Innovation Management Essentials: Impactful Demos

“The Mother of All Demos is a name given retrospectively to Douglas Englbart’s December 9, 1968 […] The live demonstration featured the introduction of a complete computer hardware and software system called the oN-Line System or more commonly, NLS. The 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the computer mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revisions control, and a collaborative real-time editor (collaborative work). Engelbart’s presentation was the first to publicly demonstrate all these elements in a single system. The demonstration was highly influential and spawned similar projects at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. The underlying technologies influenced both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows graphical user interface operating systems in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The Mother of All Demos, Wikipedia.


Compelling demonstrations can make all the difference when introducing emerging technologies. There is no slideware or paper substitute for the kind of revelations, quality insights, and lasting emotions that we all get when experiencing things live and first hand. On the research side, interactive demonstrations have become invaluable tools that expose and test concepts. Moreover, they prompt invaluable feedback by questioning, validating, unveiling unsuspected items as well as winning hearts and minds to further advance a cause.

Those are some of the reasons why I prioritize demo development and my research process involves activities such as field trips and ethnographic insights captured in environments like the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago and open-door showcases at renowned institutions like Fermilab. Successful science exhibits make complex topics approachable and engaging. They are carefully designed with craftsmanship pride to be perceived as astute, immersive and to appeal to our brain’s intuition and intellect.

The above graphic features quotes from Albert Einstein and Nicholas Negroponte on the left, coupled with Salvador Dalí and Arthur C. Clarke on the right.  I created that poster’s first version a few years ago and became my reference framework for prototyping and demonstration since. The photographs are courtesy of Wikipedia. Here are further insights on what these quotes mean to me:

1.- DEMO OR DIE – The introduction of inventions and diffusion of innovations relies on effectively conveying clear and concise value. Interacting with engaging demonstrations can be best supported by well thought out whiteboarding sessions. This communication strategy works best when allowing dynamic conversations instead of long agendas packed with presentation monologues. Most people can talk about the many times when they were either overwhelmed, underwhelmed or just bored to death by slideware… and became suspicious of hype. Note that we all deal with an unfavorable Signal-to-Noise (S/N) ratio in today’s information rich environment and, therefore, compete for customers and/or users’ undivided attention. Once again, memorable hands-on demonstrations can make all the difference.

2.- GROW TO LOOK LIKE THE PORTRAIT – High tech is a fast paced industry. One can be left wondering if the technology, toolset, application and/or overall system being discussed will grow and scale as needed beyond day one. There can also be concerns around maturity levels, roadmapping options and future proofing when working with emerging technologies. Demos can be used to convey a tangible vision based on attainable end-goals. They can also be used for what-if-analysis, sunny and rainy day scenarios (which can include full lifecycle and stress tests) and plot plausible journeys to go from A to B and any steps in between. Helping everyone come to terms with what lays ahead is key to defining product strategies and planning decisions “to grow to look like the portrait.”

3.- EXPLAIN IT SIMPLY – Apparently unavoidable jargon and well intended technical kumbaya can become easily entangled. Complex explanations suffer from information overload. Convoluted narratives pleasing the presenter’s ego can make unclear what specific problem or pain point he/she solving, and what the sought after benefits and priorities are. When “less is more” it definitely pays to define a vantage point, zoom out, distill fundamentals and synthesize the essence. Knowing your audience and getting the job done in the clearest and most effective terms possible means striking a balance and staying away from oversimplifying or complicating matters. This is an iterative exercise that often demands more time, effort and reviews than the usual information dump. We also need to be able to step-zoom to deliver the next level of detail and to conduct deep dives… without incurring information overload. Humanizing technology, storytelling techniques and ease of information visualization are key to developing a coherent narrative.

“The meaning of a communication is defined by the Change and Affect it creates for the audience. Stories are concerned with transformation. In stories something Changes to create an emotion […] The Change has to resonate with the Audience to generate an Affect; a feeling, a reaction or an insight […] We shall consider these two defining characteristics of narrative to clarify the purpose of any communication […] Change and Affect create meaning. – “Crackle and Fizz. Essential Communication and Pitching Skills for Scientists.” – Caroline van den Brul. Imperial College Press.


4..- IT’S MAGIC – This is all about the so called X-FACTOR: an unsuspected quality making something be different and special in unequivocal terms. To be more precise, the X-FACTOR’s experience
can be broken down as follows:

  • SURPRISE FACTOR – this relies on managing perceptions and the discovery process, the tipping point being delivered by a timely and unsuspected clever twist and a defining punch line – the “aha” moment.
  • WOW FACTOR – high impact, impressive, awe-inspiring outcome, benefits and results that can be easily understood and embraced – the “I didn’t know we could do that” and “I want to know more” moment.
  • COOL FACTOR – elegant sophistication and grace, clear object of desire – the “I want that” moment, this being most demos’ ultimate Call-To-Action (CTA.)

The art and science behind the above is known as “affective design.” Techniques such as perceptual learning and emotional intelligence in design (emotional design in short) are applied in Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI) to foster pleasant ease of use, drive further engagement and productive usage in the process. Widespread digitalization and the advent of wearables make HCI commonplace, which is influencing product design.


The above is a demo’s “full disclosure” chart, which breaks down what’s real and what’s not. This is needed because vaporware can be an issue of concern.

1.- PRIOR ART – In the above example, a given percentage of the demonstration system involved known technologies, some from third party partners.

2.- STATE OF THE ART – The greatest and latest features, cutting edge delivered by technologies that are available today.

3.- FUTURE ART – A sneak preview of new features and capabilities that are planned, undergoing development and/or committed, but not yet available.

4.- ART OF THE POSSIBLE – Proof of Concept illustrating experimentation results and potential, bleeding edge capabilities that are not yet committed.

By the way, vaporware is the result of positioning 3 and 4 as part of 2. Avoiding unpleasant misunderstands prompts the need for disclosing these four different maturity levels. Note that one graphic applies to a comprehensive demonstration system encompassing those four aspects and their relative weight.

One other thought, there is a difference between incremental and disruptive innovation. The first delivers improved qualities such as better performance in A/B comparison testing as an example, “A” being prior art and “B” state of the art. Most would agree on defining disruptive innovations as game changers which deliver unique capabilities that clearly supersede legacy and conventional systems. That alone renders “A” obsolete. A/B comparison testing leads to discussions on the difference between Present Mode of Operations (PMO) and Future Mode of Operations (FMO.)

“Humanists must be educated with a deep appreciation of modern science. Scientists and engineers must be steeped in humanistic learning. And all learning must be linked with a broad concern for the complex effects of technology on our evolving culture.” – Jerome B. Wiesner.

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