Do you trust your customers to help you innovate?
For most design engineers, the public answer is most likely "yes." The reality, though, may be a little more nuanced than that. Customers can’t tell you how to innovate. Often, they have trouble expressing their needs. They could never have told Steve Jobs years in advance that they needed user interfaces like those that eventually appeared on the iPhone or iPad.
"Customers don’t solve problems," noted George Land, founding partner of a strategic innovation company called the Farsight Group, during a recent interview with Design News. "They merely identify their needs. They don’t have any idea how to solve your [design] problems."
Still, customer innovation is a critical part of the design process, and experts are increasingly citing its importance in good design. Take, for example, the new Cadillac CUE, an automotive center console that you’ll hear more about in an upcoming issue of Design News. During the design of the CUE, 40 Cadillac engineers and designers rode with more than 120 potential customers to learn how center consoles are used. They rode home with them from the dealerships when they picked up their cars. They traveled with them on sales calls. They sat in the backseats with their kids and dogs. They even joined them while they were on vacation.
To develop Cadillac CUE, 40 GM engineers and designers rode with more than 120 customers.
(Photo courtesy of Cadillac)
For Cadillac, the idea was to understand their customers’ needs and frustrations. The company’s engineers didn’t simply want to take the usual design approach -- which was to examine competitors’ trends, put together a rough concept, and hand it off to the graphics design team to make it look pretty. They wanted to build their new product from the ground up, based on feedback from customers.
That might seem like a sensible, and maybe even obvious, way to design a new product. Often, however, that’s not the way it’s done. During CUE’s development, many GM executives wondered aloud about the wisdom of investing in such an expensive design process (GM was nearing bankruptcy at the time). Some asked, “You want to do what? You want to ride along with people?”
In truth, there are often good reasons for not taking the kind of deep dive exemplified by Cadillac’s CUE. Such efforts may be time-consuming. They may be expensive. And -- this may be the most important reason -- no one can guarantee they will work.
But Land argues that customer feedback can have tremendous value, given the proper approach. He advocates training the customers, as well as the design engineers, to ensure that the feedback is worthwhile. He cites an example of the automotive electronics giant, Delphi Corp., which "trained customers in creative thinking and then stimulated them to get as wild and dreamy as possible," in an effort to design a better electronic control system. Land said that Delphi questioned six customer groups -- each numbering about 20 people -- and then followed those sessions with a process called "deep needs analysis."
Cadillac (which did not work with Land) used a similar process. After spending hundreds of hours with customers, engineers and designers wrote their observations on sticky notes and placed them on a conference room wall. Team members then "walked the wall" and scribbled their thoughts on a pie chart that rated users from young to old and tech-savvy to tech-averse. Only after all that analysis did the team start to get a better handle on what features their new product should have.
Based on the customer feedback and ensuing analysis, Cadillac’s team decided to use forward-looking technologies, such as a capacitive touch screen, haptic feedback, and proximity sensing. In retrospect, the technologies now seem obvious, but at the time (the iPhone hadn’t even reached the market when GM engineers made their decisions), the choices seemed daring. Whether those choices will resonate with consumers is still unknown, since CUE won’t reach the market until 2012.
The key to success in such endeavors is to attack design problems from fresh perspectives, Land said. "The problem is that we all build a bunch of assumptions that lock us into a way of thinking," he told us. "Getting out of that requires people who don’t know anything about the problem and can bring new viewpoints."