Recently, Ian Bogost wrote a thoughtful critique of innovation in The Atlantic. He expresses a frustration I share with the rhetoric of innovation as a marketing tactic — the idea that we must be constantly “reinventing” objects and experiences in order to capture the imagination (and dollars) of today’s consumers. The issue is that “innovation becomes the goal, no matter its contribution to form or function.”
To Ian’s point, most things don’t need to be reinvented, and we’ve all become inured to the hype of startups that are “reinventing” laundry, or lunch, or shirts. However, I believe that innovation and reinvention are fundamentally different concepts. Modern marketing language may have conflated the two, but it is worth our while to talk about the true value of innovation, and try to reclaim that word from the land of advertising.
Innovation done right is less about change for its own sake and more about understanding the soul of a thing — an object, a process, a piece of software. Furthermore, it is about using new technologies, contexts, or approaches to more effectively express that soul. What is its core benefit to the people who use it? What values does it hold that set it apart from another thing? An innovation practice seeks to discover those values and then to design in a way that elevates them, to make the soul of the thing more apparent and useful. When change emanates from that understanding, it creates true value for people. When change is applied from the outside in, it is meaningless at best.
Having recently joined Automattic as Head of Design Innovation, I have been seeking to understand the soul of WordPress and what that means in the present context. Our mission is to “democratize publishing”, so my first question is, “What do we mean by publishing?”. When WordPress was first developed, publishing and making a website were one and the same — it was the only way to share information online. But in 2018, publishing has grown into a vast network of channels and modalities. Publishing can mean making a podcast, sending an email newsletter, posting vacation pics on Instagram, or firing off a tweet. It can be personal and shared privately with groups of friends in group messages or Slack. It can be the professional voice of a large organization broadcast to the world. It can be text, photo, video, multimedia, VR, AR, video game, or mobile app. The possibilities are endless and the world of publishing grows ever more complex.
But making a website or a blog is still one practice amongst that multitude. Now that it is no longer the default but an explicit choice, what motivates someone to do so? What value does that provide? What is the soul of that endeavor?
As I dig into those questions, my initial answers touch on craft, control, and freedom. Making a website in the age of platforms is a choice to have control over your message and the context in which it is presented. It is a choice to be able to approach publishing as a craft — to make your own thing, with the space for it to be as unique or experimental as you want. And it is the freedom to own your data, rather than participating in platforms that will sell it to the highest bidder. It is the choice to be your own destination and to participate in the open web.
So as I think about innovation in the context of WordPress, it is focused on how we experiment to better express the soul of the thing. How can we provide tools that allow not just for productivity but for virtuosity? How can we provide a compelling case for making and craft amongst platforms that push convenience and standardization? How do we give business owners, writers, makers, and sellers tools to enable and control their success? And furthermore, how do we take advantage of the new contexts and technologies of 2018 to create the best expression of WordPress? As we explore possible answers, innovation should mean doubling down on those values of craft, control, and freedom and letting them shine as the heart of the WordPress experience.
Part of the challenge here is that even Bogost is using the word innovation in a sloppy way. Before marketing hype around the i-word took over in the 90s, there were clear definitions among academics and historians for two words:
invention: something you make that does something
innovation: an invention that has succeeded, gained adoption and solved problems
So the electric light was an invention in the 1870s, but wouldn’t earn the label innovation until, say, an entire city was using it as a major way to light the town.
Somehow these two terms have been collapsed and now any team that makes anything gets called “innovating” which is not only self-inflating it’s also very confusing 🙂 No person can legitimately call what they’ve invented an innovation – it’s only how the world responds to it that defines if it’s worth of that term. Innovation is an outcome, rather than something in the invention itself (which means there are many great ideas that never gained enough adoption to earn the label).
If you buy this line of thinking, it makes Bogost’s article much simpler. The Mahabis slipper is just an invention, and most inventions have flaws or focus on trivial and possibly useless design choices. The history of inventions for the last 2000 years is filled with many frivilous, ridiculous and, in retrospect, downright goofy ideas.
> When change emanates from that understanding, it creates true value for people.
I agree with you – the key word is value. And that’s why I dislike the use of the word innovation so much. It’s a terrible distraction. It’s hard enough to design a good thing, that solves real problems for people. That’s hard and rare. When people tell me they want to innovate, I suggest they focus on solving harder problems, or solving problems far better than anyone else. It’s hard to get lost when you focus on solving problems. But when the i-word comes out, people are soon chasing their tails.
> my initial answers touch on craft, control, and freedom
I like these answers. Control and Freedom are of increasing of concern given how the media/landscape changes.
My only question is I don’t think most WordPress users think about the problems they face in terms of craft. Certainly, the artist/photbloggers/creatives do, but the majority of people I know who use WordPress use it as a tool. It’s like a hammer or a ladder, something used to solve a problem. They want WordPress to work more easily, more simply, more reliably. They wish it wasn’t so hard/scary to learn a new feature (without breaking the rest of their blog). I know that’s boring from an invention/innovation perspective, but it shouldn’t be.
A true innovation is something that makes a significant positive change – and the most likely way to do that is to focus on the fundamentals of what a thing does. Moving from oil candles to the electric light is a significant positive change. It reduced the labor to keep a house lit, made lighting safer and improved the quality of lighting, simultaneously. What would the equivalent be for WordPress?