August, 2013 Newsletter

by Facilitators Shari Morwood and Greg Cobb

After working across a wide range of businesses, we’ve certainly built some perspective on the different challenges that each face with innovation. For some industries, their product is very simple—with more straightforward, often incremental innovation. But for others—such as high-tech and financial services—products are so technical, abstract or complex that they seem to mysteriously navigate the iteration and development process, and spring forth fully formed new offerings to customers. Although both types of industries share the need to innovate to better meet the needs of their customer, those who sell technically complex products and services often experience unique hurdles when involving their customers/consumers in the process of innovation.

For many of these businesses, innovation is often highly dependent on technological advancements—as well as new opportunities, influenced by diverse trends (including policy, connectivity, or widespread adoption of a technology). Imagine presenting a focus group with a new chipset that allows for an increase in information density—or a new piece of legislation around medical insurance—and asking, "What would you do with this?" It probably wouldn’t be all that useful, if the company is looking for real breakthrough innovation. But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for these industries to use customer perspective to help them generate new product ideas. Here are some approaches to gather and leverage the right kind of customer perspective, no matter your industry:

Scenario 1: The benefits of a technology are immediately apparent to the people working with that technology, but difficult for a customer to connect back to their daily work/life.

When leveraging a new technology to create a new product, it’s helpful to start with the question, "How do we want to improve the customer's life?" rather than "How can we improve our product's functionality?"

We often see examples of this in customer electronics—just take a look at all of the failed form factors and user interfaces in the cell phone category. Touchscreen technology has been available for well over a 30 years, yet it took the rollout of the iPhone and Android systems to truly make it mainstream in phones. One possible reason previous iterations failed, although with seemingly obvious benefits, was the nascent technology just wasn’t advanced enough to offer the customer the true benefit: a faster, more seamless experience. Take the Palm Pilot with its Graffiti "natural" writing system. No longer would customers have to learn a keyboard layout, or waste their time pecking out a message one letter at a time with their thumbs. With this breakthrough, they simply needed to memorize a new alphabet and write away. The engineers who designed the system were smart—but they were too close to the technology. They just weren’t able to see the weaknesses in the execution. The effort of memorizing a new alphabet was not worth the benefit of faster input—plus, the capture technology needed further time to be perfected. When leveraging a new technology to create a new product, it’s helpful to start with the question, "How do we want to improve the customer's life?" rather than "How can we improve our product's functionality?"

Understanding that the conversation often begins because of a technological breakthrough—or change in the environment in which the industry operates—it’s useful to first list out the functional benefits of the new tech/situation. Then, move out one level of abstraction and speculate on the possible emotional, social, and psychological benefits to the customer or consumer. For example, the Solid State Drive (SSD) technology used in more and more laptops has some clear functional benefits. Personally, as tech-enthusiasts, we’re suckers for sheer functional improvement in our gadgets. Give us a 5% increase in screen resolution and you have our money. But for someone who is less intrigued by technology, the gadget needs to provide some other benefits for a purchase. If we wanted to sell this type of buyer on an SSD, we would need to emphasize more emotional benefits like:

  • Reduces anxiety over traveling with a laptop, with extra durability and ruggedness from the lack of moving parts.
  • “Life saver” during high pressure situations where you need to pull up data immediately, with an "instant on" capability. 

Scenario 2: The design team needs to understand what else is going on while the customer interacts with the product or service.

Considering the possible emotional, social and psychological benefits of a new technology/opportunity has a secondary benefit—it provides further context. Going back to the Palm Graffiti example, we see that the designers of the interface ignored one important detail about how their customers were using the device: usage in short bursts of activity. The whole point of the PDA was quick editing and access to important data. To learn Graffiti, customers had to spend significant time referencing the instruction sheet and practicing the letters. Learning the interface became an activity, in and of itself. Current, and more successful, touchscreen user interfaces are highly graphical, mimic familiar input styles, and are designed to be very intuitive. The learning process does not require special attention from the customer, for the most part.  

There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein about insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That holds for innovative thinking, as well. If you want truly new ideas, you’ve got to do things differently. Get out of your comfort zone sometimes. Allow the new in. Being out of control for a time has the potential to put you in control in a big way. 

If you want truly new ideas, you’ve got to do things differently. Get out of your comfort zone.

