According to a 2011 study on customer co-innovation conducted by German scholars led by Frank Piller, professor of technology and innovation management at the Business School of RWTH Aachen University, customers may play different roles in the innovation process. Some provide clues about future trends and possible solutions, while others evaluate innovative ideas or weigh in on how to refine an early model or prototype.
Piller and his team identified three modes of producing and using customer information in new product development:
1. Listening into the customer domain. Businesses use customer information from channels, including sales data, internet log files, and third-party research reports.
This data is combined and studied with other information, such as performance reviews of existing products or services (including that of competitors), and informs designs and modifications on behalf of the consumer. (Read about how pioneering French global tech company Itron sifted through customer data to help identify and prioritize repair activity for water treatment systems.)
2. Asking customers. Early in the process, customers are invited to share their input, relating their preferences or unmet needs via surveys, interviews, or focus groups. Prof. Piller and team note an “advanced and proven method” that combines several survey and evaluation methods into a single, coherent whole.
In the later stages of the process, design solutions or ideas are presented to “pilot customers” or “beta users” for their reactions and insights. In addition, the systematic analysis of feedback or complaints from existing customers provides important input for the innovation process.
3. Building with customers. Businesses invite customers to participate in the actual design or development of a product or service, often with tools provided by the company. Customers are empowered to design their own solutions via idea contests, consumer opinion platforms, toolkits for user innovation, mass customization toolkits, and communities for customer co-creation.
For instance, on American computer tech company Dell’s Ideastorm website, an online community allows customers to share their ideas. Site participants vote on ideas, with the most popular receiving the highest scores. This lets Dell see what’s most important to their customers. Dell has realized 500 ideas from Ideastorm to date.
A potential fourth mode of connection is worth noting: independent, customer-led innovation, where consumers make creative use of existing products to solve problems for which there is yet no market-ready option. Among the most verbal and visible is the DIY Artificial Pancreas Movement, whose activities have prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to work with the industry toward an expedited, safety tested solution.
Methods of gathering customer wants and needs was discussed in our focus groups in China. As one participant explained:
“We have two steps. First, we invite our customers to spell out their goals for us. Sometimes customers speak in vague terms about the goal or set their goals too high to reach. We have all of our team members attend so they can understand what our customers want, what is currently beyond our capability, or what might be ineffective for the current situation. Second, we immediately offer some ideas for the customer to consider. If they agree with them, we’d have them recorded.”