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Nine brilliant inventions that came from simple insights

It’s easy to think of innovations as strokes of genius that came out of nowhere.

In our experience, that’s rarely how it works. The best ideas come from listening closely to the people you’re serving and then meeting their needs in smarter – and sometimes incremental – ways. That may sound simple, but it’s often the missing step.

It’s why an atmosphere that promotes and values research, discovery and human-centric design is so important.

And it’s why we love these examples of simple, effective innovations that came from imagining a better way.

Q Drum

1. Q Drum

In certain developing countries, people need to travel painfully long distances to reach safe sources of water. Transporting that water can be debilitating and exhausting, as people – often women and children – have to walk miles carrying heavy drums.

Not only does that lead to frequent back and neck injuries, but since people can usually only manage 15 liters (3.96 U.S. gallons) at a time, they also have to make frequent trips.

Once the designers of Q Drum observed this, they didn’t so much reinvent the wheel as make it a whole lot more practical. They created a 50-liter (13.2 U.S. gallon) near-indestructible plastic drum, with a hole in the middle like a donut.

Put a rope through the hole, and you can pull the drum behind you with minimal effort. Now, even a child can transport water over long distances without straining – a neat, cost-effective solution to an age-old problem. 

QWERTY Keyboard

2. QWERTY keyboard

Ever wonder why keyboards are laid out the way they are? Well, early typewriters were laid out in alphabetical order. But that created problems when people typed too fast, because the levers under neighboring letters kept jamming, forcing typists to slow down.

That was until the late 1860s, when a Milwaukee newspaper editor and printer named Christopher Latham Sholes started analyzing how typists worked. Sholes painstakingly analyzed the frequency with which different letters were used and how close to each other those letters were on the typewriter.

Then, he made sure the most common letter pairs (like “th” or “st”) weren’t next to each other on the keyboard. It took some years of trial and error, but he eventually came up with the QWERTY layout, as we know it.

It’s been adapted for other languages (French has AZERTY, German has QWERTZ and Italian has QZERTY) but 150 years on, it’s still the standard layout for Latin script.

Sholes’ QWERTY layout is a great example of an interface that changed the world. Check out our list of 35 interface innovations for more like it. 


3. Zimride

80% of car seats on American highways are empty. Most people wouldn’t see that as an opportunity. John Zimmer and Logan Green did.

Frustrated with the stagnation of public transportation, and nervous about the potential danger of ride sharing with people they didn’t know, the two were inspired to create something entirely different.

Then, in 2005, when Green was on a trip to Zimbabwe, he noticed the locals would self-organize and share minivan taxis. With hardly any infrastructure, they’d found a way to make carpooling work at scale.

All they needed was the ability to coordinate between them.

Thus, Green began work on a site called “Zimride” that connects people who had a car – and were willing to take on passengers – with people who needed a ride.

Some years and a hackathon later, Zimride created a version of their service for mobile devices. They called it Lyft.

Shampoo sachets

4. Shampoo sachets

In the early 1980s, some of the world’s major providers of packaged consumer goods players discovered that shampoo bottles weren’t selling in rural India, even though they were doing well in urban areas.

These multinationals were at a loss to explain why – could it be that rural Indians who weren’t used to shampoo just weren’t interested in buying it?

The answer was rather more straightforward and came to a young Indian entrepreneur named CK Ranganathan. He saw that the upfront cost of a bottle was simply too high for low-income households.

So rather than trying to sell them bottles, he sold his product, Chik shampoo, in small five millileter sachets. The result? Ranganathan sold 20,000 sachets in his first month. And it wasn’t long before the big multi-nationals started following suit.

Sometimes, one size doesn’t fit all. You just have to be paying attention to notice the simplest opportunity.

Pencil writing a checkmark

5. The intensive care checklist

Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

That’s something Peter Provonost, anesthesiologist and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins, found when he started investigating hospital‑acquired infections back in 2001. In particular, he was looking into the deadly line infections associated with central line catheters.

By monitoring how these lines were put into patients, he discovered that doctors weren’t getting any major decisions wrong. Instead, they were making small mistakes, missing out on critical steps when inserting a catheter.

