How To Innovate: The Dummy’s Guide

Pitch after pitch, it’s clear a lot of people get this wrong from the start. We take a hard stance on our process for coming up with new products, ideas, features, or services — essentially, how we innovate. The human element of innovation is too often lost.

First and foremost, we talk to people about their problems.
I enjoy talking to people about their problems. Very often, I like to ask these three questions:

  1. What is your biggest problem? Why?
  2. What is your biggest time drain? Why?
  3. What is unnecessarily expensive? Why?

We don’t go in swinging with ideas, solutions, and a pitch; we go in swinging with questions. We seek to understand people deeply, understand their problems and their motivations. We ask “why?” a lot.

The myth of the lonely visionary
There’s this idea that the lone genius in a sterile room will, by just sitting there and thinking for long enough, happen upon the brilliant idea of a lifetime. And that’s the process that most pitches I hear went through. They are entirely disconnected from real problems.

This lonely visionary concept is a myth. You have to understand people and their problems to be able to create a valuable solution for them.

Henry Ford’s ill-cited quote
A famous Henry Ford quote:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

I love this quote. But many think it proves the lonely visionary — Henry didn’t talk to people, so why should I?

Here, however, Henry should have asked a simple question: “why?” For example:

Here’s the difference: Henry already knew the problem. His quote is not a license to take people out of the equation. It’s proof that you need to know the problem, not the request.

Find the fundamental, underlying problem
Understanding the fundamental, underlying problem is the key to building the right thing. How? Use the 5 Whys.

There’s an urban legend, probably untrue, that goes like this:

A proposal was submitted to move the city airport to a new location. It would cost $500 million. While reviewing the proposal, someone asked,
“Why does the airport need to be moved?”
“Because its current location has a huge bird population that is becoming a serious risk to the increasing traffic of airplanes taking off.”
“Why are there so many birds?”
Unsure of the answer, the team looked into it. After some time, they discovered the answer. “Because there is a large population of spiders in the area that the birds eat.”
“Why?”
After looking into it again, “because there is a large population of large insects at dusk that the spiders eat.”
“Why?”
“Because the bright lights on the local monuments attract them at dusk.”
“Why are the lights so bright?”
“So people can see the monuments. Though they don’t need to be so bright.”
Knowing this, the team first tried dimming the lights to 50% brightness, and ultimately the problem went away. Instead of spending $500 million, they actually ended up saving a few bucks each year.

Using the 5 whys helps you to get down to the fundamental, underlying problem. Solve that problem.

Good product design starts with empathy.

Then, start to solve the problem.
Once you have a problem that resonates, then attempt to solve it. This is the step that takes creativity, imagination, research, thinking alone, thinking out loud, and brainstorming.

Propose solutions to people, and find one that resonates.

Iterate and refine.
As you propose solutions, write down all of the questions people ask. Make those pieces clearer for the next person you share the solution with. Their qualitative remarks can be invaluable.

With their feedback, you can iterate not just the concept, but also the language that surrounds it. For example, when I was first telling people about the idea that would eventually become Mail Pilot, I suggested a feature I called “review by date” where an email that you don’t need to deal with until friday could be marked for review on Friday, leaving the inbox until then, and popping back up at the time it was needed. People loved the idea, but it took a little bit of time for people to get it. One person said, “Oh, like a reminder!” To which I thought, “duh, yes, that’s a way better name.” For everyone else, I called it a reminder and it clicked instantly.

Share, listen, iterate, repeat.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: iteration is key. Execution trumps ideas. Iterating with feedback is how to nail the execution.

Connect your ideas with reality.
With both Mail Pilot and Throttle, we were coming up with ideas that aren’t supported by today’s protocols. The last step is to figure out how to get reminders to work in today’s IMAP protocol or how to detect someone sold your email address with today’s SMTP protocol.

Without connecting our ideas to the reality of today’s context, today’s technology, we’d ship software entirely useless for people’s current setups, and our software could die before ever being adopted. Even Google couldn’t pull that off, sadly.

This quote is the cornerstone of our existence:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

Consider what would kill your product.
Every month, we like to ask ourselves, “What would kill Mail Pilot?” Or better yet, “What would kill email?”

We’ve had a few answers, and those answers are slowly becoming products and features. While yes, that means some of our products will cannibalize our existing top-sellers, if we don’t, someone else will.


It’s dead simple. There are three simple steps to take when trying to ideate a product to bring to market.

  1. Find a problem that resonates with people
  2. Find a solution to that problem that resonates with people
  3. Connect your ideas to reality

If you leave this post with one thought, let it be this: don’t forget the human element of innovation.