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Incremental Innovation: Xiaomi Makes It Work – One Update at a Time

by Yilin Zhou , 24.10.2013

Making news recently was the Chinese smartphone manufacturer, Xiaomi, founded only three years ago, now valued at $10 billion. Xiaomi’s rapid growth in the Chinese market is marked by the success of its “Android-based but deeply modified” operating system, MIUI. Eyeing expansion to overseas markets, Xiaomi hired Hugo Barra, the former vice president of Google’s Android product management team last month, which brought the company international attention.

Among the many factors that resulted in Xiaomi’s rapid rise, its user experience (UX) strategy of continuous improvement may be worth a second look. The continuous improvement paradigm in the product development cycle was originally proposed by the Japanese. It emphasizes the persistent pursuit of global level improvement by carrying out rapid, small-scale, and iterative adjustments at a local level. Xiaomi seems to have not only adopted this method, but also, to a certain extent, has carried it out to an extreme.

On Xiaomi’s website, there are 150-plus feature updates for the MIUI system. This equates to a new version of the operating system released almost every week over the last three years. Usually, an update will have only three to five items, including UX improvements or new features.

Last week, I spent some time looking through the 50 latest updates, and found a number of small but meaningful changes made to improve the UX of the MIUI system:

 Headshot beautifier. A UI widget added to the camera app that allows users to easily configure a proper lens setting to “beautify” the headshot by simply specifying their age and gender.
• Data-saving browser. MIUI’s browser will automatically turn off images on a webpage when on cellular data service. Users can click on the disabled image to load and display the content. This is helpful in a country like China, where cellular data is expensive to use.
• Public WIFI connector. This feature helps shorten and optimize the process of connecting to an available public WIFI network.
 Public WIFI sharing. With this feature, a MIUI phone can automatically connect to any open WIFI network, as long as that network was previously accessed by the first MIUI user who uploaded the access information.
• Contact easy update. This option reduces the steps of updating a friend’s contact information to one tap on a context menu.
• Virtual desktop. A special home-screen design that mimics a real-life desktop, with a number of three-dimensionally depicted “tools,” such as a telephone, calendar, and thermometer --aiming to benefit the elderly or child users.
• Many small ‘localized’ changes. Aside from the significant features mentioned above, MIUI made a series of smaller changes to make the Android system more customized to local users, such as adding traditional Chinese holidays to the calendar and arranging the menu options in a more culturally-sensitive way.

Looking at each of the changes released by Xiaomi probably won’t be an exciting experience to users; but it is likely the accumulated effect of these small changes has been helping to shape the overall experience to be more integrated and subtly satisfying to local users. Xiaomi’s success challenged a key industry and flipped it on its head. This shows that continually evolving core benefits to truly satisfy consumers is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the product life cycle.

For the time being, Xiaomi’s strategy won’t be a paradigm-shifting innovation that stuns the whole industry; and it is unlikely that one will find “the next big thing” coming from its labs. By executing its continuous improvement strategy, though, Xiaomi does seem to create more value for its users, and perhaps more importantly, make a growing number of users a little busier every weekend.

 Yilin Zhou is a User Experience Specialist at GfK with an interdisciplinary background in design, research and a special interest in aesthetic perception. Contact Zhou at yilin.zhou@gfk.com.