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Product Ideas that Customers REALLY Want – 5 Recipes for Success

When was the last time you saw a really new product? The first smartphone? Quite a while ago. The Segway? Very nice, but unfortunately a market failure. Series production was discontinued. The 3D printer? Actually quite old, but as a serious production process or “3D printer for the home” perhaps a relatively recent example. Indeed, product ideas are part of successful product innovation. And here we are right at the first big hurdle. Product innovation is the rarest and the one that most frequently fails among all types of innovation.

So how can promising product ideas be identified?

5 recipes for success for product ideas that customers really want

What do you do if brainstorming and creativity techniques prove unhelpful? If there are not too few ideas, but too many? What helps if previous product ideas have failed? Or if the ideas simply do not meet requirements?

1. Ideas can arise from dialogue with the target group – Interview

A successful product idea is accepted by customers and, in the best case, is even loved. So why not involve customers in the development of new product ideas? Get input from those people you want to buy your product. But beware! You need to learn to ask the right questions:

If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said: faster horses. [Henry Ford]

Henry Ford probably never said that. But nevertheless, it provides important insight. What does the next product have to look like? Customers do not know the answer. Why don’t they know? Because it’s not their job.

It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want [Steve Jobs]

Interview Man und Frau auf der Straße als Sinnbild für Produktideen durch Interview - TOM SPIKE

With the right questions, however, interviews can still generate some great insights. For example, with questions about tasks that customers want to get done. Clayton Christensen calls these tasks “jobs” or “jobs to be done.” There are three types of these tasks.

Contacts & dates for customer interviews

Cold calling is not for everyone. And yet new contacts are essential for customer interviews. We provide you with top contacts and appointments.

The “Jobs to be done” as the core element in interviews

  1. What results does the customer want to achieve? These are functional jobs. Of course, that’s the first thing product developers think of. Especially in B2B.
  2. How does the interviewee want to be perceived in their social environment? These are social jobs. Sustainability, brands and “image” in general are crucial.
  3. What does he or she want to achieve personally? These are personal jobs. What customers do behind closed doors. Without anyone seeing or knowing what they’re doing.

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Sounds quite simple. So why don’t more companies talk to their customers when they want to develop new product ideas? There are many reasons for this.

Challenges in holding customer interviews:

  • Talking to the customer is not always easy.
    How sales communicates with purchasing is pretty straightforward. It’s been done before. It works. But how do you present an immature product idea to a customer? Or even more difficult: How do you explore undiscovered customer needs before the product idea exists? Do you awaken desires that cannot be fulfilled? That is what concerns sales. Do you present yourself as an amateur tinkerer and hobbyist and waste the customer’s time? How can you conduct conversations about ideas and future products?
  • Where do you get contact data?
    Innovations are often aimed at new and different target groups than before. But the idea of cold calling contacts deters many. Even experienced sales staff in industrial companies. Let’s be honest: 95% of industrial sales consists of account management. Not cold calling new contacts.
  • Open communication is not exactly in keeping with the corporate image.
    After years of work, the image has been polished to a high gloss. “We know what is best for our customers.”. Now, all of a sudden, you’re supposed to go out and say that you don’t know what customers will need tomorrow? For salespeople and executives, this is a major hurdle.
  • Good interviews require time.
    Can’t we just send out a questionnaire? After all, we have plenty of market studies tucked away in our drawers. Can’t students do this? No. Direct communication between product managers and their target group is irreplaceable. And shortcuts are as tempting as they are harmful.

Live-Webinar “Customer Interviews” 

How do you conduct customer interviews without having a finished product? How do you get good answers? And how do you get the right interview contacts?

2. PRODUCT IDEAS FROM WATCHING ACTUAL USERS – OBSERVE

The right questions generate important insights. But potential customers cannot provide all the answers. There are some things that only actual users knows. Because sometimes customers are “too close” and are too caught up in their own routines to see what is staring them in the face.

A small example:

This is what an alien visiting Earth in 1970 might have asked itself:

Humanity has managed to fly to the moon. And yet they are still carrying suitcases around by hand.

A valuable observation. Because suitcases on rollers had not yet been invented. An attentive and unbiased observer would have quickly recognized the problem when traveling. As a product developer and suitcase manufacturer, you know, of course, “that people will always have to carry their suitcases. After all, it’s always been like that.” The idea of the trolley came only centuries after the “development” of the suitcase.

