“You Had Me At Hello”: Introducing Fluent Innovation

Earlier this week we gave a webinar on Fluent Innovation – an idea we’re using in our new product development work (our famous Predictive Markets tool, instance). The core of Fluent Innovation is very simple – great innovation isn’t just about having a good idea, it’s about making that idea acceptable. And the way you make an idea acceptable is by making it Fluent – familiar, easy to process… “surprisingly obvious”, you might say.

To explain this in the webinar, we told the story of the Bialetti Moka coffee pot, one of the great classics of 20th Century design, and beyond that a massive commercial success – when people say every Italian home has one, they may not be far off!

The Moka Pot. Innovative inside, familiar outside.

The Moka is a beautiful piece of engineering, but that isn’t the only place its genius lies. The Moka combines a brilliant idea and immediately appealing design in a way that’s a perfect example of Fluent Innovation.

The inventor, Luigi Di Ponti, came up with the idea for the Moka after looking at washing machines in a 1920s laundrette, and seeing how they would use heat to push hot soapy water up a pipe and spray it onto clothes. He realised that the same principle could be used to push hot water up over ground coffee to create cafeteria style espresso coffee in the home for the first time.

Di Ponti’s insight was what made the Moka work. It’s the combination of that idea and Alfonso Bialetti’s design that made the Moka genius. Bialetti created an octagonal pot with modern materials – Bakelite and aluminium – that became an instant classic. But why was it accepted so quickly? Because Bialetti had based the design on an existing, and very familiar, silver coffee service whose pots also had octagonal bases.

So the gleaming octagonal shape of the Moka immediately signalled coffee, at an almost unconscious level, to Italian buyers, and helped them trust this radical new invention.  The touch of reassuring familiarity built acceptance, and turned a great idea into a gigantic innovative success.

And that’s Fluent Innovation in action. Just as genius is said to be 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, we believe innovation is 20% the new and surprising, 80% the familiar and pleasing. You have to have that core good idea, but so much of what makes the difference between success and failure lies in framing it for acceptance.

There’s science behind the stories, of course. Processing Fluency is one of the baseline heuristics underpinning the fast, intuitive System 1 thinking which guides human decision-making. If something is recognised and understood quickly, people like it more and it feels like a better choice. Your System 1 brain is a pattern recognition machine, rewarding familiarity.

We can see this across multiple studies of what makes innovation bridge the gap to acceptance. In the world of cars, for instance, a 2015 paper showed that it’s “surprising fluency” that makes a new car design sell. The “sweet spot” is when you have a design that is both highly typical in its broad outline – you can process it quickly as a car – but with high complexity (in terms of the extra detail and features). People like novelty, but they like it more when it’s wrapped in the reassuringly typical.

And a very similar rule applies when you look at how scientific knowledge gets transmitted. A 2013 study of over 17 million papers showed that the most-cited tended to be those which combine an “injection of novelty” with a large quantity of highly familiar information. It’s the same pattern yet again – in order for the new to be widely accepted, it has to be combined with the already known. Innovation has to be made Fluent to stand the best chance of success.

And finally, when we look at our own database of ideas we’ve tested in Predictive Markets, we see that familiar pattern start to emerge. If you look at the emotional response to failed, 1-Star concepts, the ratio of happiness to surprise in positive emotion is about 2:1, and the overall level of positive emotion is much lower. But at the other end of the scale, among the market-beating 5-Star concepts we’ve tested, you see much more positive emotion. And you see a much higher happiness to surprise ratio – around 4:1.

20% exciting surprise, 80% delightfully familiar. The formula for Fluent Innovation. The formula for market acceptance.

Human beings have a gut liking for the familiar. A lot of people who want to innovate push against that – work to find a disruptive, highly original idea and present it as radical. But as is always the way, you get much better results by working with the grain of System 1 thinking. Take that same game-changing idea and find what makes it familiar, and you’re on the path to Fluent Innovation.

For more details on Fluent Innovation, check out our webinar, Fluent Innovation: Using Behavioural Science to Make Your Next Big Idea a Success

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