Invention. Innovation. Improvement. Why they are different, and why it matters.
When designing a new product, it is important that everyone involved has a complete understanding of what is intended to be achieved. Are you trying to invent, innovate, or improve? Nowadays, these terms are thrown around very loosely. So what even is the difference?
I wouldn’t say that inventing something is an easy achievement by any means.. For something to be considered an “invention”, it must be an entirely new idea without a reference point. The idea must not stem from a pre-existing creation. For example, the light bulb, created by Thomas Edison in 1978, is an invention. It was the first of its kind, and changed the world as we know it. More than 100 years later, Edison’s invention has gone through many changes.
Although inventing something is a truly incredible achievement, and new inventions are often a stepping stone towards further progress, they may not always be something that is necessarily ready for the general public. An invention is essentially the first draft of a product, with countless flaws to still be worked out until they become something like the LED (Light-Emitting Diode) light bulb. LED light bulbs are an example of an innovation.
Now, let’s dive deeper into what an innovation is and why the LED light bulb is one. An innovation is something that adds value to an existing product and changes the process. Although it stems from a preexisting idea, innovating twists it to almost seem like something completely different. Now I understand this explanation is still fairly vague, so let’s fall to a metaphor to better explain it. Let’s think about rock ’n’ roll. Regardless of who you think it was by, at some point in the 1950’s, rock n roll was invented. But since then, rock has come a long way. Nowadays, saying you listen to “rock” can mean a lot of different things, as we have all kinds of subgenres available to us. Grunge. Punk. Death Metal. Shoegaze. Indie. Rockabilly. Screamo. All of which fall under the umbrella of rock music, yet all are very different in terms of sound. Each of these subgenres would be considered innovations of the classic rock ’n’ roll sound.
So let’s tie these insights about rock ’n’ roll back to the light bulb. The original light bulb was literally made from a piece of glowing carbon. Thankfully, we have seen substantial strides since then with the light bulb going through many innovations and iterations. Today, many light sources come from a set of LEDs, which is a far more efficient system than using glowing carbon. Although the materials have changed, the idea of a light bulb in which it stemmed from, existed many, many years prior.
So you may be asking yourself, if all of those developments are attributed to innovation, what is an improvement then? Well, technically speaking innovations are improvements. But much like the relationship between a square and a rectangle, an improvement is not always considered an innovation. Instead, improvements are far less drastic and much more incremental. In terms of the lightbulb, an example of an improvement is the use of RBGs in LED light bulbs. RBGs allow consumers to control the color the light bulb is emitting for greater customization and personalization. It doesn’t change too much about the light bulb itself, but is overall a positive contribution to the product and is used in many homes nowadays.
So why does it matter
It is important to clearly understand the objective of your project and by understanding the difference between invention, innovation, and improvement, it should be easier to pursue your project in the most appropriate way. Many companies will go into projects thinking they are innovating, when in reality are only making improvements. This can lead to challenges throughout the design process, as well as misalignment on expectations for the project outcomes. To help ensure success, it is key to decide if your project is focused on innovation, improvement, or invention and proceed appropriately.
And what is the appropriate way to proceed? In my next article, I will discuss how Cast & Hue applies human centered design to the three I’s.