Not drinking at the drinking fountain

photo (4)A few months ago, I attended a week-long class on innovation. The class was built on the premise that successful innovations come from identifying unmet needs and meeting those needs. And, how do you find unmet needs? In many cases, simply by observing how people are currently doing a job. How are they trying to get something done, and what are the obstacles to getting it done?

Here’s a great example – the recent advancement of the humble drinking fountain which had until recently, remained virtually unchanged since the first one was installed in 1912.

Someone started looking at, or perhaps just noticed how people were actually using drinking fountains today. They observed that in many cases, people weren’t drinking directly from the fountain as it was designed, but using it to fill their water bottle. And if you’ve ever done that, you know that it’s an awkward thing to do. You have to tilt the bottle just right, it’s hard to get the bottle full, and you always splash some. There was an unmet need and an obstacle to getting a simple job done.

The innovation is a water fountain that is actually designed to make filling your water bottle as easy as possible. Set your bottle under the nozzle and a sensor turns on a stream of chilled, filtered water automatically. Pull the bottle away and the water stops (or in 20 seconds, whichever comes first).

What I find especially interesting about this innovation is that it not only fills an unmet need by making a job easier, but it also hits some marketing “megatrends” such as consumers’ desire to consume more water but reduce the number of bottles they use. Add to that how much more hygienic this system is, since it minimizes the transfer of viruses due to physical contact.

The conventional drinking fountain isn’t going to disappear and where I’m seeing these, there’s a traditional water fountain next to it. But my guess is that you’re going to start seeing more of these water stations. All because someone saw how a job (filling a water bottle) was getting done and innovated to make it easier.

Like the baseball player Yogi Berra once quipped, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

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