One aspect of sustainable product innovation is very basic — where do we find ideas that lead to creating value for customers. A common answer is: We ask them!
What does this mean? Do we literally ask potential and existing customers what they want? Doing so produces poor and misleading results. A common characteristic of human behavior is the difficulty of articulating what we want before we see it or are exposed to scenarios in the context of the problem. Users often describe their problems in terms of a solution, leaving the interviewer to reverse engineer the solution to define the problem.
Instead of asking customers what they want, another option is to observe them. Observing users removes the obstacles inherent in human behavior. An example from the PDMA ToolBook 2 illustrates this well (Belliveau, Griffin, & Somermeyer, 2004).
Product designers conducted research in Germany to improve a farm tractor. A focus group of farmers was asked about their tractors. One farmer responded that his tractor was perfect and he emphatically requested that the next model remain unchanged. During an interview in the same farmer’s home, he reiterated his position that the tractor was perfect as-is. The designers asked to see the tractor. He then proudly showed them his “perfect” tractor, which he had personally customized with over 20 modifications. Only after observing the farmer’s tractor did the design team have a better appreciation for what the farmer considered to be the perfect tractor. Relying only on what the farmer said would have produced very misleading research results.
If you are responsible for leading product innovation, make sure observations are part of your toolbox.
Reference: Belliveau, P., Griffin, A., and Somermeyer, S. (Eds.). (2004). The PDMA Toolbook 2 for New Product Development. New York: Wiley.