Small Innovations with Massive Impact
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
As a rule of thumb, the more innovative an idea is, the riskier it is to implement. Big innovations involve big change and big risk. A new product idea may need new production tooling, new packaging, new marketing and more. If it fails, that is money lost. But not always. Sometimes, a very simple, almost risk free innovation can have a profound impact. Here are three examples of ridiculously simple, even obvious innovations that have truly changed the world.
In 1959, Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin came up with the idea of the three point seat belt that we see in cars today. All in all, it was a trivial invention: adding a belt of fabric around the seats and anchoring it to a car's chassis. But to date nothing − absolutely nothing − has done more to reduce injury and save lives in car crashes. In spite of computers, air bags, self-driving cars and more, according to America's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "For adults and older children (who are big enough for seat belts to fit properly ), seat belt use is the most effective way to save lives and reduce injuries in crashes."
That means that untold millions of people are alive today because they or their parents or their grandparents wore seatbelts. Incidentally, and to Volvo's credit, the company opened up their patent for seatbelts, allowing any manufacturer to use them without having to license the idea or pay royalties.
Wheels on Suitcases
Being in my 50s and having been a regular traveller since I was a child, I still remember clearly the days when we actually had to carry suitcases or hire a porter to do so for us. It was in 1970 that Bernard Sadow had the remarkably obvious idea of putting wheels on the bottoms of suitcases so you could tow them along rather than carry them. In spite of the simplistic brilliance of the idea, it did not really catch on and throughout the 70s and 80s, most travellers carried suitcases to the airport at a time when even in economy you could check in two rather substantial bags. In part this was because wheeled suitcases with a pull strap tended to fall over easily.
Twenty years later, pilot Bob Plath had two more really simple ideas. Firstly, he turned the suitcase sidewise and put one wheel at either side of the wide end of the bag. Secondly, he put a retractable handle on the suitcases. With this small modifications, even big heavy suitcases could be dragged behind you with ease.
None of these ideas were momentous. Any of them could have failed without causing the manufacturers disastrous loss. But they did not fail. They succeeded big time and today, an unwheeled suitcase is a rarity and probably an antique.
Technically, SMS (short messaging service, called "text messaging" in the US) is not quite as simple as the other two inventions I've written about here, but conceptually it is very simple. In the 1980s, when developing GSM protocol, which is the digital standard behind mobile telephony today, a provision was made for sending short text messages. The reason for this was to send users network messages, such as notification of voicemails or missed calls. It was not until 1992 that a Vodaphone engineer had the idea to use his telephone's SMS capability to send a personal message to his colleagues. A year later, Nokia (then the innovative leader in mobile telephones), introduced handsets that permitted users to send SMS messages to other telephones.
It took a few years for SMS messaging to become popular. By the mid 1990s, more and more young people in Europe acquired mobile telephones. However, phone calls were at the time relatively pricey, especially by the standards of chatty students on budgets. Messages, on the other hand were relatively cheap.
Moreover, the 160 character limit of the time meant young people, usually more creative than we older people, had to devise ways to communicate as much as possible within the constraints of a limited number of characters. Hence they came up with abbreviations, such as LOL, OMG, ROFL and others which are commonplace today.
Today, there are lots of ways to communicate by mobile devices: SMS, telephone calls, Facebook messaging, email, Skype, Whatsapp and others. Yet, SMS probably remains the most popular. Nevertheless, it was nothing more than a simple add-on to the GSM protocol.
These three innovations, unlike most, were easy to implement and relatively risk free. It was a simple matter for Volvo and other manufacturers to bolt seatbelts into their cars. And, if people did not like the seat belts, they could simply opt not to wear them. Sadly, too many people did not use seat belts and continue not to do so in spite of their proven injury reduction and life saving value. Compare the development of seat belts to that of the iPhone. The development and marketing of the iPhone was expensive and risky. Had it failed, it would have been a financial disaster for Apple.
Had seat belts failed, it would not have made much financial difference to Volvo. Likewise, putting wheels on suitcases did not involve fundamental engineering changes to the traditional suitcase. It was a simple matter to install them on some suitcases and not on others. Had they failed, it would not have been a financial disaster to Macy's, the first retailer to market wheeled suitcases.
Mobile telephones using GSM in the 1990s already had screens for short messages and the protocol for receiving the messages. Old fashioned land line telephones already had letters on keys. As a result, it was easy for Nokia to use this system to provide SMS messaging between telephones. Physically, SMS enabled telephones looked and felt just like phones without the capability. Had SMS messaging not taken off, it would have been no big deal to Nokia. Their telephones also worked fine and dandy for telephone calls which, it is sometimes hard to believe today, was the primary purpose of the mobile telephone.
What about your product? Is there a simple addition or reduction you can make to your product that would make it safer, more convenient or more functional? If your product is a technical one, are there existing functionalities that could be exploited to make it more useful?
Unfortunately, simple product innovations and inventions that have profound impact are rare. So, don't get your hopes up.
The way to find them, I believe, is not through brainstorming or struggling to find ideas. I believe the way to be inspired to make simple, but profound changes to everyday products is to watch the world. Watch how people use your products and similar products. Watch your typical customers when they are not using their products. Think about things like safety, convenience and connection.
Just as, one day while lugging heavy suitcases through an airport Bernard Sadow was inspired to install wheels on suitcases, one day you might be inspired to make a simple, but profound change to a product you and others use regularly. If you do, tell me about it!
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