By Frank J. Rich
America is the innovator nation. So, the logic follows that Americans, of all walks, are innovators too. This doesn’t mean to suggest that innovators aren’t born elsewhere (35% of American innovations come from immigrants), but that the ambition in Americans (“Anyone can be president of the United States”) is apparent and real. In fact, American innovation was born in Europe, as the golden age of invention ranged from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s.
The human condition is naturally creative, so this means that we Americans (as others) naturally incline toward problem-solving, or finding a better way. It is, perhaps, the reason Apple products have had such success. They are innovative, and appeal to the WPC (wicked, pisser, cool) character in them. Unique design, form over function (opposite conventional wisdom — an innovation in itself), packaging, and creative marketing that moves the Wow meter, are among its characteristic appeal.
Not coincidentally, most innovations come from users of products and services, otherwise known as “customers.” The traditional approach to the customer is to divine what he/she needs or wants. Sometimes, we go as far as to actually look at what he/she is “in the habit of buying.”
“Everyone has a refrigerator; let’s make those, only better.” Ever run out of freezer space? If so, take a look at a new model from Samsung that repurposes any of its four food cabinets as a fridge or a freezer. When you need more freezer room, just move the milk and …, to the left, then repurpose the fridge as a freezer. I’d say that passes the WPC test.
But there is more to the customer than meets the eye. Not least, it’s the stuff of innovation. Most innovations (unique products, services, and applications) are called user innovations. They are called this because the developer expects to benefit by the use of them. So-called beta tests are meant to test the market for new things … to see if they work, gain use by their uniqueness, refinement, or additional marketing to turn “wants” into “needs.” Do most really “need” a cell phone? Data use of mobile devices far outpaces the use of them as phones. Reading, researching, and just keeping up with others and what’s happening, are largely accomplished using data services. Think your “hip cricket” is an absolute necessity? Note that anxiety therapy often includes separation from this modern “ball and chain.”
Most users are innovators at some level. We have all found ourselves saying something like: “They ought to make those gas caps with quick-release mechanisms to avoid getting gas on your hands and to get through the dirty job of pumping it quicker.” Voila!
It’s the way we are — creative beings. That sense in us, not coincidentally, is what informs our buying decisions, what makes us the consumers we’ve come to be. We either like the way something is made, or its ability to solve a problem, satisfy a need, add value, or we don’t.
A manufacturer innovation, on the other hand, is one in which the developer expects to benefit by selling it. In the traditional, manufacturer-centered innovation model, the manufacturer identifies user needs (what he believes), develops products at his expense, and profits by protecting and selling them. It’s the model that first comes to mind, but not the one that produces most innovations. Though it may benefit from demographic and psychographic modeling, it is not the prodigious creativity that obtains from actual use by a user. In this model the user is measuring three very important drivers, though often taken for granted by him/her — how to identify, access, and use, products and services under circumstances that are dynamic in nature. Today, you don’t need a new refrigerator. Tomorrow, yours breaks down, and everything changes.
The model responsible for most innovations is the user-centered innovation paradigm, or “democratized” model.
Back to the Future
If customers are innovators, then does it follow that no matter how many of some kind of something there is on the market there is room for something new and exciting? For some the answer is a definite NO! Henry Ford is known to have quipped: “Who needs another kind of auto? You can have any kind you want from Ford Motor Company, and in any color, so long as it’s black.”
Back then, he was right. That is, until new models from others came along and the basic black for $400 wasn’t everyone’s preference for how to get around.
For others, the answer is a definite YES! Apple, Inc. is the latest and greatest example of product innovation. But where do their products come from? Who would have guessed that the MP3 player, then struggling to displace portable CD players, would find market traction in a reincarnated form by an alien name? All would agree that the iPod, its fundamental workings much the same as MP3s already on the market, would tickle the fancy of music lovers the world over. Truth be told, it was more than unique design that sold the iPod; the product came with a music store and solved a copyright music nightmare by selling, of all things — singles!
Users have custom needs that when satisfied by an existing product are most convenient. It’s what makes consumers of us. The job of the manufacturer, then, is to package, attractively price, make readily available, and improve the product. In software, we call that “upgrades.” Generations of products reflect this process of improvement.
When not satisfied, custom needs often turn into products. We know from our study of the “Use Model” that the greatest competition facing products is the alternative use of the same resources. Customers always find the solution they seek, either an “adequate” product or service already in existence, or one they create. This is called “proximal alternatives.” That is, when we need to drive a nail into a wall, and a hammer is not available, we might use the end of the screwdriver that’s handy or the heel of a shoe. Such solutions are called proximal alternatives, and when found, often become the choice of habit — a key element in the consumer’s makeup. The resultant product might be a hammer that is also a screwdriver when needed. Auto key chains often contain high-intensity mini flashlights, arising out of a “custom need” for an additional, and often, vital function. Many “Aunties” join the family circle because their proximity as neighbors and friends make convenient the use of them as alternative parents. This common occurrence is proximal parenting.
Users, it appears, are responsible for more product innovation than any other groups, including designers and manufacturers. Bet I can guess the question in your mind — “Why don’t we ask ‘users’ what they are using to solve their problems, satisfy their needs?”
Studies show that consumers are not very vocal about the things they need. Oh, they complain a lot, but that may be more a cultural bias than a clear indication of the solution on their minds. You know how it is in the conference room. Those that complain: “it won’t work,” are usually not equipped with the solution that “will work.” Similarly, 97 percent of customers won’t tell you of their dissatisfaction. Of those that do, 90 percent will not say what’s at the root of it. Restaurant owners know this reality well. When diners don’t like the food or some other characteristic of their offerings, they find another place to eat.
We can conclude, then, that it’s important to look into the mind of the consumer, and not just the voice of the consumer. This is what Eric von Hippel of MIT discovered many years ago, and which informed his Lead User Model of innovation. Take a look at the list of products below — all user innovations.
Gatorade Spreadsheet SW
Protein Shampoo Feminine Hygiene
Mountain Bike Climbing Piton
Sports Bra White-Out Liquid
Graham Cracker Crust Chocolate Milk
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