The Customer’s Role in Innovation

June 8, 2009 at 10:37 pm 11 comments

I recently spoke with a company that is focused on innovating their product offerings, but is frustrated with the advice many have given them to look to their customers. They argue, “Customers don’t always know what they want.” Well yes, that’s true.

But customers do have problems. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a successful product that doesn’t solve one problem or another. Let’s look at one of the most widely recognized innovative products of this yet incomplete decade…the iPhone. No one told Apple “I don’t want keys on my phone” or “I want my phone to be more ergonomic.” Maybe they didn’t even say, “I want a bigger screen.” But Apple understood the power of observing users. They probably observed users squinting to read text on tiny little flip phones or struggling to figure out whether they should type with one hand or two. I’m just making these things up, but the point is that Apple focused on the problems…. they didn’t necessarily ask the user what they wanted. Then (this is key), they took all those problems and started brainstorming solutions that defied current technology or perceptions about what is and isn’t possible/feasible/logical.

The customer plays another role further down the pipeline (prototyping & feedback loop), but I want to focus on this first role a bit more.

I’ve recently read a fabulous book called “Secrets from the Innovation Room” by Kay Allison. I like this book because it provides excellent exercises you can do with your customer to identify problems without asking them traditional usability session questions.

One of the points Allison makes is to focus on the convergence of two opposing ideals that your customer may have. For example, if I’m picky about the grocery products I buy, but I don’t want to spend the time shopping, what is my solution? Oh well, I guess I’ll suck it up. Nope – I’ll use Peapod, which allows me to specify how ripe I want my bananas, and delivers them to me the next day. An even timelier example – I want to stay warm on my couch, but I also want my hands free to eat popcorn during a movie. Born is the Snuggie (which is so brilliantly simple, I wish I had thought of it).

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t claim to be an expert on innovation. But I do firmly believe that the start of all answers in developing new and innovative products is the customer. Heck, observing the customer is one of Ideo’s five basic steps in their innovation methodology. If they say it’s so, it must be so!

What are your thoughts on how customers plug into the innovation process?


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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jay Gonzales  |  June 8, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Robin — Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I think ultimately the customer must be taken care of. They don’t necessarily initiate the innovation, but they sure can end it quickly.

    Here is more about how Apple innovates. The paired design meetings idea seems especially actionable:

    • 2. bstnmelody  |  June 9, 2009 at 2:47 pm

      Jay – Great article about how Apple innovates! Thanks for sharing.

      It’s especially interesting that they don’t do market research. However, they do “figure out what [they] want”, so in a way, they are doing the research on themselves. It takes a very disciplined team to stay on course when the focus is 100% internal. Good for Jobs & Ive at being able to manage that process so efficiently. My experience with teams that are focused more internally versus externally – they get way off track and develop features/products that customers don’t get used when they’re launched.

  • 3. Trevor Rotzien  |  June 8, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Thoughtful post!

    Some people do seem dismissive about “asking the customer”, but what we really mean is “observe, study, and gently provoke the customer” to reveal the needs they can’t express or are unaware of.

    You’re right, the simple flat-footed interview approach is very limited – it only reveals what is at the front of the minds of the customers, and that is usually laden with heavy baggage, such as clichés, habits and their presumptions about what the interviewer’s expectations.

    I shadowed a customer for a full work shift once. It was a revelation in terms of how she actually used the product and what the contextual realities were.

    • 4. bstnmelody  |  June 9, 2009 at 2:56 pm

      Thanks Trevor!

      BTW – didn’t you find it terribly difficult to stay quiet when you shadowed the customer? 😉

      • 5. Trevor Rotzien  |  June 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm

        Yes, that took some fortitude! It was her painfully ornate use of Excel that got me the most – really had to bite my tongue on that one.

        However, her situation was a classic example of how employees will get very creative with the tools they can use if the tools they are supposed to use never cross the adoption threshold. This particular company had invested heavily in ERP, only to have the most critical parts of the data processing remaining in custom spreadsheets and undocumented tricks. Not exactly an ideal ROI.

  • 6. GregY  |  June 8, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    I suppose there are many ways to innovate and not all of them involve conversation, or even observation of the potential customers. In fact, that how new categories of products evolve. I still remember people laughing at my site as I was lugging 10 lbs “mobile” phone on my shoulder. There “thought leadership” is also one of product management techniques IMO, and should not be discounted. The real question is how to distinguish what is the best method to use in a given product development or on a given stage of product development.

    • 7. bstnmelody  |  June 9, 2009 at 2:52 pm

      Agreed Greg – there are many ways to innovate. I recently attended an event where Microsoft presented their “approach” to innovation. Like Apple – its also very unique. They have offices set up across the U.S. for Microsoft Research Teams. Folks on those teams research and prototype (pretty much) whatever they want. Once they have working prototypes, there is a separate team that figures out if and how that technology can be integrated into existing Microsoft technology. Then the corresponding product team works on the integration and timing of release (or they develop a new product team if its completely outside of existing technology). In other words the core Microsoft teams that are focused on churning out regular enhancements to existing products don’t get involved in the innovation process.

  • 8. Cindy Alvarez  |  June 8, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    It’s human nature to jump from “having a problem” to “suggesting a solution” – and that’s why it’s dangerous to blindly listen to customers. That first solution is rarely the best one, no matter how smart or thoughtful or creative you are.

    I remember doing user testing on a bill pay application where a woman complained that the bank didn’t offer reminder alerts of when her bills were due.

    “Actually,” I pointed out, “they do have reminder alerts,” and showed her where to sign up. “Oh,” she said, “I DO get these – I just get so much email that I ignore them.”

    Her problem was not that she lacked email alerts – it was that she needed, somehow, to remember to pay her bills on time. The two solutions that made much more sense for her were a calendar application that appeared when she logged into online banking (which she did every few days), combined with gradually converting her bills to auto-pay.

    • 9. bstnmelody  |  June 9, 2009 at 2:56 pm

      So true Cindy! Its really important not to jump to the solution right away. I’ve learned to stand my ground when a specific solution is demanded before I’ve had time to dig into the problem. Both my time and the company’s money can easily be wasted that way.

      • 10. SallyOutLoud  |  June 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

        Good advice “stand my ground when a specific solution is demanded before I’ve had time to dig into the problem”. I wish I had figured that out sooner rather than later.

  • 11. Allan Neil  |  July 29, 2009 at 8:16 am

    I have been on the solutions side of the customer problem/vendor solution equation for about 15 years now.

    My thought on this topic harkens back to the Crossing the Chasm framework of Geoffrey Moore. Some customers, in my experience, are innovative in their thinking. Many others are not.

    So as an innovation-minded product manager the question arises: How do I find innovation-minded customers.

    In my experience they are often some (small) percentage of the customers that complain the most. But they are also some (small) percentage of the customers that do not complain at all. Outrage and apathy at once. Welcome to product management.

    Other markers. Most of the time, but not all, I find innovation-minded customers to be newer customers. Most customers, even innovation-minded ones, will give up complaining if ignored long enough. I know this sounds terrible to us Product Mgrs but it is true.

    Bottom line: As a product manager looking for customer input on innovation you want to look at the outskirts of the Complaint Distribution curve – those who complain a lot and those who don’t complain at all. Your customer service dept should be able to provide you with a list of each!


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