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HMI innovations: why small steps rarely lead to success

Let’s be honest: Receiving an innovation award is nice. However, it does not necessarily confirm that a company is really innovative. Starting at what point do customers perceive a product as innovative? And why do many people think that small steps in the continuing development of a product are what leads to innovation?

Here we list six frequently stated reasons why the development of operating concepts is performed in small steps and why this doesn’t always work. And we show what can work.

HMI innovations: why small steps rarely lead to success

Reason 1: Machine operators are wary of change. They are more willing to accept small development changes.

Machine operators, like all device end users, are in fact open to new experiences, especially if the following is ensured:

  • the new developments are taking their requirements into account. While operators will notice the big differences, they can also recognize quickly that the developers took their work environment and day-to-day challenges into account.
  • The operating changes are logical and feel consistent. True innovation does not have to mean that operators need to relearn everything. If the development was done properly, the opposite is actually true: While there may be elements that appear new, the overall picture remains consistent. And above all: The new features are so awesome that operators are eager to learn and master them.
  • The development follows general current trends and reflect what operators are familiar with from other applications. This includes certain standards, such as the use of smartphones and the navigation of apps that control electronic devices in the home.
  • The solution can do everything the previous version could – and it is also compatible with all existing devices, systems and software modules. Operators will not be impressed if the solution touted as innovation does not even cover their basic requirements. Regardless of whatever else the tool has to offer. This could include many unique features for which the market will ultimately not pay the added price.

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Reason 2: It is easier, safer and faster to continue optimizing existing operating concepts.

There is nothing wrong with incremental change – it is needed to get products to maturity and to make meaningful plans for version updates. It is one way in which your company makes money. However, many entrepreneurs attach great importance to planning security: It is enough to advance the development a little bit and then market the product quickly. Steps are easy to plan, resources remain manageable, and the costs stay on budget.

While this approach appears safe, it does conceal a great risk. The risk is that the company could develop products that the market does not need, and invests effort into products that will never become bestsellers.

In the worst case, the company relies on continuing the development of products that are at the saturation stage or the declining stage of their life cycle. In other words, products that inherently cannot support radical change. 

Reason 3: Innovation department without innovation culture

In order to drive the innovation of operating concepts that will shake up the market, it is not enough to set up an innovation department and provide it with resources, goals and the best thinkers on the market.

There also needs to be the right type of innovation culture in the company – something that cannot be described in PowerPoint or calculated in Excel. It is part of the company’s DNA – or it isn’t. The radical development of products entails a lot of uncertainty, risks, setbacks – and a lot of patience.

Developments that will surprise the market can only come about if people are not just given space and freedom – but enough of these things. They come about if people with the right attitude are allowed to develop freely in a certain environment. If, however, there is for example a KPI that specifies that they cannot go over the innovation budget, then the result is a foregone conclusion – cautious action, translating typically into nothing more than small development steps.

The same is true about failure. A development culture is characterized by the courage to take decisions and fail. How the company handles failure has an enormous effect on our willingness to accept failure as the potential result of our actions. Because mistakes are important for successful innovation.

Reason 4: Innovation rate versus ever- shorter product life cycles 

Companies are forced to regularly offer new products on the market in order to withstand the competitive pressure and other players’ attempts to force them out of the market.

This flood of new products replaces the products already available on the market in shorter and shorter cycles. This leads to “innovation stress.” The fast pace of these cycles means that many innovation departments no longer manage to drive real innovation. The trend to just continue the development of existing products is growing. A potential solution approach that pays off: Define and implement development projects together with your customers – “user innovation.”

Reason 5: We dont't have the strenghth for trail-blazing innovation / we're too busy with our day-to-day work.

The above-mentioned innovation or development department is often too involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. For this reason, they only manage to implement minor requirements for new operating concepts. While there are some innovation steps, there are not enough and they are always too small.

The people on the team are swamped by day-to-day business – in the worst case, they even provide troubleshooting support for product management. A critical success factor for innovation teams is that they must be able to work independently and that they are separated from day-to-day operations.

Reason 6: Customers are not prepared to pay more for innovative operating concepts.

The above-mentioned combination of speed and short product life cycles often leads to product releases whose “innovative” features are not recognized (or appreciated). This makes it difficult to argue for the added value, and consequently, customers will not be prepared to pay extra.

Many small changes spread out over multiple years will not be perceived nor appreciated as innovation by customers. The risk: The company has still made major investments in innovation and development, but it is not perceived as an innovator – worse still: it is not rewarded for these efforts.

A real-world example: A machine manufacturer in the glass industry had been developing highly innovative solutions for the industry over multiple decades. However, because the design of the systems remained unchanged over many years, the company was not perceived as being innovative and pioneering, in particular by potential new customers.

As part of a strategic process, the company decided to restructure their entire product portfolio and to give their systems a new look. This resulted in a completely new system design, which not only boosted the corporate image but also caught up to the technological innovation of the machines and systems. Thus, the machine design underscores the innovative character of the company.

Moreover, the project did not remain limited to a “design exercise” focused solely on the outward appearance. In the course of the design revamp, the technology team also started a value analysis project with the goal of adding new features and enhancing user-friendliness. This yielded significant improvements of the ergonomics, for example.

Conclusion: innovation by small steps is not without risk.

Small development steps quite often result in products with features the company is proud of, but the market barely responds to. In other words: Hard work and no reward.

Innovation does not happen in an environment controlled by classic management tools and methods that are almost 100 years old. Innovation does not happen at the push of a button. Modern innovation management  with its related processes is indispensable. What is required is an environment where people can work on new concepts without pressure and where the right partners are available to provide any missing know-how.

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