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Meet the practitioner!

IN CONVERSATION WITH INNOVATION EXPERT Frances Brown

Businesses must innovate and grow to stay ahead of the competition. But how can businesses innovate without taking huge risks? That’s the question that keeps forward-thinkers up at night. Fortunately, Frances Brown, CEO of Nightingale Design Research, is on hand to help! Frances Brown is a psychologist who worked in academic research before moving into the world of human-centred design over ten years ago, and now helps organisations to minimise risk in their innovation and growth, from the very early stages of idea generation and discovery, through to the implementation of market-ready products and service. Frances has worked with an eclectic mix or organisations like Innovate UK, Lego, the NHS, Accelogress and MyTutor. Ahead of Frances’s Innovation Methods and Mindset short course at STEAMhouse, “Build the Foundations for Innovation and Growth”, we talk to Frances about what innovation means to her, the importance of de-risking innovation and her advice to businesses who want to innovate.

 

Hi Frances, it’s great to meet you! To set the scene, would you be able to tell us about your background in the world of innovation and what you’re currently working on?

I studied applied psychology in Cork, which then led me to human computer interaction and user centred design. I worked in academic research for a number of years before I set up Nightingale Design Research with my husband Michael in 2016. We could see there was a need for research in the world of product and service design and especially in innovation – too many new and shiny products were being created without consideration for user needs or for the world or the market that those products would operate in.

We deliver qualitative and quantitative research – surveys, interviews, user testing – that feeds directly into the design of innovative products and services. Our goal is to ensure companies design successful products that genuinely meet the needs of the market, their customers, and the business itself, so our research looks at everything from user needs to competitors to the business model. Essentially, we support companies to make good business decisions using evidence and data rather than guesswork. We’ve worked with a huge range of organisations, including LEGO, the NHS, The Pensions Regulator and the Department for Education as well as a number of startups and scaleups.

At the moment, we’re collaborating with a startup called The High Street Experts on an Innovate UK funded project that aims to take a people-centred approach to revitalising high street markets. We worked with THSE to secure a Design Foundations grant, which provides funding for innovative companies to work with design experts.  The first step of the project involved understanding the current state of street markets by interviewing local authority staff, market managers, traders and shoppers. We also put out a survey to shoppers and traders. We analysed this research to identify the factors that make a market successful and to understand the problems that markets are facing. Based on this research we generated ideas for an innovative product that can support market managers. We created wireframes for the product and tested them with potential customers. The next step is for THSE to take this idea forward and build a fully functioning system.

 

That’s quite an impressive client portfolio you’ve helped to innovate! I imagine their needs could have been quite different. Innovation can be a bit of an abstract word sometimes… what does innovation mean to you?

I agree that it can be abstract term and it’s often used to refer exclusively to high-tech, complex solutions. To me, innovation means solving a real problem in an effective, affordable and user-friendly way. It doesn’t matter if the solution is a piece of paper – as long as it genuinely makes the situation better, then, to my mind, it’s innovative. Unfortunately, the obsession with complex solutions can mean that an ‘innovative’ solution is implemented because it seems more modern or efficient but, in fact, it causes more problems than it solves. The Post Office Horizon system is the perfect example – a supposedly better solution caused huge suffering and injustice. Innovation should centre around what people and businesses really need, not on what’s currently being touted as the ‘next big thing.’

 

We love that perspective. So, what inspired you to get into the innovation field?

Two things – the first was a fantastic lecturer that I had at University College Cork called Jurek Kirakowski. He was one of the pioneers of Human Computer Interaction and he was very passionate about the field – he showed me that psychology could support the design of a better, more functional world. The second thing was seeing what a difference even a small amount of high-quality design research could make – there is such satisfaction in creating a simple well-designed system that really works and in supporting companies to create products and services that their customers genuinely love.

 

So that’s why you got into innovation, but why is innovation so important in today’s world? What promise does innovation hold?

Innovation isn’t always a straightforwardly good thing – the internal combustion engine was an amazing invention, but its negative impact has been astronomical.  Innovation has huge potential to change the world for the better but only if a ‘big picture’ approach is taken. Focusing too much on quick, easy or profitable solutions generally creates more problems in the long run.

If we stop and think about the kind of world we’d like to live in and we focus on finding solutions to the problems that make our lives less healthy, more difficult and more dangerous, then I think we can use innovation to build a world that we are proud to pass onto our children.

 

So for people looking to innovate better, what do you think the biggest myths around innovation are?

The biggest myth is that it’s about one person being inspired with a great, world-changing idea, which then must be implemented at all costs. This myth leads organisations to believe that, to be innovative, they have to invest massive amounts into complex, risky concepts. This belief can have two effects: organisations feel that innovation is overwhelming and expensive and so avoid it; or they go ahead with a complex idea only to find it’s a huge waste of time and money. The most damaging part of this myth is that it can cause organisations to devalue and destroy the benefits they already bring to the table in pursuit of something bigger and flashier.

In my experience, real innovation is a team effort and great ideas come from getting a clear understanding of the current situation first so that opportunities and potential can be identified and built on. Not only is this approach more effective, it’s also safer and cheaper and tends to lead to better ideas with more longevity and business potential.

 

Could you share a particularly challenging innovation project you’ve worked on and how you overcame obstacles along the way?

At the end of 2019, NHS England commissioned us to carry out research on the ways in which technology could be used to innovate the way in which primary care is delivered. There was a particular focus on remote consultations, which at the time were used very seldom by GPs. The project kicked off in 2020 – our first face-to-face meeting was due to happen at the start of March. As you can guess, the project was delayed due to COVID and was picked up again later in 2020, at which point every GP was, by necessity, using remote consultations. Given the context, there was an even greater need for our research, to understand how GPs could be supported to deliver the best care possible within the constraints of the pandemic. However, we were limited by the fact that doctors were under severe pressure. We changed our research design to take the new situation into account, switched entirely to remote interviews and interviewed doctors as and when they were available. We also used a survey to gather views from a wider range of clinicians without taking up too much of their time. This approach meant that, in spite of the crisis, we got a great response and we were able to provide NHSE with very valuable, in-depth insight into how primary care had adapted to delivering consultations remotely and how innovation could be used to meet needs and build on successes.

 

It’s so important to be able to adapt! With that in mind, what do you believe are the essential qualities or skills for someone looking to innovate?

I think the two most essential qualities are open-mindedness and a tolerance for uncertainty.  Innovation can be a frustrating process and it can sometimes take time and many attempts to get at a solution that works. True innovators are able to learn from failure, adapt their approach and try again.

 

Thank you so much for your time Frances. One last question… What one key bit of advice would you give to people, teams or organisations looking to innovate?

Don’t get distracted by what your competitors are doing – they don’t necessarily have access to any special skill or knowledge and you may end up just copying their mistakes. Always start with research – understand your own business, the market and your customers before you begin. Research will always provide you with a strong foundation and prevent you going too far down the wrong road. Don’t jump straight to a solution – start simple and expand from there.  Don’t be afraid to experiment – the more you try, the more you learn.

 

Thank you so much Frances! That was really inspiring.

If you found this insightful too, we now delve into the thinking behind Frances’s Innovation Methods and Mindset Short Course, Build the Foundations for Innovation and Growth, and how this affordable, one day masterclass can help organisations de-risk their innovation and growth.

You can read this second interview here.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling readily inspired, you can sign up for the short course here.