Mann mit Fernglas und Kamera als Sinnbildl für Produktideen durch Beobachtung - TOM SPIKE

Of course, observation alone is not enough. A pronounced “sense of the possible” is also necessary. An awareness that things can be different. And the experience that every problem can be solved if you really want to. Always.

Typical challenges when observing users:

  • Whom should we observe?
    What target persons will deliver really relevant insights?
  • Who can be observed?
    This can be a big challenge, especially in B2B where users are rarely observable in public spaces.
  • How do you develop observations into good decisions and ideas?
    A pile of notes is not a product strategy.

Numerous methodologies use observation as a tool to arrive at new insights and product ideas. Shadowing in the context of Design Thinking is just one of them. In general, Design Thinking considers the understanding of problems as the most significant hurdle on the way to the idea.

“For those who understand the problem, the solution is obvious.”

Wherever users can be observed, observation is indeed a powerful tool. Yet, for technology innovation, e.g., in the development of the next fuel cell generation, it usually does not suffice as an approach.

3. Ideas FROM DIVING INTO in the application – Immerse

A blind person has a hard time talking about color. And, indeed, many people cannot see the world through the customer’s eyes. Engineers develop first-class aircraft seats although they have never flown first class in their lives. Product managers design electronic components although they have never been involved in the design and development work undertaken by their customers. Business unit managers decide on the future of textile machines for the production of lace although they have never worn lace underwear.

Taucher mit Blickkontakt und Luftblasen als Sinnbild für Produktideen durch Immersion - TOM SPIKE

Immersion in the customer’s world and how they use what they use. This approach is simple as it is effective for gaining impressions and insights. That is often much more than anyone can learn from interviews or mere observation.

Challenges involved when immersing yourself in the customers’ world

  • Insufficient courage on the part of the experts.
    Do I really have to do all this footwork after so many years of professional experience? How do I tell the boss?
  • Excessive professional self-image.
    Highly-paid professionals work using their computers and with other professionals. Order a few products on eBay and try them out as a team? That sounds like too much like fun and too little like work.
  • Expenses and loss of ‘work time’.
    Do we really have to waste time putting on the customer’s shoes? Our day-to-day business cannot be neglected for trivialities!
  • How do I actually get ‘behind the scenes’?
    You have to understand workflows, especially in B2B business. It’s best to experience things hands-on. But how is that supposed to work? I’m not a student intern!

4. Ideas for future products by examining data and facts – Analyze

Design Thinking and Customer Centricity are on everyone’s lips. Analyses are often frowned upon. Nevertheless, they provide valuable insights. Because in the end, the devil is in the details. Sweating out a few ideas and bringing them to market as products is something almost anyone can do. Let’s just look at the multitude of Internet of Things solutions. Many B2B markets are flooded. Everyone has an IoT platform. Everyone has a dashboard. Experimenting with digital solutions is certainly valuable. No question. But do these tools actually solve any problems in the end? Is the customer spending money on it? In most cases: No. A good product fits like glove. Even more so in B2B than in B2C. Achieving this is the goal. Analyses can help decisively.

An analysis toolbox includes:

  • Competitive Benchmarks:
    Where are other products stronger, where weaker, where unavailable? Which market niches are still unoccupied? What positioning is most suitable?
  • Customer Need Analyses:
    Why did those products on the market today prevail? What underlying needs do they meet? What needs will become more important?
  • Scenario Analyses:
    What paths lead to the future? Where are future developments obvious, if you just think about it seriously?
  • Sales, operations and feedback statistics:
    What challenges are customers reporting? Where is the journey leading?
  • Market Analyses:
    What makes different industries tick? Where are slumps, stagnation and growth clearly visible?

Ingenieurin analysiert Schrauben im Labor als Sinnbild für Produktideen durch Analyse - TOM SPIKE

Analysis is often criticized, especially before new ideas and products are developed. That sounds too much like a waterfall model. Better just start and see. And A/B testing is what everyone is talking about.

