Customers sometimes do not know what they want

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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. (
  • Design Or Data? Ex-Googler Spills All After Landing At Twitter [Design] (
  • Google designer leaves, blaming data-centrism (
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The co-creation spectrum

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Over the past few days we have posted five types of co-creation. From those which involve only the customer and their own product to those which don’t involve the brand at all. These types can be seen as on a spectrum of co-creation with the following characteristics and variables:

  1. Who controls the process - brand or customer?
  2. Who is involved - only customers or a range of external stakeholders?
  3. Who benefits - does the co-creation impact upon the customer’s personal experience or the broader experience of all customers?
  4. What is the legacy - does the co-creation impact upon the customer’s version of the product alone or does it change the ultimate design?

This allows us to understand the five main types of co-creation highlighted in the series:

This is a typology we will be working on at FreshNetworks, but is one we use to analyse and understand innovation and co-creation in the social media and online community sites we see and work on.

A full list of the case studies for the five types we have show are below:

  • Co-creation and Innovation - the ‘We’ Experience
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Co-creation 5: Community product design

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The previous examples we have looked at in this short series on co-creation have involved the brand as the primary instigator and driver of change and innovation. They may allow the user to customise the product they receive (mass customisation), customise the experience right up to the point of delivery (real-time self-service), innovate and co-create the way they experience the product (service redesign) or work on new product development (new product co-creation). The final stage in our spectrum sees the consumer have more of a driving influence and more responsibility. Rather then helping the brand to co-create the product they as a community are co-creating it for the brand: community product design.

There are a number of organisations who have made this kind of co-creation the very essence of their business model, and others who use it to solve particularly tricky problems or ones they just don’t have time to deal with right now.

Threadless is perhaps one of the most well-known of the former - an organisation who have built their business model on community product design. The concept is simple but effective. You can upload your T-shirt designs, the community votes on the designs and comments on them and every couple of weeks ten of the most popular designs are chosen and printed. You can then buy these t-shirts. The concept is simple and the execution effective. By involving the community fully in the product design process, and in fact letting them take the lead, Threadless is able to build loyalty for its designs and concepts and to some extent guarantee a market for the T-shirts it produces. A relatively high proportion of those who comment on or vote for a design may want to purchase it when it is printed.

This is a great example of allowing co-creation at the heart of your business model - letting the community take control of product design and develop products for and on behalf of themselves and others. Another example of community product design is for a firm to co-create in this way on just one specific problem or area. This is where online communities such as Innocentive come to the fore. They allow companies to ask the community to solve a specific problem or issue and reward them (in this case financially). Community product design is used in such cases to provide extra support and input either when internal resources don’t have  the time or the ability to solve the problem.

Customer product design is a very deep level of co-creation. Unlike the other examples we looked at in this series, it fully delegates responsibility for an area of business to a community. These may or may not be customers, more important is that they are people who can work together to solve the problem in hand. To embark upon such a deep level of co-creation requires a brand to change and adapt its internal processes but also its ways of interacting with external stakeholders and the wider community. Bringing them inside the brand is a big step but one that can both bring new ideas and be an effective way of innovating. As somebody once said to me: “the cleverest people don’t work for you”.

  • Threadless Gets Its Own Place
  • Co-creation 1: Mass Customisation
  • Co-creation 2: Real-time Self-service
  • Co-creation 3: Service redesign
  • Co-creation 4: New product Co-creation
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Co-creation 4: New product co-creation

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So far we have looked at two examples of co-creation that change only the customer’s own experience of the product (mass customisation and real-time self-service), and one example where the customer helps to change the way a product is delivered (service redesign). But when many of us talk about co-creation and innovation we think rather of new product development.

Getting insight from customers to develop new products is not new - doing market research to identify needs and trends in the market, conducting focus groups to test reactions to concepts and ideas, or asking for feedback on existing product to identify areas for development. But all of these approaches to innovation are very much held and driven by the brand. They watch what the customer does, or asks them what they think, and then go away and develop a new product that they think meets these needs.

Co-creation is very much customer-led. Brands and customers work together to develop and design new products. The results can be very powerful and brands from Lego to Xerox have worked with customers in this way to create new products. You can read the story of Lego Mindstorms here.

Involving customers in this way involves some significant changes of process and attitude at the brand. Traditionally the customer sits outside the firm - they purchase the product and their only relationship with the firm is, essentially, a transactional one. Where new product co-creation is concerned, customers are involved on a much deeper level. Working with the brand to develop and design products which they may not even want.

Herein lies the significant difference between the types of co-creation we have seen so far. In each of the previous three types, the customer’s motivation for co-creating was that their own particular product or experience would be improved. In new-product co-creation, customers are working to improve the product overall, and to improve the offering the brand has to make to all customers. This works for three reasons:

  1. customers want to help and work with brands they know are listening to them
  2. customers want to solve problems
  3. all to often the solution or idea you need will be really simple to somebody else

These motivations are common to anybody working in customer-led innovation and co-creation. They’re also the same motivations we see at FreshNetworks for participation in online communities. In fact, online communities are a great way to co-create new products with your customers - they allow you to work together on a problem with people who care about your brand and in a space where they can easily share and evolve ideas.

  • Co-creation 1: Mass Customisation
  • Co-creation 2: Real-time Self-service
  • Co-creation 3: Service redesign
  • Co-creation and Innovation - the ‘We’ Experience
  • Open Innovation
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Co-creation 3: Service redesign

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The two examples of co-creation that we have looked at so far in this series have shown how customer and brand can work together to improve the customer’s own experience of the product. Neither mass customisation nor real-time self-service impact on the product experience of other customers. They change the product one time only and don’t input into the broader design and development of this product.

Whilst many companies may not want to involve customers directly in product design, one type of co-creation can see them working with customers on how the product is delivered - on the service. You’ll often find that the customer doesn’t distinguish between product and service and so involving them in this can be a great way of bringing them inside the company.

From Amazon to FedEx, many firms have taken ideas from their customers to develop the way in which they deliver their products to them. The co-creation site MyStarbucksIdea is positioned more to services than to products and seeks to get customer input into the way they enjoy the product rather than into the product themselves. In fact this is a great area for using online communities - exploring and understanding how customers use your product and then taking and seeking their ideas on how to deliver them to you better.

Focusing on service has the advantage of directing customer efforts to how the product is delivered rather than to the product itself. It is a way of the brand improving the customer’s experience without impacting upon the product itself. It is also a way to bring the customer inside the business. Helping them work with the brand on a part of the experience that matters to them most.

Co-creating service redesign lets customers work with the brand and change the experience without changing the product itself. It goes beyond the types of co-creation that focus only on the customer’s own product or experience but does not cause lasting change to the product itself.

The next example we’ll look at in the co-creation series will look at a type that does just that.

  • Co-creation 2: Real-time Self-service
  • Co-creation 1: Mass Customisation
  • Customer Satisfaction: Time Is Precious
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