A preacher’s son whose first love was music, Bill Buxton was lured into the world of computers in 1971 by Mabel, his brother’s BMW R69S motorcycle. Buxton’s brother, Stan, said he could ride the bike back and forth from Ottawa if he would take on a project developing digital music at the National Research Council of Canada. Buxton had minimal interest in composing music on a computer, but he had a passion for Mabel, so he agreed to give the NRC a try.
While figuring out how to make digital music work, Buxton developed an intricate understanding of human computer interaction. As the principal scientist for Microsoft Research since 2005, he still pays close attention to the relationships we have with our computers and how technology challenges our social environment.
“If one of the purposes of design and innovation is to improve our lives—for business, artistic, or familial purposes—then design that does not consider the larger social, cultural, and physical ecosystem is going to miss the mark,” he says.
Buxton offers a surprisingly staid philosophy of innovation. He does not claim to harbor a magic formula for creating new ideas or to know what no one else knows. He suggests that innovation is not even that risky or original and that it requires a meaningful sense of history. More than anything else, he says, innovation is the product of dogged perseverance and deep, deep thoughtfulness about human social interactions.
What often distinguishes the innovator with the “big” idea, Buxton says, is the ability to see fine levels of “granularity.” Two apples may appear identical at first glance, but if we observe them long enough, and if we build up our knowledge systems about apples, then we gradually begin to notice subtle differences between them. Innovators do this, Buxton says. They see things at fine levels of granularity that enable them to discern the qualities that make one apple more appealing (or tasty) than the other.
“Be the first to see the subtleties that make the difference between being an innovator and being an observer,” Buxton says.
Perhaps an apple is an awkward choice of objects to illustrate the philosophy of a Microsoft scientist. But Buxton himself stresses the importance of “well-chosen stories, examples, or prototypes” to get across an idea. Some of the best innovators fail to bring their ideas into the mainstream simply because they can’t explain them well enough. “You need to apply as much creativity to how you present your approach as you invested in your original idea,” he says.
The contemplative frame of mind Buxton recommends can lead to ideas that are not new, but that perceive existing situations or objects in different magnitudes. Buxton’s useful example is the invention of the blackboard around 1801. From an engineering or materials perspective, the blackboard was nothing new. It was just a big slate – a common classroom item – mounted on the wall. The only technical challenge was making it large, and getting it to hang without falling. Yet, as Buxton points out, the pedagogical impact of the blackboard was huge because it enabled teachers to demonstrate lessons to several students at once. Changing the order of magnitude of a piece of slate along two dimensions—size and distance—revolutionized the social dynamic of the classroom.
Like the blackboard, most technologies that hit the market with a splash have already been around for a while. What is significant about them, Buxton says, is that they have been painstakingly nurtured by people who refine and augment the germ of an idea until it works. From from being risky, these technologies arise from "serious and conscientious preparation," he says.
“Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old,” he explains. “The move from inception to ubiquity can take 30 years.” The first prototype of a computer mouse appeared as a wooden box with two wheels on it in the early 1960s, about 30 years before it achieved the level of “ubiquity.”
The innovative method Buxton embraces requires patience, fortitude, congeniality and expertise. His advice to companies looking to build an innovative team: hire people with strong interpersonal skills who do not need stability and predictability. Don’t hire jacks-of-all-trades.
“I don’t want a bunch of generalists,” he says. “Every project needs equally high levels of competence in mutually dependent but different disciplines. This is no place for amateurs. I want deep, serious people who know how to work with other people and I want them to have learned that before they start working for me.”
Buxton’s advice for the individual innovator: Always be a beginner at something—it keeps you grounded. Always be in love with what you are beginning—it keeps a fire in your heart and soul. And keep that new beginning as far away from your “true calling” as possible because it will feed your core expertise in unexpected ways.