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The Human Touch: Making Innovations Stick

The Human Touch: Making Innovations Stick

Why do certain innovations stick while others don’t?

Consider not an innovation but an advertisement campaign that ran in New York’s subways during the fall of 2009. The campaign featured an eye-catching advertisement that showed soda being poured into a glass. By the time it hit the glass tumbler, the soda was transformed into liquefied fat: gloopy, disgusting, yellowish human fat that pooled in the bottom of the glass and splashed over its brim. It was so revolting that one couldn’t look away, as sickening as it was. The headline read: “Are You Pouring on the Pounds?”

New Yorkers couldn’t stop talking about the ads, and the media couldn’t stop covering them. The ads were successful because they struck a chord by packing an emotional, straight-to-the-gut punch by abandoning the typical approach of numbing the audience with scientific evidence and factoids. Instead, the ads connected with people on a human level — in fact, many people became nauseous after viewing them — and allowed them to connect the dots: “Sugary soda equals fat.” That’s what successful ad campaigns do – not make people nauseous but rather make them relate, think and react.

Naturally, soda company executives counterpunched the ads by dispelling the “sugary soda equals fat” connection. They tried to say that people drink lots of liquids with fat-producing calories, but the damage was already done: By appealing to human emotions, the ad campaign generated feelings that stuck in people’s minds and hearts. Plus, the campaign passed the “reasonableness test”: what reasonable person can argue that a small behavioral change — forsaking sugary sodas — could have a positive impact on one’s health?

Sticky Business

Let’s move from yucky ad campaigns to innovations that stick. Sticky innovations are those that solve problems, with the stickiest innovations solving the most vexing problems. In the best of times, explanations require lots of attention. But, in today’s society, where the 8-second sound bite is the norm, attention is practically non-existent.

Therefore, don’t explain. Instead, anchor your message in concepts that are already familiar to people, which makes describing an innovation much easier than explaining it from scratch. In the course I teach on engineering innovation, I advise college students to “anchor” their problem-solving innovations by using analogies and associations. For example, a description of Gainesville-based Grooveshark’s innovative approach to listening to music is anchored by this: “Grooveshark is to streaming music what YouTube is to streaming video.” Not many people confuse Grooveshark with YouTube, yet most people understand that both companies’ technologies allow for the streaming of digital media over the Internet.

The Power of Empathy

The objective is to get people to common ground by anchoring one’s message and targeting human emotion. This practice brings to mind a story involving General Electric and its MRI machines. The story was told by David Kelley in a terrific TED Talk involving creative confidence. Kelley told the story of an experienced GE engineer, Doug Dietz, who designed GE’s MRI machines. After years leading the design and innovation efforts for GE’s MRI product line, Dietz realized how frightened children were of the machines. And why not: MRIs are imposing, noisy, vibrating scanning machines that nearly take up entire rooms! It should be of no surprise then that approximately 80 percent of children needed some form of sedation to calm down long enough to endure MRI procedures.

Dietz embraced the empathetic principles found at the core of innovation’s design thinking. Or simply, by innovating with the human touch in mind. By doing so he turned the negative into a positive; Dietz’s team transformed the scary MRI machine into an adventure for young patients – and no longer a frightening medical procure that caused so many to become terrified at the prospect of an MRI examination. The machine became Pirate Island – complete with a newly painted exterior and a story describing why the “Island” made noise and vibrated. (“That’s what happens when we hide from pirates!”)

See Also

Don’t think for a second making this innovation stick was kid’s stuff. Empathy-centric innovation of the next generation of these machines resulted in a large decrease in the number of pediatric patients needing sedation – while patient (and family) satisfaction scores improved by over 90 percent. Examination rooms for other types of imaging procedures were also transformed, with similar results.

All of this was important because high-tech medical imaging is big business for GE Healthcare, an $18 billion division of one of the largest companies in the world. MRI systems examine the human body painlessly today in what was considered magic twenty years ago. But that magic, then or now, was scary – and not just for kids. That’s why Doug Dietz’s incorporating the human touch into re-designing GE’s MRI systems transformed children’s fear into one of excitable adventures.

Now, that’s magic.

David Whitney serves as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering. Whitney teaches a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students at UF and is the creator of the Spotlight on Innovation series. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding Managing Director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies. 

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