So often we start with where we are: “Let’s talk to our target audience.” That kind of thinking will not necessarily get to new places. Sometimes what needs to happen is to talk to people who you want to be your customers, not the ones you already have. This could be problematic if your company has spent a long time developing a segmentation strategy. And hey, we’re not saying ignore it all together, it’s just that you are more likely to get to new and different ideas from new and different customers. A simple example is if you want to develop new products for a baby, talk to their moms, right? However, there are lots of male main caregivers of babies these days, and their thinking can be different (in a good way) from traditional moms. They can certainly open the aperture to help see what else is possible. Or—in the world of high tech—if you want to think about the possible, talk to little kids. It may seem pretty radical for an enterprise system-level product, but kids know no bounds. Even if you’re all tied up in your assumptions about what’s possible, kids dream big. Plus, many of them already have strong opinions about user interface and program design from their experience with gaming and phone/tablet apps.

Scenario 3: The product development and innovation team wants to talk to some customers/consumers, but finds it challenging to ask questions in a way that is useful and easy to understand.  

Getting helpful information from consumers is about asking the right questions.

Since customers are not always aware of what’s possible in the current business environment, or with the current technology, getting helpful information from them is about asking the right questions—and involving them early on in the process. Here are a few ways to consider:

  1. Customers can inspire with their experience and perspective—without having any clue about the technical specifications, design language, or the science behind a product or service. Have customers generate insights based on situations and use cases. As for your team, involve people who can translate the customer wishes into product ideas without explicit product design direction from the customers. Once during an R&D ideation session for a large computer networking manufacturer, we seeded the team with some “creative types.” The engineers were at first bewildered at what they could possibly get from the participation of these folks. As we grappled with the problem, one of creative folks came up with a solution from the World of Fashion—to make the networking components like Garanimals®, so it would be clear to non-technical types what plugged into what. Back then you could plug the wrong connector into the wrong receptacle and blow your system. This was radical thinking!
  1. Get customers talking about the situations, interactions and context of their lives, in and around the places where you see your product or service fitting. This is different than directly asking about their experience with the product or service. The point of insight generation is to not only gain an understanding of how the customer interacts with your product/service, but to also understand its place in their lives—relative to all of the other products, decisions and responsibilities they may have. By focusing on customer insights, rather than product/service experience, you create the opportunity to design a product/service that will delight the customer because it fits them on multiple levels—creating an innovative product/service, rather than creating a product/service+feature.
  1. Have customers design their ideal product/service interaction without the restrictions of current technology. As they describe these imaginary-yet-beloved products and services, unpack each customer-generated example—examining the features, language and design elements they highlight. These product/service characteristics can be applied as solutions and improvements to pain points customers experience with the current products/services.
  1. Treat customers as equals in new product/service development. If the innovation is driven by an exciting new technology, introduce it to customers early in the process. Create a communication piece that describes the potential of the technology in customer friendly language, but don't dumb it down too much. Providing customers with some additional technological context is also helpful—letting them in on other capabilities gives them more material with which they can build new ideas. This approach is particularly useful if the customers have some time to do some research on their own.
  1. When you do bring in customers (or potential customers) to help you ideate, keep the goal in mind: getting to new and different ideas. You can’t do that by putting too many constraints on thinking. And when it comes to new thinking, there are two important elements required for success:

a. Permission - In reality, we are very constrained in our thinking, and we have to continuously try to remove the shackles of assumptions about what’s possible. That means providing a playing field that gives us permission to be “wild thinkers.” We often take ourselves so seriously—but it can be in those crazy, unrealistic moments that the real “Ah, Ha” ideas happen.

b. Time - We’ve become accustomed to the 2-hour focus group—which certainly has its place—but may not be the best choice for getting to truly new ideas. Instead, consider techniques that allow you to dive into the world of you customer. Spend a good amount of time getting underneath what’s going on, and explore some different places that you’ve never gone before. Get the easy (top of mind) stuff out of the way, and provide a space for divergent thinking. How often do we hear “We’ve done a lot of research,” or “I know my customers,” yet it’s apparent that’s not the case?

In the end, even when the details of the product or service are 10,000 feet over the customer’s head, their perspective and input can still be very valuable. Remember that you’re not asking them to solve your problem—you still have to do that. What you are asking for, is to stimulate your thinking in brand new ways. Innovation happens when industry expertise resonates with consumer experience. Consumers can’t always tell you what they want, but their perspective has the ability to spark the thinking needed for truly breakthrough products and services.


Shari Morwood and Greg Cobb are Innovation Process Facilitators at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

©2013 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ideas To Go

Ideas To Go is an innovation agency that leads start-ups to Fortune 500 companies through insights exploration, ideation, and idea and concept development while incorporating the voice of the consumer.