How to become an innovator

Paul Boag

Whether you are a website owner, web designer or web developer you need to innovate. But how do you make it happen?

Innovation is at the heart of the web. Innovation is about finding new ways of doing things, building on the work of others and moving it forward. Without innovation, whether you are a designer, developer or website owner, you will struggle.

If you are not innovating you are following, and you do not want to be following the competition. Your competition maybe other freelancers, websites or the person who is going for the same job as you. Whatever the case you do not want to be following them, you want to be one step ahead of them.

How then do you learn to innovate? At the heart of innovation is a desire to challenge preconceptions.

Challenging preconceptions

You can only innovate if you successfully challenge existing best practice. This begins by asking the question “Why not?” Why can’t you do something? Why is something supposedly wrong? Depending on your role these questions may vary. For example:

  • As a web designer you might ask – Why does the site I am designing need navigation?
  • As a web developer you might ask – Why can’t CSS enable me to rotate text?
  • As a website owner you might ask – Why do I need a website at all? Why can’t I just use sites like Facebook and Twitter?

If it wasn’t for people willing to ask “why not” the web would be a poorer place. For example if it wasn’t for people like Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer asking why can’t we use CSS, we would still be working with HTML tag soup.

Equally if it wasn’t for people like Jeremy Keith we would still view Javascript as an evil tool that creates popups and inaccessible navigation.

Image of a pop-up ad

Of course, there are often good reasons why we cannot or should not do something. The question then becomes “are there ways to work around these problems?” That is where innovation truly begins and the only way to answer that question is to experiment.

Innovation through experimentation

The only way you can innovate is to experiment. The problem is most of us have forgotten how to experiment. We are so focused on deadlines and the bottom line that we feel “playing around” is a waste of time and money. However, it is not. It is vital for staying ahead in what is a very competitive and fast moving medium.

If you are to innovate you need to overcome two hurdles:

  • Finding time to experiment
  • Finding ways to experiment

Let’s address each in turn starting with finding the time.

Finding the time to experiment

We all know that Google encourages their employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects. This is their opportunity to experiment and innovate. However, Google is an enormous company sitting on big piles of cash! They can afford to “play.” Most of you will believe you cannot afford to do that!

In reality carving out some time for experimentation is not as hard as you think. Nobody works 100% of they’re working day. We all need breaks from normal work. Grinding away for an entire day is actually damaging to productivity. Working like this tends to take longer than if you take breaks and have time to play.

Experimenting with new ideas can be fun. It is exactly the kind of break you need from normal work. It makes the down time you have anyway more productive.

There is also a lot of evidence to suggest that shorter, more intensive periods of work actually allows you to get more done and to a better standard. Take for example Carsonified that work a 4 day week. They seem to suggest that as much gets done in 4 days than they would in 5. What if they spent the 5th day each week playing and experimenting? Or alternatively, what if they took an hour out of each day to work on new ideas? They would be able to do the same level of work but also gain time to experiment.

We spend our entire lives feeling like we don’t have enough time but in reality that is not true. If we all collectively watched 1% less TV we would be able to create 10,000 wikipedias. Makes you think doesn’t it.

Clay Shirky challenges among other things the belief that we lack time.

So lets presume you have committed to carving out some time for experimentation. How do you actually do it?

Ways to nurture experimentation

Its hard to define a single approach to experimentation. It very much depends on the type of work you do. The way you innovate as a designer is naturally going to be different to that of a website owner or developer. However there are some basic approaches that apply to pretty much everybody. These are not specific ways to experiment, rather they are general approaches you might wish to consider.

Experiment in a sandbox – Create a closed area where you can try out new ideas. This could be a development server or a closed beta website. This is the perfect place to try out new designs, experiment with site structure and content or play with new coding techniques. It is safe and private. Nobody needs to ever see your disastrous attempts at innovation!

Experiment on users – As your confidence grows with experimentation you might want to start exposing some of your ideas to real users. For example you might want to try some user testing with friends or even letting people into your closed sandbox. Admittedly experimenting on users applies more to designers and website owners. However it is useful for developers to get feedback from their peers. You will often find that allowing others into your experimentation process will spark interesting ideas and discussions.

Experiment on live – When did we get so precious about our sites that we are hesitant to explore new ideas on our live sites? Admittedly you might not want to do this on a high profile ecommerce site where the slightest mistake may cost millions. However, for many of the sites we run, it would be quite possible to try out ideas with no measurable impact. After all one of the best things about the web is that sites can easily be changed if things go wrong.

This trend towards conservatism has even extended to web design and personal sites. When was the last time you saw a personal site that really pushed the boundaries? They are few and far between these days. Even when sites do (such as the redesign of 24 Ways) they get criticised. I believe this is wrong. We should be innovating even if we fail. And we certainly shouldn’t be afraid to do so in public.

Screenshot of the 24 Ways website


Although I have focused in this post on the barrier of time and knowing how to experiment, I actually believe the biggest problem is fear. We fear wasting time on ideas that fail. However most of all we fear of being ridiculed for trying an idea that didn’t work. That is a real shame. Without people will to stand up and trying new things the web will never progress.

Ill leave you with these wise words from Winston Churchill:

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.