So he created a simple, five-step checklist and empowered nurses to alert doctors if they were going to miss one of them.

After a year, the ten-day line infection rate at John’s Hopkin dropped from 11% to zero.

The approach has since been replicated. In the state of Michigan alone, it saved 1,500 lives and $100 million dollars annually. It even led to Provonost being named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2008. 

Parking space with wifi symbol

6. Demand-priced parking

Congestion is probably the oldest problem in transportation. The only way to solve it is to somehow change people’s travel behaviors. But the question is, how?

When ethnographers at Xerox started analyzing the issue, they noticed something important. Something tied to one of the oldest theories in basic economics.

Studies were suggesting that, on average, 30% of cars in congested downtown traffic are looking for parking. Just driving in circles looking for a spot. In some cities, such as Los Angeles, the number’s even higher.

The answer: a mobile application that gives drivers real-time visibility of available parking spaces around them, based on data collected from sensors in the parking spots.

Using dynamic, demand-based pricing for spaces – making under‑utilized spaces cheaper, and over-utilized ones more expensive – the system ensures demand and supply are in balance and prices are regularly reviewed and fine-tuned.

Early results showed a 10% decrease in congestion and a 2% bump in parking meter revenue. All by applying basic economic theories in a new way.

Map with locator symbols


Homeless youths are at increased risk of contracting HIV, but because of the uncertain and changing nature of their lifestyle and social networks, raising AIDS awareness among them is hugely challenging. Conventional campaigns simply don’t work.

So the University of Southern California began to look for a better view of the social networks they were serving. Using Artificial Intelligence to solve the problem, they created PSINET, an algorithm to map social connections of homeless youths, based on information collected from staff at shelters.

This allowed them to determine who the key influencers were within these fluid social groups, and then use those people to disseminate information. It’s an approach that’s helped them spread 60% more information than typical word-of-mouth campaigns.

And it starts with a better look at the people they’re trying to help.


8. The connected stethoscope

The stethoscope is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, though it’s barely changed from the original 1816 design by French physician René Laennec. It still relies on a doctor’s hearing to identify irregularities.

But detecting a minute heart murmur is incredibly challenging, requiring almost a musical ear. Lacking confidence in their abilities to hear these problems, doctors often refer patients to cardiologists, resulting in expensive and unnecessary echocardiograms.

A Silicon Valley startup analyzed the problem, and decided it was time to bring a digital dimension to the stethoscope.

Their invention streams heartbeat data from a stethoscope to the cloud. Doctors can then see the heartbeat in wave form on an iPhone app, and can hear an amplified version. Data can be shared online between physicians, hospitals and specialists, bringing expert diagnosis to even the most remote parts of the world. The next step is to deploy an algorithm to match heartbeats to conditions in real time.

This digital makeover of an instrument that’s been unchanged for two centuries is set to revolutionize the world of medicine.

Smartphone with Like symbol

9. Instagram

Doing one thing well beats doing a bunch of things badly. Just ask Kevin Systrom, who created Burbn – an app you’ve probably never heard of. That’s because it’s known today to its 500 million users as Instagram.

Originally designed as a mobile web app for check-ins and a host of other popular features of the time, Burbn was gaining decent, if unspectacular, traction. When Systrom and early user Mike Krieger started building out a mobile native app for Burbn, they realized they’d need to focus on just one feature to succeed.

But rather than just picking their favorite, they used analytics to see exactly how their users were interacting with the app and realized photo-sharing was hugely popular among their user-base.

After looking at existing solutions, they saw a gap in the market for mobile native apps that combined simple photo filters and easy sharing.

So they built their app, called it Instagram and experienced almost overnight success, gathering users at an incredible rate, before being bought by Facebook for $1 billion. 

We hope you can see from this list that insight doesn’t just magically strike you out of the blue – the best business leaders go looking for it. But they also don’t look to launch a rocket every time. Sometimes playing small is all you need.

It’s why ethnography and analytics are such vital parts of our approach to human-centric design and innovation. And it’s why they should be a big part of your programs too.

To find out more about our approach to innovation, visit Xerox Innovation

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