Cartoon: asking customers for product ideas


Don't Count on Customer Creativity

Asking your customers to suggest ideas for improving your product is a great idea if you are trying to catch up with an innovative competitor. But, unless you focus on a small group of creative customers and use a structured creativity methodology, such as anticonventional thinking (ACT), your customers are not going to suggest transformational ideas that will shake your industry and put you ahead of more innovative competitors. In fact, the only thing less creative than directly asking your customers for product improvement suggestions is to create a massive crowdsharing web site in which you invite the world to make suggestions and to vote on those suggestions to find the best ones. Such a crowdsourcing tool is an ideal way to identify the most popular features on other products -- but that is not innovation. That is copying.

Think about massive innovations in the past century or so. Steve Jobs did not devise the iPod and iPhone by asking customers for ideas. Henry Ford did not come up with the Model T by asking his customers what they wanted (in fact, he famously said that if had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have replied with "faster horses."). Mark Zuckerberg did not devise Facebook by asking what users or customers wanted. And the frequency with which his company irritates users with upgrades that they hate, but which fail to slow down their use of Facebook, or the company's growth, suggests he and his team continue to ignore user ideas. And benefit handsomely by doing so.


Why It Is a Bad Idea to Ask Customers for Ideas

Although some of your customers may be creative geniuses, most of them are not (unless you sell a product exclusively to creative geniuses, of course). Thus when asked for ideas about improving one of your products, they will respond with ideas based on what they are familiar with which is your product and probably your competitors' products. If one of your competitors' products has a cool feature that your product lacks, your customers will likely suggest that as a feature they would like to see on your products (and in a crowdsourcing platform, such an idea is likely to get lots of votes by others who would also like to see your product copy that feature). Implementing this suggestion will not make you more innovative than your competitor. It will help you catch up with your competitor. But catching up with a competitor is not taking the lead, it is being a follower.

Moreover, if one of your customers really does have a bold new idea that would transform your product and wipe out the competition, she is unlikely to want to give it to you. She would almost certainly prefer to profit from her idea. So, she might be willing to sell her idea to you. She might consider launching a start-up based around her idea. She might be willing to patent her idea and sell it to the highest bidder. Because no matter how much she loves your company, she doubtless cares more about her own future than yours. And if she is bright enough to devise a creative vision for a bold new product, she is bright enough to have ideas about how to profit from her ideas.


But Do Not Ignore Your Customers

Of course I am not suggesting that you should ignore your customers and pay no attention to their desires. Rather, focus on understanding your customers with respect to their use of your product and similar products. Get beyond the product and understand why your customers use your product; what goals they hope to achieve by using your product; how they feel about your product and your competitors' products; who they are; and anything else relevant to their use of your product. Identify the core need or desire your product fulfils. Henry Ford understood that customers at the time were not really interested in horses and carriages, but rather in personal transportation at an affordable price -- a desire he fulfilled with the Model T motorcar.

Steve Jobs understood that people value beautiful gadgets that are easy to use. In many respects the iPod was part of an evolution of personal music devices that started with the transistor radio in the 1950s; continued through the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s and 80s; the CD playing version of the Walkman in the 90s; and on to smartphones today.

In the pre-computer days, when you could not click CTRL and Z to undo a typo and most documents were printed in duplicate or triplicate using carbon paper, secretary Bette Nesmith Graham recognised that even the most competent secretary made the occasional typo. So she invented Liquid Paper, a remarkably easy way to fix little errors on originals and carbon copies.

Once you understand your customers and, in particular, their core need or desire you are fulfilling, you can start to ask question about other ways to fulfill those desires and needs. You can look at how new technologies might respond to those desires and needs. You can identify other ways that customers could fulfill those needs and desires.

In some cases, you may recognise desires or needs that the population does not realise it has. In the early 1990s, Microsoft recognised that an easy to use, integrated software system focusing on business use would fulfill a need most businesses did not know that they had. Before that time, most office desks did not have a computer sitting on them. Now every desk has a computer and most of those computers are running Microsoft Windows and Office software.


Of course it is not easy to grasp what your customers really want or need and to design transformational products and services for them. That's what makes people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates so remarkable and wealthy. The first thing you need to do is to stop trying to have ideas about product improvements and new products. Such thinking only focuses your mind on your existing products and the paradigms associated with them.

You need to analyse what your customers are doing, ask questions and understand. Creative thinking methods like ACT, creative problem solving and TRIZ all share this initial focus on questioning and understanding. Dynamic problem solving, which uses the language of dance and motion to analyse situations that involve people with varying desires, motivations and values, can be a very useful tool for understanding how your customer really feels about your product.

From there, you need to build new visions to fulfill old (or sometimes new) needs and desires. ACT, which focuses on rejecting conventional thinking in favour of new, unconventional thinking, is particularly useful in devising transitional product and service ideas.

However, coming up with new ways to fulfill needs and desires is not sufficient to innovate. You also need to have the willingness to take the risks necessary to design, develop, market and launch bold new products. Because, the people cited above were neither the first nor the only ones to have the ideas that launched -- or reinvigorated -- their companies. But they were bold enough to press forward and launch their visions on the world.


New Product Innovation Facilitation

Do you want or need to develop transformative, innovative new products and services? If so, I can help you analyse your customers, gain insights and build bold creative visions. Using methods such as ACT and Dynamic problem solving, you and your colleagues can unleash your true creative potential and come up with incredible new ideas. Get in touch and let's talk about what you can do with a little help from me.


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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