Phil McKinney asks: are customers a source of ideas for innovation?
Two years ago The Economist published a report where it indicated that by 2020 customers will replace R&D as the main source of new ideas. Well, apart from customers, there are many sources where companies can get ideas for innovation; partners, competitors, non-competing companies and employees.
Some of the most innovative ideas can come from customers themselves. But, you must involve them.
You have to go beyond the Idea Suggestion Box
For the purpose of sourcing ideas from customers and employees, the most organizations do is setup an idea suggestion box. To understand why it sucks as an idea sourcing tool, ask any company if they get ideas from their customers and they will most likely answer with yes. But, ask them if they take the time to implement those ideas and the answer is probably no. The same goes for company employees, the answer is no.
If you’re a company that is committed to listening and applying ideas from customers, this is what you have to do:
Customer idea sourcing must be done in relevant settings; take customers to places and settings where they do things that you want to change. It must be focused on the actual decision situation; ask customers what they do, what they feel and think. Look out for postures and situations that may tell you about what they could be thinking but are not articulating it with words. It must also invite customers to be creative; ask them to imagine new scenarios, not evaluate the status quo.
After you’ve taken a couple of days to do so, you can go back to your office whiteboard and use IDEO’s Empathy Map to help you structure and synthesize your thinking around what customers are saying, doing, thinking and feeling:
An outcome of doing this exercise should be a collection of themes around key challenges, as well as potential solutions, to what customers are trying to achieve. The main thing you have to understand is that you just don’t ask customers for ideas, you have to put them in specific situations to dig deeper and unearth what they might not be saying.
As I wrote this week, if you have the capability to prototype at the moment of doing contextual research, this is as good a moment to capture ideas from customers and integrate them into your product in real-time.
Bottom line: The best ideas you will get from customers come from observing them in their domain, while also involving them in the process. And, the faster you can prototype with them the better.