Aaron Cheang on Disruptive Innovation & Google Wave

Note: This post is over 4 years old. It was first published in May 2010

Aaron Cheang, Lead User Experience Researcher on Google Wave, had some interesting things to say about Disruptive Innovation at UPA 2010. In a podcast recorded yesterday, Aaron gave some insights about what it was like working on Wave within the Google corporate culture. Here’s a brief excerpt of the interview: 

What challenges do you face when working on a disruptive product?”

There are a lot of challenges – some of them are internal, some of them are external. [...] Internal Challenges that you can face are… that if you are in an existing company, with an existing product, the company is usually focused around building the revenue for that particular product. If you’re [working on] the new disruptive innovation that the company is trying to form, you are fighting for the same resources. The metrics that you are measured against are often the same. So people go “Why should we devote X number of engineers or product development specialists or scientists  – or whatever – to your disruptive innovation project when it is only making X% where as our incumbent product makes Y%, which is magnitudes more”.

And so the headcount and the attention that is devoted to your disruptive innovation, internally within a company, can just die. And externally, when you bring to market a disruptive innovation, there is a lot of challenges. Most disruptive innovations fail.

There’s plenty of challenges, typical to any new product development. But from a user experience perspective, one of the hardest ones is that you can’t predict where your disruptive innovation is going to take off.

So, the disk drive industry is the classic example that Clayton Christensen uses to illustrate this. The reason that 3.5” disk drive took off, and overtook the 5¼” ones, was not because they had more storage resolution, it’s not because they were cheaper, it’s because laptops took off at the same time – so people needed a smaller drive to fit in a laptop.

Disruptive innovation says you can’t be sure where your product will be successful, so you have to be very open. It’s going to establish itself in a niche if it meets certain needs, and then you need to grow it from there. They are the external challenges you face when building a disruptive innovation product. [...]

In your talk you mentioned that Google Wave is being used in way you never expected. Isn’t it a very big problem for User Experience professionals to design a product for a purpose that is not already known?

It’s very, very difficult. We love to talk about use-cases, personas… we love to talk about meeting certain needs in certain ways. The whole point of disruptive innovation is that you can’t know for sure. It doesn’t mean you should stop doing the research [...] but you need to not be arrogant in thinking “If we build feature X it will be used in this way and therefore it would meet needs in that way.”


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