Deadly innovation sin: Depend on customers to tell you what your next product / service will be

English: Logo of Ikea.

English: Logo of Ikea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Want to know why innovation is so hard?

Though the vast majority of companies do some kind of market research, it isn’t enough because whatever insight is gleaned from it is lagging by the time a formal report is made. Instead, companies need to go deeper and step into customer’s lives. A good part of why most new products and services fail is because people don’t understand how it fits into their lives; which stems from an organization’s lack of understanding of people unarticulated needs.

This is the area of cultural / contextual research, uncharted territory for many organizations. Yes, I can assure you that most organizations DON’T do contextual research; and they won’t do it in the near future either because even big companies are cognitively challenged to question their customer’s assumptions.

A recent article on how Ikea has grown all over the world illustrates the challenge for both large and small organizations:

Today research is at the heart of Ikea’s expansion. “The more far away we go from our culture, the more we need to understand, learn, and adapt,” says Mikael Ydholm, who heads research. Rather than focus on differences between cultures, it’s his job to figure out where they intersect.

The company, for example, did a study of 8,292 people in eight cities, examining morning routines. People are the fastest out the door in Shanghai (56 minutes) and the slowest in Mumbai (2 hours, 24 minutes), where they’re also the kings of the snooze (58% hit the button at least once). New Yorkers and Stockholmers are the most likely to work in their bathrooms (16%). But regardless of city, women spend more time than men picking out their outfit for the day, a process many find stressful.

With this data in hand, Ikea came up with a freestanding mirror that has a rack on the back for hanging clothes and jewelry. The Knapper, as it’s called, is intended to help customers assemble an outfit—clothes and accessories—the night before to cut down on morning panic. Other research showed that as more of the world’s population moves into cities (with smaller living spaces), Ikea could serve customers by creating multifunctional products. The company, for instance, is about to roll out lamps and bedside tables with built-in wireless charging for mobile devices. “The best thing for making your home more beautiful is to take away ugly things,” says Jeanette Skjelmose, who’s the business manager of lighting. “Cables are normally not that beautiful.”

Even surveying 8,292 people doesn’t always get you the right answer. The problem is that people lie. Ydholm puts it more delicately. “Sometimes we are not aware about how we behave,” he says, “and therefore we can say things that maybe are not the reality. Or it could be that we consciously or unconsciously express something because we want to stand out as a better person. That’s very human to do it like that.”

One way Ikea researchers get around this is by taking a firsthand look themselves. The company frequently does home visits and—in a practice that blends research with reality TV—will even send an anthropologist to live in a volunteer’s abode. Ikea recently put up cameras in people’s homes in Stockholm, Milan, New York, and Shenzhen, China, to better understand how people use their sofas. What did they learn? “They do all kinds of things except sitting and watching TV,” Ydholm says. The Ikea sleuths found that in Shenzhen, most of the subjects sat on the floor using the sofas as a backrest. “I can tell you seriously we for sure have not designed our sofas according to people sitting on the floor and using a sofa like that,” says Ydholm.

The aim of gaining all this cultural knowledge is not to tweak the products for each market. The Ikea model, remember, is volume, volume, volume: It needs vast economies of scale to keep costs low, and that means creating one-size-fits-all solutions as often as possible. Rather, Ikea has gotten awfully good at showing how the same product can mesh with different regional habitats.

Bottom line: As an innovator, the worst thing you can do is to just ask the customer what they want. Instead, listen to customers, but don’t believe them; become them.