People sometimes refer to the first phase of the innovation process as the “fuzzy” front end. Getting from point A to point B at this stage is perceived as similar to navigating through a heavy fog, where there isn’t enough information about the terrain to make smart direction decisions. We prefer to think of this phase not as a foggy drive but as a strategic opportunity hunt (on a clear day).
Creating disruptive innovation is tough without fresh insights to change your conception about how a product is used or how it functions. As consultants we tend to hunt for fresh insights in two places: user research and new technology sweeps — or often, a blend of both. We customize a strategy for each client based on several factors — product category, user/market knowledge, and of course, available budget.
We’ve developed several techniques (that don’t have to break the bank) for defuzzing the innovation process — to uncover user and technology insights that lead to innovation and reduce risk of failure. Here they are at work in three examples anchored by three client needs we’ve recently fielded from companies seeking different levels of innovation.
1. Client Says: “We just want you to innovate. We’re not sure why or where.”
Technique: Expert Interviews
This is probably the fuzziest situation, and consultants typically prescribe extensive ethnographic user research, which can deliver a juicy list of unmet needs for innovators to feast on. But just as often, and especially in mature and saturated categories, you can go off and conduct an intensive research exercise without yielding any true insight epiphanies. Without research insights or problem definition from the client, ideation is an extremely dry exercise — especially when you’re working in a well-established category. We’ve found it useful to do more modest insight-gathering from targeted phone interviews with users who have distinct opinions.
Phone Interviews with Super Users
For a consumer electronics client, we contacted a handful of technology bloggers and spent 45 minutes with each to answer the following: What have you seen in this space? What’s new that excites you? Where do you think this category is going, and what will be relevant in the future?
These certainly weren’t typical users (they were more like super, lead users) and their highly personal responses couldn’t be read as market justification. However, at this stage in the innovation process we were looking for idea catalysts, and this was a cost-effective way of accessing specialized, directional knowledge.
Phone Interviews with Retail and Distribution Contacts
For balance, we conducted similar phone interviews with the same client’s retail and distribution contacts. These experts presented a more conservative perspective on which new products had succeeded or failed in the category and why. We learned where other companies had tried to innovate unsuccessfully and where the underlying user need had remained unsolved. These two sets of diverse insights sparked new product ideas in subsequent brainstorms.
2. Client Says: “We have a specific, well-defined problem to solve, but we’re not sure which design or technology will solve it.”
Technique: Technology Sweep
Sometimes clients will have sought product innovation from other consultancies before coming to us. They may have defined a user need and dreamt their product vision, but technically achieving it is another matter. I’m lucky to be an industrial designer surrounded by diverse engineering expertise with the tools to generate, test, and validate technology-based ideas. Cross-pollination is the advantage here.
Technology Sweep Basics
A technology sweep might be informed by our client’s research, their existing technical strengths, and/or an IP search. It is also informed by our own problem-solving experience and hunches about technologies that could be a great match for the unmet needs of users. The sweep can be general or it can be driven by a specific, desired functionality such as simpler operation, cordless functionality, or a lighter device.
Technology Sweeps in Action
New technologies are often not new at all but more an adaptation of an established technology from one product category to a different one (think of how grain separators inspired the Dyson bagless vacuum). In one client’s case, we started with an in-house sweep for technologies to accurately meter, dilute, and dispense a super concentrated form of household chemical.
One of our engineers pinpointed two technologies — one that’s commonplace in auto carburetors and another that’s common in medical instruments — neither of which had ever been adapted to our client’s product space. Clients can be so immersed in their own industries, it’s difficult for them to see technologies that might lift them up and over their innovation hump.
3. Client Says: “We want to innovate in more categories, but we’re not sure which are a good fit for our brand or where the market opportunities lie.”
Technique: User Research and Technology Sweep (a blend)
When a mid-sized outdoor equipment client was acquired by a larger company, the latter wanted to explore new categories that leveraged the brand and expanded their acquisition’s reach. They approached us with the questions: Where does our brand fit best with consumers?; Where do our retailers and distributors see a natural fit?; Where can we play to our strengths?; What’s the technology roadmap that elevates us from becoming a commodity?
Research Workshops with Brand Devotees
Outdoor enthusiasts tend to be extremely suspicious of excessive brand stretch undermining the quality of their favorite equipment. For that reason, we wanted more direct interaction than an online brand survey so we chose to host a series of research workshops with both brand devotees and brand-aware users. Participants not only reacted to brand fit but also started to build innovative product ideas in categories where they had the most enthusiasm. Strong design attributes and features from the original products transferred into the new.
Phone Interviews with Distributors and Retailers
In parallel we conducted expert phone interviews with outdoor equipment distributors and retailers. The brand’s history was already well-populated with highly innovative but commercially unsuccessful products. The interviews revealed a tangled web of store and Web retailers with unique distribution scenarios in between. We discovered that some new-category commercial relationships were just not strong enough to support interest without significant sales and marketing investment. However other ripe categories were just a stepping stone away from the company’s current established channels.
Intellectual Property (Patent) Search
The new owner brought a broader suite of manufacturing and off-shelf technology capabilities to the brand. We analyzed how each could be leveraged to advantage in new outdoor segments. Could we benefit from lighter and more complex parts?; Would power and electronics leapfrog the competition in some way?; Could high volume processes reduce cost in one area, allowing added sophistication in another? A cursory patent search highlighted not only potential areas of technical infringement but also the density of innovation activity with a product category.
Putting it Together: Five Forces Analysis
As a result of these three activities we derived rankings for new category brand fit, channel strength, and technology synergy. With a nod to ‘Porter’s Five Forces’ analysis, we combined these with scores for external threats to market attractiveness (threat of new entrants, threat of substitute products, and the intensity of the competition). The opportunities for innovation in potential new product categories clearly revealed themselves in a bubble chart as we layered on the relative scores.
Fuzz (and Fog) Be Gone
These are just three examples of how we’ve conducted strategic opportunity hunts for clients who’ve found themselves in fuzzy spots. Of course, all of the above are highly directional, relying on subjective responses and analysis from a small number of inputs.
Most innovative product ideas require larger-scale market testing after definition to validate market size and appeal. Rigorous patent searches are also essential to clear and protect your invention. However, when you’re at the front end of navigating for the seed of an innovative idea, a single fresh insight derived from a more cost-effective tool can be the catalyst to something disruptive.