even more on a phone, as opposed to a world in which Apple would have true value for money already on the entry-level models. The key takeaway here is to understand what existing product features your users want more of. It is not about adding entirely new features, but about increasing what’s already loved. It’s adding storage capacity rather than adding a bulletproof, strawberry-tasting coating to your phone.

Divide

Break down your problem or product into smaller parts that you can easily reshuffle to find new ideas. Nintendo divided the Switch console into different parts instead of launching it as just one product. Doing so, the designers created more playing scenarios and products. A trilogy is another example of this technique. Sure, you can create just one game, book or movie. But why not increase the total (perceived) value by releasing three -or more- separate products? The teams behind The Dark Knight or The Matrix understood this. Or think of divisions in the user steps of a customer journey. An example of this is the separation of steps in online shopping; A customer can buy sneakers right now and pay at a later date. Sales go boom.

Consolidate

Think of what jobs you can combine in one element of your product. When I look around here at home I already see quite a few designs that use this design technique. The power button on my headphones is also the button to check my battery level and to start the Bluetooth pairing. My right earcup has a touchscreen to a.o. skip or pause songs, fast forward and backward in song, to manage my volume, its noise-cancelling feature and to take calls. Or take my sofa. It’s not only a sofa. You can also turn it into a double guest bed, and it has extra storage space underneath it as well.

Rework relations

Products often have predictable relations with other elements (external), or with the product itself (internal). An example of an external relation is your laptop reacting to the light intensity of its surroundings. As your office gets brighter, the screen of your laptop does the same to guarantee readability on the screen. An internal relation could be that the screen brightness goes down again because your battery is almost dead. It’s the laptop reacting to itself. Look for what relations exist and try to redesign them. You may want to create a new relation -like the screen brightness feature- but maybe you want to break an existing relation. A predicable relation you could break is that of liquids entering the inside of laptops and broken laptops. How could you design your laptop so that you don’t need to worry about anything if you want to get some work done in the pool, or when working outside on a rainy day?
So there you have it. That’s SIT. Give it a go. You’ll find it feels counterintuitive if you want to innovate, but then you’ll notice how much fun it is to use these simple thinking methods to come up with innovative ideas. While open, cross-industry innovation is important, it’s not too wrong to innovate inside your box from time to time. Good luck and enjoy!

Pieter De Vocht

Innovation & Service Designer

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