When customers ask us for something, our first inclination is most likely to give it to them. Naturally, our goal is to deliver value to those who pay the bills. And the customer is always right, right?
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When it comes to creativity and innovation, customers can be woefully inadequate sources for new solutions. Inventors of market-disrupting ideas know that what people think will attract them to a new product or service may often be very different from what actually does.
In his book, serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban put it this way, “Your customers can tell you the things that are broken and how they want to be made happy. Listen to them. Make them happy. But don’t rely on them to create the future road map for your product or service. That’s your job.” Or, as Steve Jobs famously put it, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Does that mean we need to ignore customer opinions altogether, and trust only intuitive geniuses to design the future for us? Or do we take the opposite approach and try to get our customers to tell us what’s next?
The answer lies somewhere in between. And that’s where innovation gets messy. And interesting. Because true innovation is really the art of what product developers call empathic design. Empathic design involves careful consumer observation and investigation—rather than traditional market research—to identify latent, unarticulated needs that customers may not even know they have.
In other words, we can’t ask customers to do our thinking for us. But we can become so familiar with customer habits, problems, and patterns that we are able to surprise them with a solution they didn’t even know was possible until we gave it to them.
Here is a simple example shared by a colleague of mine who worked at Procter & Gamble. It illustrates the power of unarticulated needs in action.
In the 1980s a team at Procter & Gamble was assigned to improve America’s favorite powdered laundry detergent, Tide. They had done all the usual research. They’d done surveys. They’d talked to people. But they ran into an interesting dilemma: everyone loved the product. They liked how clean it got their clothes. They liked the packaging. The smell. Everything. They had no negatives or dislikes, no clues for improvement. Dead end.
That is often the problem with customer feedback, people simply can’t get out of the gravitational pull of what currently exists.
So the team decided to go into customers’ homes and actually watch them do their laundry. In one lady’s home, they found something quite unusual. First she put in the powder. She let the machine fill up with water and added the clothes. Then something unexpected happened: just before she closed the lid, she reached for a nearby broomstick, poked it into the washing machine and started swirling the water with it. She had never mentioned there was a problem with the powder dissolving in the water. Now she didn’t have to. That became quite obvious as she stirred her laundry with a stick.
The team’s solution to that unarticulated need is now known as Liquid Tide. The leader of that team would become celebrated Proctor & Gamble CEO, A.G. Lafley. Throughout his storied career he made a habit of going and seeing for himself what people did with the products he created and sold.
According to a Harvard Business Review article on empathic design, “Sometimes, customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution.” In other words, customers can’t always tell us what they would love. We can only find out by seeing for ourselves.
David Sturt, with the O.C. Tanner Institute, is the author of the NYT Bestseller book Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love, from McGraw Hill. You can subscribe to the O.C. Tanner Institute monthly newsletter, Appreciating Great Work, here.