Have solution, need a problem?

Have solution, need a problem?

In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of inventing less and discovering more. This insight driven approach (discovery) is based on the principle that customers/users cannot tell you what they want but they do know what they need or at the very least where the experience pain points are. One way of eliciting these pain points is to get together a group of, for instance, football supporters and ask them to talk you through the experience of attending a game. If you are running a supporters club you will find out where the pain points are, combine that with knowledge of novel (technical) ‘building blocks’ and you stand a very good chance of developing a novel experience that meets a real need. This approach works if you are in a particular market but what if you are one of those suppliers of innovative ‘building blocks’? Or in other words, you have an innovative solution but how do you find somebody with a problem to match?
The technology-push versus pull conundrum is one that I, as an ex-business development officer for Philips Research, have had to deal with for more years than I care to remember. In the 80’s and 90’s and possibly still today, Philips was regarded as a highly innovative company from a technology point of view. Unfortunately its sales did not follow that trend. This was addressed at the turn of the century by adopting an customer insight driven approach to product development rather than technology push and by moving up the value chain. It started to develop and market less of the basic components and became more of a solution provider that sourced its components from other suppliers depending largely on Open Innovation to source the wide range of possible innovations required to keep its products ahead of the competition.
How can a supplier to a company such as Philips find out what a company higher up the supply chain needs for its future products? To phrase it differently, how do you find out what technology to ‘push’ before there is real market ‘pull’? That is the problem faced by large companies such as semi-conductors companies and many high-tech start-ups in innovation hotspots such as Cambridge. The solution? Invent an awful lot of ‘cool’ products. But hey, I hear you say, that goes against your ‘invent less, discover more’ principles. Not if invention is used just as a tool for discovery.
One thing that we often come across whilst working on projects for clients is that it is so incredibly difficult to stop thinking in solutions and focus on needs. This might actually help solve the technology-push vs pull conundrum and provides the quickest route to identifying potential needs that can be met by a certain technology. One possible scenario is to organise a brainstorm with a diverse audience and quickly generate a large number of possible applications taking the technology as inspiration. If executed well you will end up with a large number ideas for, in many cases, cool products.
Once all the ideas for cool products have been generated the next step is a bit different from what you see in ‘normal’ product brainstorms. Rather than working out the most promising solution in detail we take a step back and ask what needs do these cool products actually meet? This will generate a large number of needs that needs that should be subject to further validation. Some of these needs can be dismissed quite quickly because, once articulated, you may soon discover that it is already met by an alternative. Others may require further validation with real stakeholders, for instance, some people may need this but how large is the potential customer base for this? Solving other needs can raise the  chicken and egg dilemma of requiring a large infrastructure to be perceived to be useful by enough customers to justify the investment in the infrastructure.
Whatever the considerations for dismissing certain needs, the core principle here is that we are now focussing on needs that can be met by our ‘technology push’ rather than solutions that still may or may not be a match. It may not sound like a big deal but it is. Only solutions that best meet user needs have a good chance of commercial success. Once a promising need has been identified it should be validated and quantified by involving real stakeholders.

 

Finding needs by generating solutions, deriving basic needs from these followed by filtering needs based on further analysis and customer/user research is the quickest way to find the most promising applications for your technology push. It is also the cheapest. Up until this point hardly any investment should have been made into commercialising an innovation but, now that the commercial risk has been reduced, can you be certain that the investment needed for development is spend on the right thing.
Dr. Leo Poll is Director of Akendi UK.  A firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design, to learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.akendi.com.

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