Many of us don’t believe we are creative. After early elementary school, we have learned there are rules, and we spend a lot of time complying with those rules. Not only are there rules about spelling and arithmetic, but there are societal “rules” about the clothes we wear and things we say. All these rules serve to stamp out creativity.
Yet, we need creative solutions to the many challenging problems we face in business today. Creativity is not just painting a new scene or writing a novel; creativity is finding unique alternatives and expressions to address real-world discomforts. For product innovation professionals, we must find creative solutions to customer and end-user problems that deliver value to them and profit to our firms.
In new product development (NPD), the first place to start to identify a creative solution is to understand the problem. Very often, we assume that we know what challenges and difficulties our customers face. And, very often, we are wrong.
Understanding customer problems means we need to spend time with them and to follow their actions. Design Thinking offers several tools and a methodology to build empathy with customers and end users. The methodology is reflected in the simple, two-step process shown in the figure. (Read about Design Thinking in Chapter 2 of The Innovation ANSWER Book, 2nd edition.) Empathy means we understand their thoughts and feelings as much as we understand the technical points of their problems.
To find creative and empathetic product solutions, we have to fully identify with the customer and end-user. Most people working in NPD are in the prime of their life, maybe 30 to 50 years old. Suppose you are designing and developing products for the elderly. How can you build empathy for their problems?
Using Design Thinking tools, product innovation professionals observe the customer. You can spend time with your grandma or an elderly neighbor and watch as they prepared dinner. Are jars difficult to open for someone with arthritis? Does she have trouble reading small print on the recipe? Can she safely lift a heavy pan from the oven?
Once you have some clues to the real problem from observation, you can begin to develop creative solutions. You can test your prototypes under simulated conditions to quickly evaluate concepts to move forward while eliminating the less – then – promising ideas.
For the elderly person, you can wear gloves or tape your fingers to mimic arthritis. Put on a scratched-up pair of sunglasses and try to read the recipe yourself. Simulate the relative “heaviness” of a pan with a 40-lb. bag of sand. Your own frustrations will translate to better product solutions for this customer!
It seems somewhat odd that actually need to “learn creativity”. Society force fits uniformity and often discourages creative interpretation. Yet, as product innovation professionals, we need to approach problems from new perspectives and with open viewpoints. Especially if the customers’ needs are far from our experiences and background, we need to apply Design Thinking tools to build empathy. We really need to understand the thoughts and feelings of the end-user.
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I am inspired by writing, speaking, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me joy to help you build innovation leaders. Teresa Jurgens-Kowal is an experienced innovation professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at email@example.com or area code 281 + phone 787-3979 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.