Customers sometimes do not know what they want

Tweet

Image by Darren Hester via Flickr

The promise of co-creation is that getting customers involved in the innovation process, and letting them inform the design of new products, will mean that you develop a product that is better suited to their needs and will ultimately perform better in the market. Of course, it is not always this simple. Often customers don’t know what they want. They can’t necessarily articulate how they would design the ideal product, nor can they say what is wrong with the existing product. They may never have articulated what they like nor what they dislike, but this doesn’t mean that the product isn’t perfect.

Over the weekend, the New York Times looked at this very subject following revelations from ex-Google visual designer, Douglas Bowman. In an unusual move, Bowman explained on his blog the reason he had left Google. As the New York Times discussed, his description of the design process at Google raises a number of questions:

Can a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?

Bowman’s suggestion is that that answer to all of these questions is “yes”. That Google relies too much on data, as a proxy of customer input, and not enough on design skills alone. As the New York Times article report:

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

This kind of user-input into the design process is what many think of when they think of working with their customers on new product development and design. They think of presenting a number of options to customers (or indeed to potential customers) and then asking them to evaluate each one and choose the one they prefer (or in this case to take their use of a particular design as a proxy for this choice). Of course, this is not necessarily the best way of co-creating with your customers.

Rather than asking people what they think about a particular set of designs they prefer (or which they use most), you can often get a more useful level of insight by engaging with them. Don’t ask them about solutions to a problem but observe what they discuss and say about the problems themselves.

Imagine you are a company designing kitchen equipment. You could involve your customers in the design and innovation process in one of three ways:

  1. Ask them what they want - ask what new equipment, tools or gadgets would make their life in the kitchen easier or allow them to do new things
  2. Ask them to choose between a set of prototypes - present a set of potential new products to them and ask them to choose which they want.
  3. Ask them to talk about what they do in the kitchen, what equipment they use and what problems they have

The last of these is most likely to produce the most insightful outcomes. Rather than asking people to get involved in the actual prototype products themselves, or to tell you what they want, get them involved further up the innovation funnel. Engage them and talk to them about what they use in the kitchen - what makes their lives easier, what would they like to be able to prepare and cook but can’t. Don’t talk to them about the equipment that, you hope, will solve their problems. Talk to them about their problems themselves.

By watching what people do you can then interpret this and begin a design process based on this information and this engagement. Then, rather than just presenting three options to people of potential new designs, you can approach them based on what they have discussed before: “there was a lot of discussion about x, here are some ways we think we could help with that. What do you think?”

This kind of engagement is where online communities really come to their fore. They let you engage your customer in a sustainable way. You can get to know them, their lives and the problems and challenges they face. It isn’t just a short-term process to “do some co-creation”, rather it is long-term engagement that fundamentally changes the way you innovate and develop new products.

Customers sometimes do not know what they want. It’s a fact. They do, however, know how they use what they have, the problems they face and the things they would like to be simplified. Understand what they do know rather than forcing themselves to make choices about things they don’t.

  • Design: it’s not all about you. (designmind.frogdesign.com)
  • Design Or Data? Ex-Googler Spills All After Landing At Twitter [Design] (gizmodo.com)
  • Google designer leaves, blaming data-centrism (news.cnet.com)
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  


For social media agency support get in touch or follow us on Twitter.

7 Comments

  1. Twitted by mattrhodes:

    [...] This post was Twitted by mattrhodes - Real-url.org [...]

  2. Tom:

    Also, the maxim that “customers don’t know what they want” was coined in an era when customers generally didn’t get much opportunity to talk to one another. When customers are networked I reckon a direct creative approach can work as well as the semi-ethnographic one you’re outlining.

  3. Alison Macleod:

    I haven’t seen formal co-creation work terribly well, although I do think it depends on the product area and the audience - as in, there are some problems which it is terribly easy to solve collaboratively and others which are very difficult.

    I think it has to be several things at once: listen (or watch), engage, test. One approach I’ve found useful in the past is to test the outliers i.e. to make up some examples of concepts which push a central idea to one particular limit - testing the ‘exaggerated’ thing, if you like. Feedback can then be very interesting in terms of defining the working area.

  4. Joseph:

    You have started a very interesting discussion on kitchen design. I’m a cabinetmaker who really does not want to make kitchens for a living, because the most of what is done in the US is just boxes with a “choice of doors and drawer fronts,” the most of which are made in a factory somewhere. Boring. I want to do something else if I can, but what?

    Last year I started a blog site with a fellow cabinetmaker and have since been exploring this very subject. European design just absolutely blows my mind, and I find myself doing quite a bit on it, even though these are often modular kitchens that one would simply send away for and have installed by a local craftsman. But what fascinates me is the utter innovation of those designs, so I find myself returning to them quite a bit.

    I am also looking to design a kitchen for my wife in a too small space in a tract home, which necessarily lets out those wonderful European designs that excite me so. And whenever I find myself going out on a limb with some idea or another for our kitchen, my wife always grounds me by saying, “If you stick with the classics, you won’t grow tired of them.”

    So, what do you do that is different and yet timeless and practical and stimulating to make if you’re a cabinetmaker? Damned if I know, but if I ever figure it out, I mean to make it for us and splash that baby all over the Internet!

    What you’ve written, though, has given me quite a bit to think about, and I thank you for sharing your concepts.

  5. Links for May 17 2009 | Eric D. Brown - Technology, Strategy, People & Projects:

    [...] there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Customers sometimes do not know what they want by Matt Rhodes on FreshNetworks [...]

  6. Are we in control of our own decisions? | FreshNetworks Blog:

    [...] posted last week about how customers sometimes do not know what they want. About how they cannot always articulate what they think, or how they are not always aware of what [...]

  7. colin shepherd:

    Surely it is a mistake to think of customers as a homogeneous group?
    Some customers would make brilliant contributions to innovation - many would add rubbish.
    If we react to the wrong data we’ll come up with the wrong solutions.
    I do think it is a good observation that customers generally don’t know what they want - otherwise we wouldn’t need retail service.
    This is true in many obvious categories such as technology,clothing,health food, auto,appliances.