Each Kaleidoscope project begins with a client proposal and a promise to deliver innovation. How we achieve the big “Ah Ha” is the nerve-wracking part. But I know from experience, if you’re not nervous; if you don’t have an explorer’s zeal for discovery and a scientist’s passion for discipline, you’re in the wrong field.

Improving on Tradition

When you promise innovation, what many designers believe is that you’re offering a methodology for solving the problem at hand. Traditionally, that has meant identifying competitors, evaluating and comparing their product features and then improving on them.

Innovating within the category, the traditional path

Earlier in my design career, I was given the task of developing a Skil-brand miter saw for Robert Bosch Tools. I conducted a store audit to immerse myself in the category—a natural place for a designer to start. I looked at how design was communicated at the point of sale. I compared Skil’s product to national and private label competitors, evaluating costs, features and how each brand communicated value to the consumer.

But when I broke down a miter saw to its basic components – the blade, guard, trigger mechanism and size of the base – I began to see differences among the key players, like:

  • Which features are most important to consumers
  • How the brands used packaging to differentiate themselves
  • How easy the packaging made it to interact with product features

Next up was user testing on Skil and competitor products. The feedback provided insights on usability, key features for consumers and white space opportunities; where we could improve on underperforming features. I call this kind of method “feature innovation.” This approach has been effective when developing new generations of products. But I felt it was too narrow and sought a new way to find that breakthrough innovation.

Innovating outside the category,
the “Ah ha” moment

Around this time, I started a design project for a scrapbooking client. I went to a scrapbooking party to understand the category. I discovered the scrapbooker’s paper cutter and compared the functions and user benefits to those of the miter saw—most importantly accuracy, versatility, portability and work safety.

I infused these insights cross category, into the design process for the miter saw, using the paper cutter for inspiration. I designed differentiated platforms for what a bench-top saw could look like and how it would operate. After concepts and prototyping, the final design contained many similarities to the miter saw. The innovations allowed Skil to enter new categories at retail and extend their product lines. Read more about our work for Skil here.

We intentionally structure our approach to ensure that we’re getting inspiration from other categories

The key here is to go beyond examining just native features. The first step is to think more abstractly, define the primary function of the product and the user benefits. So for a cutting tool, I thought about what other products are cut and how; like cutting tools for tiles, paper, fabric, plus food processors and medical instruments. When it comes to the basic needs of cutting, each has a distinct approach to innovation.

So let me summarize. By applying our findings to actual consumer benefits, we see which products among different categories share similar features and how they can be leveraged cross-category. In the miter saw / paper cutter example, we took the small circular covered blade and table markings and translated them into a breakthrough innovation. The approach is straightforward:

  1. Define the primary function of the product
  2. Look outside the category to consider which products share that function ad offer the same or greater consumer benefits
  3. Apply those solutions to a new category
The value of this approach can be seen everywhere

Wrigley wanted to reinvent the gum business for a more mature audience. So it drew inspiration from cigarette packaging. They took the structure and applied it to the gum category. It was a huge breakthrough innovation and a form factor that was quickly copied by competitors.

Mead partnered with Kaleidoscope in Cincinnati on a new binder for school kids. We looked at the fashion industry for innovative style cues. The result was an invigorated line of binders that saw an increase of 20% and additional shelf space at Target.

Private label is another category that responds successfully to cross-category innovation. Kaleidoscope Chicago was asked to develop a private label shampoo for Walgreen’s. The traditional approach to private label is to define the category captain and follow is attributes. We used the new way.

First, we defined the design target, the shopper and the broader consumer. We developed three personas and three very differentiated brand positioning statements and stories. Then we defined the emotive benefits that took cues from lifestyle and beauty brands in order to develop a shampoo that was meaningfully differentiated.

Our mood boards and positioning boards explored looks, tones and feels around the celebration of hair, the story around the botanical ingredients and the balance of nature and science. Our final go-to-market product is the Infusium brand. Most consumers don’t even know it is private label, or that it emerged by borrowing from a nonrelated out-of-category industry.

So what do we know?

I’ve provided a lot of examples. Let me sum up the approach in three parts:

  • First, evolve your process; instead of just looking at features within the category, look at user benefits in similar types of products that create an “Ah ha” with the consumer.
  • Second, venture outside the category. You might have to force your team at first and explain the approach to your client, but once they see the value, the sky’s the limit.
  • Third, define the desired benefits rather than the features. This enables you to find the attributes that are best suited to the brand, and ring true with the consumer.