The benefits of thinking small

Sometimes it's the most innocuous things that leave the all-important lasting impression. Giles Day explores the benefits of sweating the small stuff.

It’s very easy to be swayed by the innovation heroes that like to talk about “moving fast and breaking things”. There’s nothing more exciting than a big breakthrough innovation project that’s going to turn things upside down and disrupt categories forever.

Creating the next big thing is intoxicating stuff.

But when it comes to people making purchase decisions it’s the little things that count. Like the lime in your Corona. Like the snap of your AirPod case. Like the cup holders in cars.

Let’s have a look at those cup holders as they’re a good example of what’s behind, what I call, the “Power of Small.”

Yes, but where are you going to put it when you’re on the road?

Malcolm Gladwell in his famous article tells the story of how the auto industry discovered that it wasn’t horsepower of fuel economy or something equally sensible that sold their cars but cup holders.  This was very confusing, not to say annoying to automobile engineers, but Gladwell goes on to uncover that the number of cup holders makes a crucial difference to buying or not buying because, for all kinds of deep psychological reasons, they connote “safety”.

Now that’s fascinating, but for me it’s just more evidence of something that product designers have always known – the importance of seemingly unimportant things.

For consumers these unimportant things are small moments that can make the difference between buying or not buying. These unimportant things can make the difference between being a champion brand or just making up the numbers. They are Power of Small moments.

Power of Small moments don’t happen by accident. They have to be designed. They come from putting all our energy, insight and new product development skills and focusing them on one artfully chosen opportunity.

This isn’t UX, this isn’t about friction points. It’s about choosing just one small feature or ritual to fetishise. We need to choose one little rule to break and create a moment that disproportionately connects with our consumer… and turn like to love.

The Power of Small is that it’s more likely to work – you’re adding something to a product that’s already out there in the real world. With small innovation you’re biting off something you can chew.

The Power of Small is that it keeps what you’re selling fresh. Clients have been telling me for years that it’s easy to get interest and trial for new stuff, the difficult bit is keeping people interested in what’s out there already. Well the Power of Small does just that.

And crucially the Power of Small means smaller projects – less time, less people and less budget. So it’s more likely to happen. And once innovation starts happening for a company, once people stop talking about innovation and start really changing things you’ll see those people and organisations get a taste for it and want to do it again… and again.

The Power of Small is a people-centred approach that’s not trying to change the world but make things slightly better. And that sounds fine for 2020.

So don’t stop thinking big but don’t forget to think small too.


Giles Day is the founder and CCO of BIG New Product Development


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