For a company to innovate, it must get to know what the customer wants. But haven’t we opened up a can of worms by using the term ‘what the customer wants’, so loosely?
Which stage of product development do we have in mind while we use this term? It seems that while we are at the ‘requirements gathering’ stage, we behave as though we are at the ‘concept evaluation’ stage. We brainstorm a range of ideas (mostly the ones that we are comfortable with) and then test them with the customer to see which ones he likes the best. No wonder, innovation is such an expensive proposition.
The goal of innovation is to devise a product or service that most customers will find valuable according to their individual criterion. If so, the real question seems to be ‘What criterion do customers use to measure value’. If you do not know that the person will ‘count’ notes, you might mistakenly try to pay him as per the ‘weight’ or ‘colour’ of the currency notes!
Certain types of information about customer requirements are more valuable than others. Comprehensive studies over last several years show that there exists a large discrepancy between the type of information captured by companies about clients and the information critically needed needed as inputs for innovation.
Many customers offer their requirements in the form of a ‘solution’. They describe the physical or tangible features they want to see in the product e.g a lubricated blade strip or a sharper drill bit. But that creates a large gap between what they say they want and what they actually need. Since customers are not engineers, they say ‘ lubricated blade strip’ while what they are trying to do is ‘minimize the number of nicks during a shave’ . This results in a ‘me-too’ type of product with several shapes and sizes of lubricated blade strips rather than a product that minimizes nicks.
Once we are stuck at the ‘Me too’ level of thinking, we hit another roadblock called the one-trick-pony inertia. If we manufacture air-conditioners, we capture customer requirements on the features he’d like to see in the new air-conditioner – shape, additional benefits, less cost etc. That will keep us rotating around the one-trick solution of cooling air i.e heat exchange. If we had captured his requirement as ‘losing heat as quickly and efficiently as possible’ we would have looked up ‘various methods of cooling’ in our Scientific Effects database. That might have led us to realize that –
- Heat exchange is just one method of cooling. Some other methods are – Dufour effect, Joule Thomson effect, rarefaction, thermoacoustics.
- In 2010, nanotechnology nano-structure coatings were discovered that to make heat transfer far more efficient. To do this, heat transfer surfaces are coated with a nano-structured application of zinc oxide, which in this usage develops a multi-textured surface that looks almost like flowers, and has extra shapes and capillary forces that encourage bubble formation and rapid, efficient replenishment of active boiling sites. Can this new technology be used somehow?
- How does nature cool/heat things? The wood pecker manages chiselling impacts thanks to its curved body shape that acts as a bracing spring. Wood ants heat their nests using collective body heat. Termite mounds exist in temperatures ranging between 35 deg F and 104 deg F, but keep inside temperature steady at 87 deg F through use of hooded windows, variable thickness walls and light paints to absorb heat. Can we use this knowledge?
If we capture the requirement wrong, we shall innovate wrong. It will keep us glued to the one-trick pony.
See part 2 of this post here.