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 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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