Human Innovation is the British company using unconventional data to uncover your desires

Innovation isn’t considered something you can learn. To be innovative, you need to go against the established norms and bring in new ideas; it’s a creative process, and one that many businesses can’t seem to grasp successfully. To base your entire business upon innovation sounds like an almost impossible task.

“Most organisations aren’t Google,” Human Innovation CEO and founder Lee Powney tells me, as we chat in the company’s bare-bricked central London office. “[Most organisations] have a process in place that is designed to de-risk new ideas and innovations. They find it very difficult to launch things to market that move the needle for them.

human_innovation_lee_powneyLee Powney – CEO, Human Innovation

“When you get a player that comes in and changes the conventions, how do you react? Especially when you’re [a] large [company] and you don’t have the systemic ability to recognise a great idea and then commercialise it?”

That’s where Human Innovation steps in. Powney and his team work with established brands in sectors that are being disrupted by new technology and new players. They look at what individual customers want, ensuring that customers’ core desires are reflected in the products that companies bring to market.

Human Innovation doesn’t work with just anyone, though. Previous clients include HP, Marriott, Microsoft and GlaxoSmithKline, and every company it works with actively wanted to change their ways, but didn’t know how.

“The de-risking orientation of businesses means they design processes that are predicated on reliability. ‘I ask a consumer what they want, they tell me what they want, we give them what they want, yet nothing’s changed in terms of market share’.”

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Instead of simply generating data about what customers say they want, the early stages of innovation involve changing a company’s mindset and its data-collection process. But how can you innovate by simply following a process? Surely that just leads you into the same traps as before?

“You’re absolutely right to hit on that point, it’s really interesting,” states Powney, as he sips on his tea. “A process is just a way of tackling a problem. You can imagine from a big corporation’s perspective – where billions of pounds are at risk – they want a process, because a process de-risks.”

The innovation game

The difference between how Human Innovation executes a process and how a big business goes about it is all in the end result. Data collection is about uncovering what’s subconsciously driving a customer instead of pleasing their surface-level wishes. Of course, this is far easier said than done.

“It’s very difficult for you to articulate your desires – what an abstract concept – but you can articulate what annoys you about, say, an airline experience or what annoys you about a feature on iOS. But there’s something else below that’s really is your core desire.

“We identify those core desires, but place it in context of ‘how is this market going to change in the next five years?’, due to culture changes, technology changes, etcetera.”

Aside from a desire to drill down into consumers’ core desires, what sets Human Innovation apart from other research firms is how it interacts with a client’s customers. Known as “contextual enquiry”, Powney explains that his team actually spends time with people, instead of sending out cold, lifeless surveys.

“We’ll text them, we’ll go to bars with them, we’ll spend time with them using the device or service. We’re trying to place how they interact with a brand in the context of their lives and them as individuals.”

For Powney, this process is crucial in finding out exactly what someone wants or expects from a product or service. “It’s a combination of what people say versus what they do,” he explains. “In a certain context, [direct interaction] allows you to get past that clumsy articulation that we all would have if asked something like ‘what do you need from a new TV?’”

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