The Consumer’s Role in Innovation: Our ONE Top Tip

We work with consumers on behalf of clients week in and week out.  We use plenty of tried and true tools and methods for interacting with them.  We have learned many things.  But they are all born of one governing principle:

1.     Aim Higher.

This holds true in any form of interaction with consumers.  For example, when conducting ethnography, the temptation is to look for something broken that needs fixing.  Or digress into conversation over needs and wants.  What you may be missing is the subtle behavior that underlies a great opportunity.  Look for the way consumers engage in an activity or task that can get the gears turning.  What if we integrated this with that?  Or eliminated that step completely?  Or turned the whole event upside down?  This is how the designer’s mind works.

Sure, you could fix the awkward moments in product use.  But would that drive greater consumption?  Or induce trial?  Maybe.  But look for the larger inspiration that will change the rules in your category.  In other words, aim higher.

Traditional focus groups are the worst offender.  They answer questions such as “How do you feel about this?”  “What do you think of that?”  “Which one works best for you?”  Focus groups bring out the worst in consumers.  They are asked to do all the things they do poorly amongst a large group of judgmental peers.  There’s no better formula for asking consumers to lead you astray.  There are so many better ways to uncover true motivations, fuel creativity and get honest, unvarnished feedback.  Just ask us.

Typical methods of concept screening are focused on answering the question:  “Which one wins?”  One what?  Concept?  Feature?  Form?  Sketching style?  There are so many moving parts in the typical concept screening exercise that expecting consumers to choose a winner is terribly misleading.  Not to mention the inclusion bias inherent in the set you’ve chosen.  Instead, structure the stimuli and activities to focus on key building block attributes that are easier for consumers to parse.  Use their reactions as inspiration for design refinement and integration to optimize a concept or originate a better one.  Aim higher.

We like to distinguish between capturing an observation and uncovering an insight.  An observation is that which is seen.  A struggle consumers have with a product.  A workaround they have devised.  These are gaps that are evident to all who care to look.  But an insight is what you alone choose to do with those observations.  An insight is a proprietary interpretation that serves as fertile creative inspiration, and leads to discontinuous innovation that doesn’t come about from just fixing something observed.  The designer’s eye is great for this, so let them lead if possible. 

That’s what we mean when we say “aim higher”.  Expect your team to look beyond what is easily seen—what everyone else sees—and they will get to the truth.  And the truth will set them free.