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Perspectives August 6, 2013

Get Outside The Walls

Seeking inspiration as a key (and underutilized) ingredient to innovation

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*This article was originally published on Evan Tana’s Medium.

Inspiration for ideas can come at unexpected times from odd places. My recent trip to Comic-Con reminded me of a quote from a college professor of mine:

“Get outside, the answers do not sit within these walls.”

I was reminded of the quote while standing in one of the many lines at Comic-Con that notoriously snake a mile past the convention center with crowds who happily wait to get into panels of popular shows. With every zombie or Bluth Family look-a-like that walked by, the chatter in the line would pick up. People clearly love dressing up. As I stood there, I started to ponder whether digitally mimicking the behavior and excitement of dressing up might serve as a way to re-engage app users more frequently. Inspired, I jotted down my thought.

The teams in the class that this professor taught were tasked with exploring and pitching a product idea. The course’s key takeaway was that great ideas are the result of time spent observing human behavior, talking, and learning from the real world. Only then could you arrive at a well-articulated P.O.V. on why your idea will ultimately work. The time spent waiting in sun-drenched lines down in San Diego was a useful reminder of how valuable it can be to get out and interact with the world.

The more time I spend working through different product ideas, whether they’re my own or other people’s, the more I value knowing how to find inspiration. It’s a seemingly basic and obvious step to creative ideation; however, I feel like it’s a lost art amongst product teams. I constantly need to remind myself to slow down and remember to find inspiration. (As a side note, the market research and surveying that we sometimes do isn’t inspiration. It may inform, but it doesn’t inspire.)

Finding inspiration can come in all forms. It’s helpful to find it in both the obvious and non-obvious places. I’ll give you an example from recent experience. Lately, I’ve been exploring ideas that relate to how people participate in interest-based communities. I’ve sought inspiration by going outside the walls and looking for it by observing different environments, seeking non-obvious parallels, and going to the extreme.

Observing different environments allows you to identify core human behaviors that appear as common threads across environments. For my particular exploration, I sought inspiration in digital communities like web-based forums and Reddit, physical communities like a TV show premiere party and a baseball game, and even ad hoc communities such as those that form on talk radio shows and the conversations that happen amongst strangers in an airport waiting room.
Seeking non-obvious parallels allows you to discover solutions that are used in other applications, sometimes tangential ones, that can be applied to what you’re building. The starting point for the exercise is identifying the core emotions you’re trying to elicit or satisfy in the consumer and observing where that might be happening elsewhere to varying degrees. For me, it was using messaging services, playing social games, watching talk show hosts, and experiencing the “jumbotron activities” at live events.
Going to the extreme lets you see what a small sliver of people, the early adopters, are doing today that many will likely be doing tomorrow. Since an extreme user’s behavior is generally more pronounced, going to the extreme also allows for easier observation of the behaviors that everyone exhibits to some degree. I’ve gone to the extreme by hanging out and interviewing forum moderators, rabid face-painting fans, and the people who camp out the night before to reserve spots in line at Comic-Con.
Inspiration is thought of as a mystical and invisible concept that we’re lucky to be struck by every so often. The reality is that it’s simply the necessary fuel for creation. It’s everywhere — it’s just up to us to get outside and find it.

(Thanks to Ben Casnocha, Dominique Ng, Josh Elman, Doug Galen and Kyna Fong for their feedback on the post.)