The 3 Dimension Analysis to Innovation

This is a follow up post of On Innovation and Ideas.

In this post I’d like to introduce you to the 3 Dimension Analysis. It’s a framework that may help with analyzing products and hopefully evolve the initial idea to generate innovation.

The Difficulty of Analyzing Products

How would you analyze a coffee machine. Would you focus on individual featuers such as the touch display or whether it can also heat up water? Would you focus on how well coffee tastes or rather how well service and maintenance is handeled by the company?

A product usually spans across many different concerns, so it’s hard to evaluate a product on a fixed basis. We need a standard procedure so we can compare products and a way to distinguish past vs future.

Marketing, sales and other business professions have already been doing similar analysis for a long time. So the idea of analyzing a product is not new. What I think the 3 Dimensions framework could help with is to define a standard way to go about and also make it easier for people like me who are not marketing pros.

The 3 Dimensions

In order to analyze products we have to analyze them from different perspectives. As we mentioned in the previous section, a product spans across many different fields and concerns. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to start with three perspectives:

  1. The User Dimension
    In this dimension only the user’s perspective and experience of the product is of importance.
  2. The Blackbox Dimension
    The perspective of this dimension is to analyze the interface of the product.
  3. The Whitebox Dimension
    The goal of this dimension is to look at the technical implementation.

I call each of these perspectives a dimension because I think of it as each being a separate dimension that is orthogonal to any of the others. So for example the user dimension should be treated completely separate from the blackbox dimension.

This separation also means that we should avoid common vocabulary.

User Dimension

This dimension is only about the user’s perspective. When analyzing the product in this dimension, we have to look at how the product influences the user.

Therefore, the focus here is on the user, not the product. It’s like when we throw a stone into a lake, where the product is the stone and the lake the user. We want to observe and analyze the waves the stone produces in the lake, so we have to study the lake/user, not the stone/product.

Common topics in this dimension are:

  • General Psychology
  • Feelings
  • Desires
  • Needs
  • Emotions

For example, if you’re analyzing a web browser (also a product) then you shouldn’t say that there is a favourites button. More important is to document the underlying needs of why users like a favourites feature.

However, you also shouldn’t go through all features and drag all of them into this dimension. Like in the stone/lake metaphor, it’s about the reaction of the user, not the product. So if a web browser has a favourite button, but nobody cares then it doesn’t belong into the user dimension. We need to observe the user and document their reaction.

Ways to go about it

I don’t have a perfect way of going about this, but I ran through a couple of examples and this is what I’ve learned so far.

The hard part about doing the user dimension analysis is to avoid using techincal or product related voccabulary. One way of going about it is to collect a list of emotions, feelings and needs we have observed in users.

However, the disadvantage here is that the whole process stays very logical and analytical, which contrasts a bit with the dimension itself. So it may be hard to do this.

Another way could be to make the dimension a lot more based on other creative processes such as story telling and arts (visual, audio, movie, games, etc.). Depending on the medium this could be a lot of work though.

Story telling

A story usually involves people, it’s memorable and is a medium that can convey emotions and feelings. Therefore, it would be quite well suited to describe how users feel. It could also be a great way to communicate those needs and the justification for them to other people.

Finally, building the foundation of the user dimension on story telling could also be useful for later on, when we try to evolve the dimensions, as vision and the future are topics that are very common in the story telling field (e.g. Sci Fi).

The disadvantage of using story telling is the amount of effort it requires. Furthermore, a story is not as flexible as list of emotions and feelings, so making changes is harder.

A way to maybe keep effort low could be to create something of a mix between a comic and memes. The idea is to use common pictures with annotations and build a story that way. Maybe grayscaling the images and recoloring them could help to unify the different pictures into one style.

Dimension Blackbox

This dimension focuses on the interfaces of the product we’re analyzing. Contrary to the Dimension User we talked about in the section before, this time we’re focusing on the product. So, if you remember the metaphor with the stone that we threw in the lake and watched the waves it creates. This time we look at the stone.
You see when we throw a stone into a lake then we know that the shape of the stone is what creates the waves in the lake as it falls into it. That’s because we have physics that mandates that connection.

