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How to Create Products That Are Better, Not First
A Guide to the Factors That Create Innovators
Welcome to Designing Futures. I’m Josh and every Wednesday, I share practical design and UX guides for founders, makers and product teams on taking ideas from zero to one.
🗞️ The Roundup: Issue #2, September 2023
In a world obsessed with being first and novel, it's easy to forget that many of today's industry leaders were far from the initial pioneers in their fields. Uber didn't invent taxis, and Netflix didn't invent movie rentals—yet they both revolutionised these sectors by making them more accessible.
Instead of dwelling on anxieties like, "They dominate the market; there’s no chance for us!" they brought the future forward simply by making their products better.
How do these companies manage to overshadow leaders in their market and dominate? The good news is you don't have to be first; you just have to solve problems for your target audience better than those who do now.
In this guide, we'll explore examples and key factors that set these innovators apart and how you can apply the same principles to work towards rewriting your category.
Airbnb: An alternative to traditional hotels
📖 Background: Hotels have existed for centuries, and even the idea of home-sharing or bed-and-breakfasts wasn't new.
👀 What made them stand out: Airbnb made it easy, desirable, and socially acceptable to rent someone else's room or home.
🔥 Why they dominated: Through a seamless user interface, reviews, and a strong focus on community, Airbnb revolutionised traditional accommodation. They didn't invent home-sharing but improved it.
Monzo: An alternative to traditional banking (started in the UK)
📖 Background: Banks are as old as time. Online banking became popular in the late '90s with companies like HSBC and Barclays at the forefront.
👀 What made them stand out: Monzo brought a fresh user experience and approach to banking by being branchless, app-first, and offering real-time transaction updates.
🔥 Why they dominated: With a focus on a modern, app-first user experience, excellent customer service, and community, Monzo captured a large segment of a younger audience tired of slow, traditional banks.
Framer - An alternative to website no-code tools
📖 Background: Framer fills the gap between design and code, offering both visual and code-based editing.
👀 What made them stand out: Framer offers simplicity and versatility; it supports design, prototyping, and coding within a single tool. You don't need to know HTML, and it's great for designers accustomed to Figma.
🔥 Why they dominated: Framer attracted both designers and developers because of how easy it is to create high-quality sites. Webflow is still incredible, but Framer is faster and more enjoyable for building exceptional, smaller sites.
Apple: An alternative smartphone
📖 Background: Apple was far from the first company to enter the smartphone market, with BlackBerry and Nokia as early pioneers.
👀 What made them stand out: Apple redefined the user experience with a focus on design, ease-of-use, and an integrated ecosystem. The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone but set a new standard.
🔥 Why they dominated: Through continuous innovation and high-quality products, Apple built brand loyalty that's hard to match. With good taste and a commitment to excellence, they delivered premium products that outperformed the rest.
Four factors that make them dominate
To guide you through the factors that contribute to these companies' success, I'll draw from my own professional experiences and day-to-day work.
#1 They raise the bar
“Those who have studied how chefs innovate report that they follow a process of feed-forward trial and modification, experimenting with variations on a central idea till they hit on a dish that they think will win the approval of customers. It is not very different from the way Thomas Edison improved the light bulb.” - Matt Ridley, How Innovation works
Monzo has raised the bar in their industry by introducing innovative features that make routine banking tasks—like checking transactions or receiving payments—more accessible. They revolutionized the way we bank by going branchless and mobile-first, and by simplifying historically complex processes.
Facing the monumental challenge of changing consumer behavior, Monzo bet on people being willing to move their salaries to a new bank. Once that happened, their growth skyrocketed, leaving competitors in the dust. In the UK, banks are ranked across various service categories to help consumers make informed choices. Monzo leads in almost every one of them.
In my own experience, startups that focus on setting the highest quality bar, truly dedicated to solving their customers' problems better than anyone else, tend to rise the highest.
#2 They care the most
User empathy is also a key differentiator for Monzo; they care about their customers a lot. During my time at Fat Llama, there were days we spoke to users daily. We also shipped faster than some of the other places I’ve worked at. There’s a correlation there.
Monzo prioritizes customer experience above all else. No need to visit a bank; just open the app. They've thoughtfully designed every small interaction to turn what used to be a headache and an 'Aaaarrggghhh!' into a few simple taps.
Whether it's finding your card number, sending money to friends, or requesting payments, Monzo makes it all feel effortless. Their user experience is so compelling that I can't bring myself to switch. I trust that I'll always be ahead of the curve, using the best tools available for my financial needs.
#3 They’re bold, and ignore the competition
Following others doesn't just lead to stagnation; it means you've consciously decided to lag behind. To be a leader, you must take risks and trust your intuition. Be bold and carve out your own path. Believe in your ability to change the game and don't shy away from promoting yourself.
I was genuinely surprised when Framer launched their latest website builder. I thought Webflow had already set the bar so high that gaining market share would be a challenge. I couldn't have been more wrong. Once I started using Framer, my perception of what no-code tools could be was transformed. Framer didn't just meet the bar; they raised it. Their commitment to quality is evident in their product.
#4 They aim for best in class
“You may feel like there are a billion newsletters out there—how can you possibly break through? I felt the same way when I started. It turns out that 99% of the content in the world is not very good. There’s always room for, and interest in, better content. You just need to rise above what’s already out there. And that takes work”. - from
If you need some inspiration, go to this tweet fromfeaturing Kobe Bryant. He eloquently breaks down why you need to invest the time and effort to be the best in your class.
“So who invented the motor car running on an internal-combustion engine? Like the steam engine and the computer, there is no simple answer. Ford made it ubiquitous and cheap; Maybach gave it all its familiar features; Levassor provided crucial changes; Daimler got it running properly; Benz made it run on petrol; Otto devised the engine’s cycle; Lenoir made the first crude version; and de Rivaz presaged its history. And yet even this complicated history leaves out many other names: James Atkinson, Edward Butler, Rudolf Diesel, Armand Peugeot and many more. Innovation is not an individual phenomenon, but a collective, incremental and messy network phenomenon.” - Matt Ridley, How Innovation works
Whether you're running a business, contemplating a pivot, or just getting started, aim high—but you don’t need to invent something new.
You can raise the bar, care the most, be bold, and aim for best-in-class in spaces where others are already operating—and simply do it better.
Innovation often comes from improving things that already exist. What are the problems which you are currently experiencing yourself? Chances are, others are dealing with them too.
Look around. Plenty of the products and services around you right now probably don’t deliver an experience on par with the four principles we've discussed. Find that gap, because innovation is collective and incremental.
Now, it's your turn.
You don't have to be first, just be better
Raise the bar for quality and accessibility
Prioritise empathy and user-focused design
Be bold and ignore the competition
Aim to be best in class
Innovation is often incremental, not revolutionary
See you next week,
Josh (@joshuanewton1) 🔮
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