Customers sometimes do not know what they want


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 (

Innovate through a downturn, but make it customer-led


Okay, so it’s been a tricky week so far for businesses round the world. I knew it was bad when the chatter  around the coffee machine in our office on Tuesday morning wasn’t about something that was on TV last night, or about something going on in the office. It was about how they were going to face the current economic downturn. From banks failing and being taken over by the state, to falling retail spend and even reports that Britons are raiding their piggy banks, there’s only one thing on people’s minds this week

And at times like this it is interesting to see how businesses react and respond. Of course, there are the counter-cyclical industries (lawyers, accountants, take-away food, bunk beds…) but how do the rest plan and build a strategy in times like this?

For most businesses there are probably two pieces of advice:

  1. Make sure you are close to your customers and that they are close to you. It should be your brand they think about when they do want to make a purchase and you should be aware of what they think and how their habits are changing.
  2. Innovate to stay ahead of the game. A crisis is a great time to innovate - you have to think of ways of staying ahead of the competition, of being more efficient or of new products that you can offer. It’s true of war-time, where many of the best innovations (from the pie-chart to nylon) originate; and it’s true of business during challenging economic times.

So how do you innovate at a time like this? Well we want to innovate to mean that we continue to attract customers and meet their changing needs. We want to make sure our products are meeting essential needs and are of benefit to them. And if possible we want to make sure that we are more efficient in the way we do this so that our own costs can be controlled.

What is common across all of these aims is the need to better focus on the customer and what the customer wants. That’s why the best innovation during these times will be customer-led innovation. Rather than asking questions of customers and then going away and coming-up with ideas to meet what you find (customer-centred innovation), it’s about co-creation and really working with your customers innovate and have new ideas.

So how do you let the customer lead your innovation process? Well there are probably a few things all organisations can do:

  1. Call ten of your customers from the last six months and ask them what you could do better - they’ll appreciate the personal touch and you will start to get some ideas
  2. Bring together a group of customers (either offline or online) to co-create and share ideas based on specific areas you think you could improve. This will help you generate some ideas to contribute to specific areas you’ve already identified
  3. Bring together a group of customers (and perhaps non-customers) in an online community where they can co-create, share ideas and innovate with you over a much longer time-scale.

This latter suggestion will be most effective in terms of identifying those innovations that are most likely to help you face the economic downturn. The benefit we see at FreshNetworks of building online innovation communities is that you get ideas in areas you had never thought of before. We’ve helped clients to reposition their product and even to just talk about it in different ways, using the language their customers use. Real customer-led innovation will shock and surprise you, because it’ll be the thing you haven’t thought of before. But in the current climate, it’s these new and effective ideas that you need.

  • What Does the Financial Crisis Mean for Innovation? Xconomists Weigh In
  • Financial crisis: The tech innovations at risk

Product innovation and co-creation at MyStarbucksIdea


Starbucks logo

Today has been a day of a few announcements from Starbucks. They are expanding their menu and are trying to appeal to different audiences. Today the announcements have been about a new healthy range of breakfast products; a few weeks ago it was a new ‘nurishing’ smoothie with added protein and fibre - Vivanno.

It is clearly a time of much new product development and change at Starbucks, and I was interested to see how they might be integrating their MyStarbucksIdea online community into this process. The community has been running since March 2008 and has proven popular with over 130,000 separate ideas submitted to date. The real strength of this kind of community for Starbucks would come if they could show that it was taking a real role in the innovation process, that it was a good example of co-creation of the type we discussed a few weeks ago in the co-creation series.

So how has MyStarbucksIdea been involved in the development of some of these ideas. If quantitiy of discussions is any indication, then respectably. Over 500 separate comments on Vivanno are on the community. These range from simple announcements of the product in local stores, through suggestions of new flavours, to more fundamental suggestions about the product.

The simplest ideas are sometimes the best. User ‘smadh’ posts a direct comment but one that is a great addition to new product development: add black cherries to the chocolate banana vivanno. There is discussions and disagreement, ‘cosmokitty’ wants small size drinks (sometimes a Grande is just too much), whilst ‘san_jose_alex’ wants the opposite (The Vivanno is delicious and successful. Now it is time to offer it in a larger size!). And in among the over 500 comments there are some that go into more detail. ‘Redwest’ makes a suggestion about the healthy-eating credentials of the drink:

I tried the Chocolate Banana today and was pleasant surprised! Tasted pretty good! My suggestion is trying to keep that exact flavor and cutting down the sugar some… I think that would help this “healthy” drink be even better!

And ‘mizmak35′ was less keen on the drink but makes some suggestions abotu how to make it more appealing:

The Vivanno is neither a Smoothie nor a Frappachino. It was very THIN (like a chocolate milk with a banana thrown in) I would NOT get this again as I am a Frappe addict.
Try making a “real” smoothie consistency and try a chocolate/raspberry combo. Maybe you need to get a soft yogurt machine to compete with the smoothie shops

This level of comment and insight from consumers is of incredible use to a brand and it is good to also see exchanges between members of the community about these comments. Starbucks is able to use these comments and suggestions to feed back into their product development cycle and take changes to market much quicker than they might have been able to before.

Communities like MyStarbucksIdea are a great way to find out how customers respond to new products and to amend them and make changes based on the ideas you are given and the discussions you witness. This is why so many organisations build online research communities, creating a specific space for customers to respond and share ideas and for brands to get real customer insight.

Of course it isn’t clear yet how much the ideas discussed about the Vivanno will be implemented by Starbucks in store. But it will be interesting to watch how all these discussions about the new ‘healthier’ product launches translate into changes to the actual product. Given the level of engagement and involvement that Starbucks have built, it would be a shame if these ideas weren’t used.

  • Eight Considerations to Help Branded Communities Succeed
  • Co-creation 5: Community Product Design
  • Help Define Community Building online
  • Co-creation 3: Service redesign
  • Dell, Starbucks, and the marketplace of ideas
  • Benefits of Web 2.0 Applications
  • McDonald’s To Take On Starbucks
  • Smooth Move? Drinks’ Calorie Values Off
  • Co-creation 4: New product Co-creation
  • Starbucks: Good Move Or Poor Brand Management?

The co-creation spectrum


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

Co-creation 5: Community product design


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