London and New York City have comparable populations, and are seen as the Western World’s…
Faces of Innovation: Interview with Brian Millar of Paddle Consulting
First things first – please can you give us an overview of your experience in Innovation?
The Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo tells the nail-biting story of Alex Honnold’s quest to El Capitan without ropes. I may be the only person to walk out of that film with this question burning in my mind: What the heck had Honnold done to his trousers? You see, I have spent much of the last decade working with people at the extremes of human experience to see how they use products, and what designers might learn from them.
Honnold, who presumably could get any piece of climbing gear he wanted for free, has clearly hacked the bottom fifth off of his kecks. Not even neatly. What is it about climbing trousers that the world’s most daring athlete finds annoying? And why have none of his sponsors brought out a pair of pants that corrects the problem?
I’m a researcher who doesn’t care what most people think. Most people hated Red Bull, PCs, Pop Tarts and Aeron Chairs. Most people can’t tell you what to design next, because they’re happy with the products they already have. To find out where to go next, you have to look elsewhere. For me, that often meant looking at ‘the extreme’: ultra athletes, special forces soldiers, astronauts and people who live in dengue-infested swamps.
I also look in data. Most companies look at their customers through their patterns of consumption. ‘What does a Pepsi drinker think of this?’ ‘How does a conscientious cleaner shop?’ I think that the big opportunity lies in seeing people in the round, as complicated multidimensional people. We used to simplify to make strategy. I believe that radical innovation begins by thinking of people’s needs in new ways.
My new company looks for opportunities using machine learning, looking for the mismatches between people’s tastes and the kinds of content and products that are served to them. Consumer demand for innovation is accelerating in all categories. Moore’s Law has taught us that everything gets twice as good, for the same price, every 18 months. If it’s true of laptops and Netflix, why can’t it be true for dishwasher tablets or whisky?
In your opinion, how has the service of innovation consulting changed and evolved over the last five years?
Every company is feeling the pressure to improve. As retail moves online, the opportunity to experience a product is rapidly changing, and there’s an increasing distinction between two categories: high-interest and low-interest products. The high-interest ones get all the love on social media: political parties, athletic apparel, mobile phones. The low-interest ones are having to fight our belief that they’re all generic.
‘Alexa, order me 6 Duracell double A’s’ is a billion pound sentence.
‘Alexa, get me some AA batteries’ is a death sentence.
Some categories have managed to gain our interest. Mattresses and sheets, for example (who knew that thread count was a thing?). Others are slipping into irrelevance. My teenagers have no idea about car brands, for example. In a world where everything works, innovation is less about making things better and about making them relevant.
Brexit. How do you think it will impact the consulting industry in the UK?
British firms have always lagged behind US competitors in investing in innovation. Nobody with half a brain tries to go after UK-only clients in the innovation game. Brexit is a commercial disaster for our country but at least the pound plummeting is good news for those of us with US clients.
Brian Millar is a founding partner of Paddle Consulting, a company that helps clients become more engaging by gathering data about the things people like and dislike on the Internet.