in User Research

The Difference Between Customer-Focused Innovation and Cluelessness

Last week a friend of mine was telling me about how new products are created at her software start-up. Essentially it consists of salespeople talking to current and potential customers about an existing product and asking, “What else would you like it do to?”

That in itself is a fine question that acknowledges the customer as having valuable ideas. But in this case, and others I’ve seen, it comprises the entire idea-generation process and grows out of a requirements mentality that looks superficially at customers’ needs. The organization substitutes the customer for the business analyst and lacks a business model and product concepting process. Instead of having a vision of how the company could satisfy unmet needs or create new markets, they’ve abdicated responsibility for new product development to the customer, which doesn’t always reveal useful insights.

These companies have a special need to move design and innovation activites from the production end of the business, which asks “How do we build?” to the front of the business, which asks, ‘What should we build?’

  1. And of course the flipside of that inquiry is how those salespeople report their findings: “I remember that the other week customer x said they wanted the product to do blah.” The “requirement” is filtered through another person who may or may not be particularly good at hearing what customers need (as opposed to listening to what they say).

    Requirements gathered in this way also lose any kind of context–features are boiled down to something the salesperson can remember from the conversation: “they want a button to close an account” without the context of who, why, when, how often, etc.

  2. And in the aggregate, disparate comments could easily turn the product into a Frankenstein. Doing the research to determine what you’re not going to build is just as important as what you do decide to build.

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