However, this is not the case with a product. The shape of the stone refers to a products interfaces, how it’s be perceived from outside. Not every feature or interface will create waves in a user.

This dimension focuses on analyzing the product’s interface. This excercise is almost like we’re creating the perfect imaginary user for the product. The person the developers imagined when they build the product.

The interesting part is when we later compare the Dimension User with the Dimension Blackbox.

How to go about it

A good way to start with analyzing the dimension blackbox is to list the features the product has. However, we also have to find the reasons why the developers thought it would be a good idea to add those features. What kind of person did they imagine the user would be. What experience could these features create in a user?

Also analyze the general appearance of the product, e.g. the style of UI, type of language used, price, etc.

Dimension Whitebox

The Dimension Whitebox tries to capture all the (often technical) details related to the implementation of the product. Many products are made of electronics or software. In this case it would be important to know and understand what electronic circuits are being used and why, what software stack has been employed etc.

Once again, we have to analyze this dimension in isolation of the other dimensions. That means we have to look at the technical solution and ask ourselves what goal this machinery tries to achieve. Imagine somebody comes into your office and drops a huge complicated machine onto your desk. It’s got tubes and cables going everywhere, intertwined with each other and connected to unknown modules using a technology foreign to you. That’s the assumption we have to make, our goal is to try and figure out what this machine is accomplishing. To do this we have to look at every detail the machine produces. Such as sound, smell, vibrations, materials it might release, etc. All of these will give us an idea of what the purpose of the machine is and will come in handy later on when you compare this dimension to the other two.

Product Evolution

Comparison between different dimensions

The idea of analyzing the three dimensions separately is that we can compare the them at the end. What we’re looking for is cracks or irregularities where the dimensions do not match. Like in the example with the stone we throw into the lake where physics produces waves, we are looking for the combination of all three dimensions which will define the product. Another way to imagine it is to look at it from a geometrical perspective where each feature creates a point which has coordinates in each dimension, all the points together create a three dimensional body - the product.

So one way to evolve the initial idea and create innovation could be to fill these cracks and correct irregularities.

Evolving Dimensions

Another way is to replace or evolve the dimensions themselves. Let’s take Uber, a technology company that started out with ride-hailing - like a taxi service. The idea for Uber came from a taxi drive that cost the founders 800$ - which is a lot. This sparked the idea that there must be a way to improve the cost performance balance of the taxi industry.

Uber essentially evolved the whitebox (the implementation) and replaced common taxi companies and drivers with self-employed individual drivers. It also added an app, which touches all three dimensions. However, much of the Dimension User and Blackbox are still present. People still drive around in a car, they still hold their hand up to signal the driver where they are, they still pay somewhere close to the car, etc. The Uber idea is not completely new, it’s the original three dimensions but evolved.

Therefore, if we want to find new ideas and generate innovation, we have to find ways to evolve the three dimensions.


This is how far I got so far with this idea…

We’ve talked about why analyzing products is difficult and why a framework could help. We presented the 3 Dimensions method to analyze products and also talked a bit about how to elvolve the original idea to hopefully generate ideas.

I’ve used this framework and analyzed a couple products already: Bitcoin, operation manuals, phone contracts and internet browsers. I can say that going through it, is an interesting pratice that will give you more insight into the product.

However, there are also still many problems with this method:

  • It’s very time consuming.
    Working through all three dimensions will take a lot of time. One idea could be to choose an iterative approach. For example go through all three dimensions quickly and only cover high-level things, then with every iteration drill deeper.
  • It can be boring.
    It can be very boring because it’s mostly just about collecting information and documenting features. The creative part only starts when we try to evolve the product / its dimensions.
  • It can feel overwhelming.
    This is especially true if you’re looking for a startup idea. The reality is that you’re going to be looking at markets with already established companies. Sometimes it can feel very overwhelming knowing that you’d have to create something which is 10x better than what these companies have already built.
  • It’s not proven.
    This framework may be useful for you, but make no mistake the feasibility is not proven yet. Currently I’m the only one that has used it and I haven’t come up with any great innovation yet…so use at your own risk…