Does true product innovation require agility? Validating many concepts quickly and cheaply? Most companies will answer both questions with a big YES. “Our customers change their minds all the time because they do not know what they want!” is what we hear often. Agile and lean UX are considered to be the answer. I can easily understand how you can reach this conclusion if you literally ask you customers what they want. However, this is the wrong thing to ask, consumers do not know how their needs can be met. You will not get a useful answer.
A product innovation can only succeed if it meets a real need
“But product innovation is all about inventing new stuff” I hear you say, “we have to invent it first to create the need?” This misses the point of what product innovation is really about. To state the obvious, a product innovation can only succeed if it fulfils a real need. Trivial? Perhaps but easy to achieve? Certainly not. As technology moves on there are more and more ways in which needs can be met. A product like an iPad met a need that could not be met before. However, it did not create the need, it created the awareness of the need. The need existed before the iPad product innovation.
The build-it and see approach to product innovation is wasteful
A product innovation is merely one of the many possible solutions to a need. Often companies try identify needs by developing solutions. A concept for a product innovation, or an early prototype is validated with users to see whether it meets their needs. When this is not the case new prototypes are developed and validated again. This is quite an expensive process. Multiple iterations will be required to develop a product that gets close to meeting real needs. Also, at the start nobody knows how many iterations are needed before you have a product that is acceptable. Limited budgets mean that most companies cannot afford enough iterations to develop a good product. No matter how agile or lean you are, the build it and see approach is wasteful and doesn’t lead to successful products.
Insights into validated needs are a company’s greatest asset
Don’t get me wrong, agile and lean are great for developing and fine-tuning a solution to a validated need. My point is that a distinction needs to be made between identifying needs and developing solutions for these. Real validated needs are a true and lasting source of inspiration for great product innovation. Validated needs do not change. The ways in which product innovation meets a need does. Smart companies have product roadmaps based on customer needs. A different product innovation meets the same need in a different or improved way at some point on the roadmap. This is totally different from a technology roadmap where the next product innovation is based on the next iteration of the same technology. To be successful, companies need to move away from treasuring their technology and recognise the value of validated insights into user needs.
Stop thinking in solutions, validate needs first
As somebody who has been in UX for more than 20 years it is frustrating to see that so many companies still fail to create good product innovations that meet real needs. This is not because companies are not capable of creating high quality products. It is because they do not explicitly identify the needs they are aiming to meet before they start developing. Lean UX & Agile are not the right tools to identify user needs, they are good tools for effectively developing the right solution(s) to needs. It is time we made a distinction between creating insights (validated needs) and product innovation to meet these insights. Stop thinking in solutions. Validating user needs early and in a solution independent way is what is required. Do this well and you’ll have a formidable basis for a sustainable business. Product innovation comes and goes, insights remain valid, build on those.
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.
Akendi is a product strategy, user experience design and usability research firm. We are passionate about the creation of intentional experiences – whether those involve digital products, physical products, mobile, service or bricks-and-mortar interactions. We work shoulder-to-shoulder to optimize the experiences you deliver. Akendi Corporate Overview (PDF).
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