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Innovate: Redefine the Known and Develop the Unorthodox

By Claudia Hentschel

Systematic product innovation identifies, analyzes and solves problems, but the process from idea generation to problem solution often remains the most unorganized task in product development. Developing new products involves ideation, which involves failure – not something that processes like to embrace.

As noted by MIT professor Sergei Ikovenko, a business needs to start with 3,000 raw ideas in order to bring one product to market. This level of effectiveness anywhere else would be considered ridiculous; who would accept 3,000 scheduled flights with only one taking off? When it comes to new product development, however, this ratio is often regarded as acceptable. Many ideas are generated and discarded in the hope that the best idea will eventually be found. With the use of an innovation methodology such as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), if a solution to a problem is needed then only a few ideas need be generated. Although the optimal ratio of one problem to one idea is not realistic, TRIZ systematically pre-selects the promising direction that an innovative solution should be heading for, improving overall problem solving effectiveness.

Product Repurposing

History reveals that well-known ideas were often born when product functions were combined with new applications. The following adaptations are known the world over:

  • The gramophone was initially designed as a voice recorder, but then used to play music.
  • Adapting tea packages for easier preparation led to the invention of tea bag.
  • Blotting paper in a brass pot with drilled holes led to the coffee filter.

Jane Fulton Suri, of the design firm IDEO, states in Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design that conscious or not, using a product in a different way than its purpose is the seed of creating new applications, if not innovations. Adapting a product to a new need or situation relates to what is known by context awareness; human factors’ related context is structured into three categories:

  • The user’s tasks and needs (e.g., spontaneous activity, engaged tasks, general goals),
  • The user’s environment (e.g., location, interaction with others) and
  • Information status on/to the user (e.g., knowledge of habits, bio/physiological conditions).

Unorthodox Product Use

Unorthodox product use seems mainly triggered by alterations of these three categories. A product’s user/consumer may:

  • Have contradictory needs or tasks to fulfill, in a given environment, when a suitable product is not at hand,
  • Be in a contradictory environment/situation, in which the user has to fulfill a given task without an adequate product at hand or
  • Have contradictory information about how to apply a given product.

In Designing for Interaction, Dan Saffer explains that any unorthodox product use is an important step toward personalization of products as such use creates an adequate personal interface between product and user. The question is whether or not professional product developers see and appreciate the same unorthodox repurposing.

The traditional approaches to product development provides for known functions and needs. But considering unorthodox use is useful as it brings to light new uses for a product – uses that can be officially designed and marketed – that useful function for one user may be useful to all users of the application. Unorthodox uses are infrequently considered in product development processes.

While for consumers unorthodox product use is a step toward personalization, developers sometimes consider it something that should be avoided. For a business, there may be a pronounced concern for safety and associated fears of liability issues for unknown product uses. Additionally, companies may not have faith in their customers’ ideas – after all, their R&D teams are there for a reason.
A New Product Development Process

A company must accept two main implications before embarking on a product development process that includes a problem solving methodology (such as TRIZ) and actively capturing diversions from a product’s intended use:

  1. Using such a methodology means that a company is aware of innovation, but also must accept the responsibility for coming up with new products and services that may have nothing to do with its original focus. For many companies, this constitutes a radical shift in terms of product development and strategic thinking.
  2. A methodology may capture weird product outcomes as well as or in addition to problem solutions. This is also a shift from traditional product development processes.

Once a company is aware of these implications, it must navigate among the traditional part, the fragile new fields and/or adjacent or totally different markets provoked.


The innovation process ends with the creation of items customers want. It begins with tracing and identifying new situations in which companies need to solve problems. With unorthodox use underestimated (if not neglected), companies must begin using systematic methods and tools to imagine customer-desired product outcomes instead of customer-input-driven problem solutions to address formerly expressed needs.

Adapted from a presentation at ETRIA TRIZ Futures 2007.

About the Author:

Claudia Hentschel studied industrial engineering, focusing mechanical engineering and production technology, at TU Berlin and at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Her professional background features five years of research, teaching and industry consulting at the Department of Assembly Technology of the TU Berlin/Fraunhofer Gesellschaft within the Production Technology Center Berlin. In 1996, Dr. Hentschel changed to Siemens AG Information and Communication Mobile (ICM), working as a product manager in projects aimed at the turn-key installation of mobile communication networks and managing the supply of OEM products for the radio subsystem of mobile GSM networks. Since 2000 she has been a professor at the University of Applied Sciences FHTW Berlin, lecturing on innovation, technology management and project management. Contact Claudia Hentschel at c.hentschel (at)