Listening to customers and Innovation

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This famous quotation from Henry Ford puts listening to customers and innovation opposite to each other. It is quite possible that if Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted, they might have said that they want to travel faster, putting both at the same side. Though the important thing to note here is that Ford didn’t ask customers and came up with arguably the biggest innovation of the industrial age. The question this raises is an important one: can you innovate without listening to the customers?

Companies put a lot of focus on what customers want when they develop products, which leads to great products to solve big problems faced by customers. But then there are breakthrough products which come along every now and then which no one expected or asked for. Apple is known for doing that all the time. No one asked for or expected an iPod to fit every pocket and budget, nor did anyone imagine an iPhone to revolutionize the cellphone industry. Both solved big customer problems like organizing their music in a cool device and putting a little powerful device in their pocket that can have a few dozen necessary applications (and can be used for talking) respectively. But had Apple asked customers what they want from the company, it is quite possible that they would have remained Apple Computers satisfying the need of their niche market.

So one might wonder how Apple, or for that matter any company that comes up with breakthrough innovation, does that? I believe by putting themselves in the customers’ shoes. If you develop a product that you would love to have, something that makes your life easier, something that solves some major problems for you, the chances are your customers will love to have that product as well. All you need is honesty, persistence and self critical observation.

And what about listening to customers? That’s post version uno. You put the breakthrough product out there and now let the customer chip in to tell you how you can improve it and make better to fit their needs. Then you form the maven force to help you deliver breakthrough products and great customer focused innovation.

2 responses to “Listening to customers and Innovation

  1. Would putting yourself into customer’s shoes not be a part of consumer research? I mean you can only put yourself in the customer’s shoes when you know him/her well (unless you are a part of the target group – which may not be the case always).
    If Apple would go out and ask what it should make next, the answer would be related to laptops and PCs because that is what consumers know about the company. But, if Apple decided to enter the music industry, it will conduct research specific to music players… and that is when they would get clues on portable and affordable players.
    I think consumer research will still remain an integral part of new product development process. Of course, it is a little more straightforward when we want to conduct a research to evaluate an existing product because we already have something to build upon. What do you think?

  2. You have a very good point to make here. We must separate two things to make it clearer. First, understanding consumers and second, taking consumer input in product development.

    You cannot have successful product development without understanding your consumer. That goes with every product, irrespective of whether you are developing a new gadget or creating a television sitcom. You got to understand your customers.

    Now let’s talk about product development at very early stage, at ideation stage. This is when you have an idea and technical knowhow to productize it. Market research in that case is not much useful. Your consumers won’t be able to provide inputs in product development if they are not able to visualize your idea. In that case, you need to be your own consumers, and more often than not we see great products getting developed when the people developing the product are part of (or very close to) the target segment.