Why analyses are a challenge for product ideas 

  • They are unpopular
    In times of customer centricity, lead users and agility, analyses are viewed rather skeptically. Should we really waste time thinking? Isn’t it much cooler to develop everything in an agile way and let the customer decide via A/B testing?
  • The danger of ‘Paralysis through Analysis’
    When do you stop analyzing? How many data points are sufficient for making a responsible decision? Haven’t we analyzed long enough? Can’t we finally start building and tinkering with solutions?
  • High-Level Analyses
    Trend analyses, megatrends and tech scouts often do not provide recommendations for action. In the end, many analyses do not seem to deliver any real added value. This reduces the willingness to undertake further analyses. How do we get from analysis to decision?

5. Ideas BY trying thINGS out – TRIAL & ERROR

Analyses are controversial when it comes to ideas and innovations. That goes for testing and experimentation as well. Yet, testing and experimentation are tools that can lead to important insights – and not only later in the development process.

Innovationsteam mit Prototyp im Workshop als SInnbild für Produktideen durch Experimente - TOM SPIKE

Testing and experimentation are particularly good at creating new product ideas even before a product is defined. Especially in rapid prototyping. When the team turns the first ideas directly into tangible, debatable objects. Through handwork. Maximum 30 minutes. Ideas for further products arise from target group feedback, through discussion within the team and through ‘thinking with your hands’.

Ultimately, it’s about testing assumptions: Is our idea of what the customer wants, needs, has, thinks right? Validation is the test and provides the answers. And, of course, new ideas. The tests are diverse. Click dummies, surveys, interviews, campaigns and lab experiments involving customers are just a few possibilities. But even apparently simple tinkering poses problems for many companies.

Typical challenges that arise from testing and experimentation

  • Trial & Error can lead to mere tinkering
    Technology quickly becomes the focus. The customer is easily forgotten. Especially in engineering, there is a risk of diving deep into detail until you can no longer see the forest for the trees. Design Prototypes, functional prototypes and wind tunnel models provide important insights. But these rarely lead to product ideas.
  • Striving for perfection
    We can’t stand in front of the customers with just a piece of cardboard! The desire for high gloss and perfection is deeply rooted. However, the more perfectly a product idea is presented, the less feedback there is. The more perfect the proposal, the lower the chance of thoughts, suggestions and statements critical of the polished result. At an unveiling of a design prototype at the IAA, no one says “You are on the wrong track”. And if anyone does, they are not taken seriously. Because so many people think it’s so great (and then don’t buy it).
  • Lack of statistical competency
    Intuitive experimentation guided by gut feelings is a first step. But a wealth of findings only emerge from the purposeful design of experiments, also known as Design of Experiments – DoE.
  • Limited understanding of prototypes
    Product developers understand prototyping technical products well. But prototyping business models and services is different. Many have never heard of Service Staging, Process Staging and Customer Journey Mapping. This presents challenges. There is simply a lack of experience.

Can modest product ideas lead to innovations?

Product ideas are successful if there is acceptance. No other type of innovation requires overcoming target group obstacles. The 5 ways presented here can help with this. By understanding. New understanding and new insights are the most important building blocks for new product ideas. This is one of the main reasons why product innovation is probably the rarest of all types of innovation. But don’t worry. Never before have the tools and experiences applicable to product ideas been as advanced as they are today. And even if the product idea doesn’t become a global sensation, all is not lost. Modest product ideas can become successful innovations. And the product idea doesn’t even have to be your own. In the following video, Gunter Dück pithily describes what needs to be done to actually lead product innovation to success: Hands-on.

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Idea generation is a common pain point on the way to innovation success. TOM SPIKE accompanies ambitious companies through the innovation process. Idea generation is only one aspect of this. Ideas should fit the corporate strategy, appear feasible and profitable and offer the right level of innovation. TOM SPIKE relies both on the early involvement of corporate management and on the empowerment and support of the employees involved in the innovation project. In any case, the unprejudiced application of various tools and procedures is crucial. These include, for example, Lean Startup, Design Thinking, TRIZ, Business Model Innovation, Productization and Servitization.

As an innovation consultancy, we support companies and project teams on two different levels. Firstly, on a strategic level in order to answer the question “What innovations do we strive for as a company and how do we proceed with them?” Secondly, at the project and organizational level. There, we help teams to actually create innovations. Once, multiple times and consistently. Workshops, Coaching and Training focused on project issues are important building blocks. In order to provide relief for a company’s capacities, TOM SPIKE also takes over individual work packages and thus makes day-to-day business easier for employees.

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