The other day my husband went to the optometrist to get his vision checked and to order a new supply of contact lenses. Because they dilated his eyes, I ended up driving his car on a series of errands that day. Of course, I needed to adjust the seat since I’m shorter than he is, and I adjusted the mirrors as well.
Later, that same week, my husband drove us to my church since we could not attend our church on Sunday morning. He parked in a different place that I usually do and when we left, he took a different exit, requiring a U-turn (instead of a left turn) to return home.
We both were given different perspectives of routine tasks we do, tasks that are almost automatic. And, of course, there’s no right answer or perfect parking place. In fact, for people working as innovation leaders, it is actually very important to do things differently.
The Creativity Rut
Companies often become complacent in their success. When a firm is young, all the staff works extra hard to bring the dream to life. If it takes nights until midnight and entire weekends to print and package instructions for product usage, no one blinks an eye. A founding team knows their hard work is what leads to success.
Yet after a company has a few market successes, it’s easy to get a bit lazy. When we are at a high-point in the product life cycle – selling above the competition and garnering word-of-mouth referrals – it is easy to assume that we should keep on going on the same path. Unfortunately, it is the repeated processes of small product improvements that lead to market erosion. Advanced competitors will take advantage of a crowded marketplace full of “me-too” products.
Furthermore, as companies grow, they tend to put in place more systems and policies to minimize risk and maximize quality. All of these factors lead to a creativity rut in which product development practitioners are rewarded for incremental improvements, and investment in radical ideas is limited.
Design Thinking to Do Things Differently
One way to break out of the creativity rut is to use customers in the design and development process. I’ve observed many firms become afraid of leaking “confidential” information, so they move new product design and development into a restricted R&D department. They can get lots of patents on new technologies, but they struggle to convert that technical know-how into customer desire.
All successful new product development (NPD) systems involve the customer, frequently and throughout the product development life cycle. To do things differently, and to see a different perspective, you can implement a design thinking framework.
In the Discover phase of design thinking, NPD teams closely observe customers. How do they use products today? What challenges do customers face in solving problems? What workarounds are in place to make something work better or more efficiently?
Several tools, like the customer journey map and customer empathy map, are available in design thinking to help elucidate customer needs. Traditional market research tools, like surveys, focus groups, and interviewing, also help an NPD team identify the extent of a market need.
The Define stage is tremendously important in any project. Too often, we like to jump to the “fun” part of a project – solving the problem. Yet, if we don’t carefully define the problem, we won’t know if we have solved it or if we have even addressed the right problem.
Design thinking offers a whole set of prioritization tools and models to help an NPD team characterize customer needs identified in the Discover stage. While you don’t want to overemphasize financial outcomes, product solutions must be profitable, so this metric is included as part of the Define stage. However, you can use a scoring metric that estimates and compares costs and benefits of potential product solutions rather than doing a full-blown NPV analysis. In the early stages of product development, you want to see things differently and accept change.
While there is often a lot of recycle between the Discover and Define stages to ensure an accurate understanding of customer needs, there’s no substitute for building and testing prototypes. In the Create stage of the design thinking framework, the NPD team – along with the customer – will brainstorm as many potential ideas as possible to solve the problem. This is definitely a phase where you want to see and do things differently!
For example, instead of booking airlines, hotels, rental cars, and admission tickets through separate companies, Expedia, Kayak and other websites let you book a whole trip at once. The developers saw and did things differently, based upon what customers wanted and what they showed as obstacles on their customer journey maps. Eliminating steps is a great way to do things differently and improve the customer experience.
Testing in design thinking often involves prototyping. Prototypes might be built for only a few features or as a mock-up of the whole product or service. What’s crucial is to learn what customers like and don’t like. And the best way to do that is to give them something different to try.
It turns out that the seat position in my husband’s car was programmed to match his key fob. So, after his normal vision returned, the seat moved backward to the preferred position for someone with long legs. Unfortunately, the mirrors were tied to the car’s memory, so we learned, by testing, that they had to be manually reset. While it was only a small inconvenience, vehicle manufacturers can build this feature in to delight customers and offer a product advantage over competitors.
As an aside, my new car has a feature for automatically folding side mirrors. But this feature is only available in Canada. A design thinking approach to new product development might just reveal that American customers desire auto-folding mirrors as much as Canadians. I will continue to puzzle over how this feature design was decided!
Use Design Thinking to Do Things Differently
Continually seeing things the same way can limit our creativity. An internally-focused, risk-averse approach to innovation leaves product design at the whim of competitors and will lead to market erosion. On the other hand, involving customers in the design and development process of new products and services yields a satisfying experience for them. Design thinking brings value-added tools to the new product development process that increase the focus on customer needs and user involvement so that products are launched faster and better.
I am speaking on open innovation and design thinking at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Spring Meeting in New Orleans on 1 April (Management Division). Coupling these tools with flexible design, you can ensure that customer satisfaction is the primary outcome of any new product development effort.
Do you want to see things differently? We are holding a special workshop on Agile NPD on 23 & 24 April 2019 in Houston, Texas, USA. Register here for the 2-day Agile NPD workshop and save on a full 3-day experience including a one-day pre-workshop course on Design Thinking. Use code “bundle” at checkout and save 15% on both courses. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717 for more information on innovation, project management, and leadership training or coaching. I love helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve their highest innovation goals!
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