Many companies get it wrong when it comes to creating new products. They focus on what they need for revenue streams, how to evolve current products into new extensions, and immersing themselves in their R&D labs. Then they take the new product out to a focus group to get feedback.
This process, however, is backwards. Innovative products really come from users who have a need for something. And often, those users are finding workarounds to solve their needs. Research conducted by Eric von Hippel, Professor of Management of Innovation and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan, in collaboration with Steven Flowers, Jeroen de Jong, and Tanja Sinozic, found that 6.1% of consumers over the age of 18 in the U.K. had created or modified a product for their own use within the last three years.
User-innovators are unlikely to bring their idea to a focus group—after all, the product is already “baked.” That’s where networking—or participating and observing your target markets—comes into play. In today’s open, collaborative world, that’s very easy to do.
“What you do is you go to the leading edge of your market, and you find the people who have the most extreme problems now,” said von Hippel in MIT Sloan Management Review. That leading edge of the market, of course, will vary based on your audience. For consumer companies it may be mommy bloggers and enthusiastic meet-up groups. For more technical products, it may be industry events and conferences.
Take, for example, a typical high-tech user conference. These are attended by the most dedicated users of a product. There’s a good chance at least one has come up with a work-around, extension, or new way of enhancing an existing product. The challenge is to recognize this jury-rigged product as a potentially viable one, and not just dismiss user-innovators’ ideas. “Producers tend to miss the fact that what the user has done is a functioning product prototype,” commented von Hippel.
Looking for a new, innovative product idea? Start networking with your target market.
Eric von Hippel is Faculty Director for MIT Sloan Executive Education’s Building, Leading and Sustaining the Innovative Organization program and teaches in Driving Strategic Innovation: Achieving High Performance Throughout the Value Chain. He is a founder of the Entrepreneurship Program at MIT. His most recent book is Democratizing Innovation.