Companies create products and services with the best intentions. Whether those products and services succeed is another story. One of my favorite examples was Amazon’s release of the Fire Phone in 2014. The phone looked competitive to other smartphones out at that time and ran on Android. However, the phone was a huge flop and Amazon discontinued it 13 months after its launch. So, what happened? Amazon’s Fire Phone was not intuiative, had limited availability through one retailer (AT&T), and its biggest selling point – a 3D face scanning technology – was seen more as a gimmick versus an asset. It was simply a sub-par phone that did not solve a core consumer problem. It just looked cool and Amazon thought they could make a profit by backing the phone with their name.

According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, of the 30,000 new consumer products that are launched every year, 95 percent of them fail. Christensen has dedicated an entire MBA course to discuss this very dilemma. He contends that businesses often fall for the trap of segmentation, whether that is segmenting your markets, your product categories, or even your customer base.

Products and services that do succeed, especially in today’s hyper competitive and overly saturated market, do so because they defined a true consumer problem and developed a solution to solve that problem. Easy enough? Unfortunately, no. It takes time, effort, and a true understanding of who your customer is and why they do what they do. While there are workshops and courses dedicated to this subject, the following are three fundamental lessons to help steer you away from a product or service fail, and towards an innovation win.

You are NOT your user

If you have been to a Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) conference, the first thing they tell you at the start of any of their courses is that you are NOT your user. You may think you know everything about your customer based on their demographics and their purchasing behavior, but you probably do not understand why they behave the way they do. You could have two women in the same room who are 45 years old, live in Tempe, Arizona, have two children, a household income of $75k, and still not understand their mindset of why they purchased one product over another. So how can you create a solution when you do not even know the why?

Empathizing with your user is at the foundation of developing any innovative solution. There are various tools that can help you empathize with your user, such as empathy mapping and as-is scenario mapping (which we discuss in detail on our NN/g conference recap here) but how you go about collecting your information remains consistent. You need to have meaningful one-on-one conversations with your user where you are actively listening, asking open-ended questions, removing all preconceived bias, and truly understanding their point of view. As Christensen so eloquently put it: “…the jobs-to-be done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?”

Define the Problem

Once you have empathized with your user, you can begin to uncover pain points. Understanding pain points inspires meaningful solutions. But before jumping to the solution, you need to define the problem.

  1. “Unpack” everything that you learned during your empathy interviews. Retell all the juicy tidbits that you saw and heard. This is especially true when someone is telling you one thing but doing the exact opposite.
  2. Identify core pain points that were surprising. For example, you spoke with a security guard who was large in stature. However, when speaking to him, he talked about how scared he was during his morning commute. You would not normally associate a large security guard with being scared.
  3. Leap to insights. Take the observations made during your empathy interviews and make assumptions. Not just small inferences. Take a large leap based on a hunch. Insights are based on emotion, so it is okay that our assumptions (i.e., leaps) are as well.
  4. Develop a needs statement or point of view. A needs statement or a point of view is a clear and concise way to frame a user’s problem. A needs statement is generally framed as a “user” needs a way to “to do something” so that “insight”. A point of view is generally framed as I see “X”, I wonder if this means “Y”. This statement or point of view should be concise and actionable. If it is too broad or vague, it will not inspire ideas to solve the problem.

Ideate. Build. Test. Learn. Repeat.

After you have defined the user’s problem, you should frame it in a way that will excite and inspire your team to brainstorm. If brainstorming efforts are lackluster, you should probably go back and reevaluate the needs statement or point of view. Did your insight evoke emotion? Was it concise and actionable? Once you have gone through a round of brainstorming, you should have a good idea if you defined the user’s problem properly. Now that you have completed that hurdle, you still need to ideate, build, test, learn, and repeat. You will need to do this over and over until you have a product or service worthy of launch. Below are a few tips to help speed the process along.  

  • Ideate based on quantity and not quality. Focus on getting as many ideas out as possible, no filtering or evaluation needed. You never know what idea will inspire another, better idea.
  • Build a prototype based on improvising, do NOT be a perfectionist. Focus on getting it done and done quickly. Perfecting will be done once you have tested your prototype.
  • Test through empathy. Remember, it does not matter what you think of the prototype. It matters what your user thinks. Focus on understanding the why.

In Conclusion

Great innovations come from clear consumer insights once a real problem has been defined. Businesses can hypothesize based on data and market segments, but until you have walked in your customer’s shoes, you will never really know whether your product or service truly meets your customer’s needs.