How to innovate when customers don’t know what they want

Essay • 3 min read

Many leading innovators are dismissive of market research. Jobs to be Done helps generate customer insights and make products more human-centred.

How to innovate when customers don’t know what they want

It’s not surprising that some startups, consultancies and innovation teams take shortcuts when collecting primary customer and market insights. The best innovation strategy will put the customer front and centre of the solution space. So why are some of the key champions of innovation dismissive of market research?

Eric Ries, author of the “Lean Startup” and pioneer of the influential “lean” series of books, says:

“If Zappos had relied on existing market research or conducted a survey, it could have asked what customers thought they wanted. By building a product instead, albeit a simple one, the company learned much more.”

Indeed, the widely recognised guru of innovation, Steve Jobs, said in an interview with Fortune, that:

“We do no market research. We don’t hire consultants. The only consultants I’ve ever hired in my 10 years is one firm to analyse Gateway’s retail strategy so I would not make some of the same mistakes they made [when launching Apple’s retail stores]. But we never hire consultants, per se. We just want to make great products.”

The most common approach to building “great products” is using the “build, test, learn” methodology evangelised by Eric Ries. This is a fast way of getting real time customer feedback on a minimum viable product (MVP) and a process to adapt and respond quickly to market feedback. The challenge with the lean methodologies is how you validate what you’re building solves real life customer problems?

I think it’s fair to say that trying to embed prolonged market research projects into a lean methodology is not a viable option. However, collecting qualitative and quantitative primary research data is a lot quicker than it historically has been. Self-service tools like Attest, CitizenMe (disclaimer: I used to work for CitizenMe) and Typeform provide quick and cost effective ways to engage current or future customers. These tools empower innovation teams to build an evidence based approach to validating the customer problem as a solid opportunity for a successful new business venture.

But customers don’t know what they want, do they?

Asking people what they want would never have produced the requirements for the iPhone. Yet the iPhone is one of the most popular products of all time because it fulfils a lot of customer needs. Furthermore, research in the telco or mobile OEM space pre-2007 would have shown that customers want more reliable, stylish phones, that are slimmer and smaller and have better connectivity. These are all fairly vague requirements. Even if the product team designed around them, they would have led the product miles away from what customers really wanted.

The research in the early phases of product or concept design requires a different way of thinking and frameworks for evaluating customer needs. Over the past five years, I have been using a Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) framework which solves a lot of these problems. For innovators and product teams JTBD adds process, structure and clarity to customer research initiatives. The JTBD framework is grounded in understanding the important things customers need to get done in their lives. The key is finding those important jobs people struggle with because this is where current solutions are failing and the best market opportunities present themselves. The key to this approach is not about asking people what they want — they will never provide the requirements for the next best selling product — but instead asking customers what they’re experts in. Namely:

  • What jobs in their lives are hard or effortful?
  • Which jobs are of high importance?

The qualitative and quantitative outputs from JTBD work are highly contextual and specific. This means they dovetail really well into popular ways of working like design thinking, rapid prototyping and lean product development. Furthermore, JTBD provides important data to use as supporting evidence for business casing, a key requirement for both institutional and external investors.

When you dig a little deeper into Eric Ries and Steve Jobs perspectives on customer research they certainly weren’t dismissive of speaking to customers. What they were doing was raising awareness of the issues surrounding traditional market research. The main problem is that customers don’t know what they want until you give it to them. As Henry Ford famously said:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Furthermore, traditional “needs based” market research outputs can be slow, costly and too vague to be actionable in the innovation process. JTBD on the other hand, locksteps nicely into product development, vastly improves (or even replaces) personas and focuses the team on solving real life customer problems. Put simply, utilising a JTBD framework is the best way to put your customers at the heart of your innovation strategy.

Whilst you may think you have the next best idea for a new product, ask yourself: is this grounded in what customers want? With the right tools and frameworks it’s not difficult to test your idea first.

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