Innovation Through Subtraction

by Tim Kastelle

Innovation Through SubtractionI don’t like focus groups. I’ve found the information that you get from them to be too shallow to be useful. However, this doesn’t mean that when we’re innovating we should just pursue whatever ideas drift across our minds.

Steve Jobs was quoted last year about how Apple doesn’t use focus groups. A number of people used this quote to justify being completely out of touch with their customers, which is a perversion of the main point. The reason that Apple can skip focus groups is that they are incredibly good at understanding what people are really trying to accomplish with technology. To do this, you have to develop a deep understanding of what the core issues in your field are. Here’s an analogy:

There is a chapter by the scientist/artist Jonathan Kingdon in the excellent new book Field Notes on Science & Nature, edited by Michael Canfield. There’s a fascinating section where Kingdon talks about drawing versus photography:

“In the age of instant digital photography it may seem perversely old-fashioned to put a value on the slow, primitive, and inaccurate techniques of manual drawing. Photography teaches us that the very act of putting a line around the edge of an observed object is an artifice. Such outlines rarely appear in photographs, or, for that matter, in nature, and yet… and yet? Contemporary research on the human brain shows that it does NOT process images as a neutral camera does. The brain finds edges and builds constructions that are at least partly based on previous experience 0 possibly including past contacts with artifacts such as “drawings” as well as previous knowledge of natural objects. Visual neurobiology is a discipline in its infancy, but it confirms that visual constructions are both complex and integral to cognitive development. This implies that even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph.

If the brain is unlike a camera in actively seeking outlines, there is a strong implication that “outline drawings” (just to take a single type of visual expression) can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.”


What does this mean in practice? It means that these drawings of a caracal by Kindgon may well transmit information to us that is more useful, more real, than what we could get from a series of photographs:

Innovation Through SubtractionThose drawings do a great job of capturing something fundamental about the animal, as simple things often do. But to be able to draw them, you have to invest an enormous amount of time in observing the caracals, looking at what they do, in which contexts, to build up a deep knowledge of how their physical form expresses what they are trying to do.

You can’t ask a caracal (or even a house cat) what they are trying to express when they pin their ears back. But if you watch them long enough, the meaning becomes clear. Now, customers can answer questions more clearly than a caracal. Usually, at least… But sometimes, this greater ease of communication actually makes it harder to understand what they’re really trying to achieve.

It’s not an accident that the Apple products look like art. The essence of great design is to be able to communicate simply by stripping down an object or a process to it’s fundamentals – which is the same problem with which artists grapple. This is filtering, and it’s how we deal with the avalanche of information which sometimes overwhelms us.

To innovate well, we need the same kind of deep understanding of our customers that artists have of their subjects. This allows us to strip our offerings down to their essence – innovation through subtraction.

image credit: teachmath


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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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  1. Really good stuff. Regarding focus groups (I’m sure you’ve heard this): “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.” -Henry Ford

    Thanks a lot!!

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