Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Give the people what they want!

It's time to be contrary. For those of you (thanks mom and dad) who read regularly, you won't be surprised that I may on occasion become a bit contrary. Well, where's the fun if we all just agree about everything?

Today, the subject of my contrariness is about innovation and customers. There's a concept that seems logical but doesn't offer much hope for true innovation - that is, asking people what they want. While this approach seems logical, there are a number of problems associated with it:

  1. Most people don't know what they want
  2. Of those that do, they don't represent a significant population and/or aren't market makers
  3. You aren't the only one with the bright idea of asking people what they want, your competitors are doing that too
  4. Real innovation is usually about solving an unmet or unserved need. Wants are aspirational, needs are practical.
  5. Most people are not willing to think disruptively, so many ideas that result from customers are likely to be incremental at best
So, while asking people what they want seems reasonable, it isn't a very useful way to create interesting, unique innovations. How can you use your customers and prospects to generate innovations?

There are a number of approaches, but the ones we like best are:

  1. Rapid Prototyping
  2. Identification of unmet needs
  3. Lead Users
In the first case, customers can respond to physical representations or mockups and tell you want they don't like or how they'd change it much more accurately than they can describe useful products or services in the abstract. Rapid prototyping is not used very effectively in most organizations. The Blue Ocean folks have some great tools to consider unmet, undermet and overmet needs, which can open up whole new markets and disrupt existing ones. When Southwest disrupted the market, most existing fliers demanded frequent flier miles and were not likely to switch, so they identified a market that didn't demand frequent flier miles. Imagine asking customers if they wanted an airline without frequent flier miles!

Lead users is a concept that Eric von Hippl describes in his book. This is the case of identifying what people are already doing with a product or service in a way that was not intended. The classic example is the mountain bike. When mountain bikes didn't exist, lead users created them with bits and pieces of motorcycles, regular bikes and bike parts. Specialized, one of the leading mountain bike manufacturers, sold bike parts in those days. They recognized that something was going on and watched the folks who were building their own bikes, and entered with a "packaged" mountain bike. Lead users are already doing what others are likely to do in the future - you don't have to ask them, you just have to observe them.

A logical approach then would be to identify lead users, identify the undermet or unmet needs they are satisfying and quickly prototype a solution to present to your customers for confirmation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:31 AM


Blogger Herman said...

People want their dreams fulfilled. Innovation means goign into people's minds and creatign what they are thinking but can't produce. Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni talks about the idea of dreamketing. Dreamketing is essentially touching the customer's dreams. It's the art of telling stories and entertaining, with the goal of promoting the dream, not the product. The brand has to be built around the customer's dream. Great article.

6:55 PM  

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