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All I want for Christmas ≠ All I need for Christmas: understanding innovation & the unarticulated needs

‘Tis the season for gift guides, and when friends and family members asked the inevitable “what do you want for Christmas?” I looked to some of my favourite tech blogs.

This is how I found myself asking for a $100 ceramic mug, whose temperature I can remotely control from an app. I’m a perpetual sipper – it can take the better part of a day for me to finish a single, tepid cup of coffee. The mug seemed like a solution, albeit a disproportionate one, to my problem.

The bloggers described the mug as the result of years of innovative design and engineering, a leader in technology, and as the most useful smart device in 2017.

Remember: we aren’t talking about the next Tesla. We’re talking about a coffee cup.

Increasingly, it seems like anything that can be connected, will be. Building my wish list, I found a toaster that sent “toastages” to your friends with the same device by toasting a design into a piece of bread.

When we talk about coffee mugs or toasters as drivers of innovation, we dilute its meaning, turning innovation into a buzzword. We use the same word to describe a revolutionary HIV treatment regimen to refer to a salt shaker that doubles as a Bluetooth speaker.

So what’s the problem – am I just a Scrooge?

From a business perspective, how we currently conceptualize innovation poses significant challenges. All sectors are united in their belief that innovation is something that we need more of, but if we don’t share a definition of innovation, we can’t define success.

Stripped of its buzzword baggage, innovation starts with meeting a need. Needs can be:

  • Under-Met: Needs that are only partially met by existing solutions
  • Unmet: Needs that are not met be existing solutions
  • Unarticulated: Needs that customers may not be aware of

Using this framework, the path to true innovation seems relatively straight-forward – just ask our customers what they need and then deliver it to them, right? Not quite.

Think back to when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007. Until that point, we were still hauling around our MP3 players, gaming devices, books, and cellphones. We didn’t know we needed an iPhone until we were told that it existed.

Jobs is famous for saying “It isn’t the customer’s job to know what they want”. People only have their own experiences as a frame of reference. Innovations that address unmet or unarticulated needs are difficult to describe, because a frame of reference may not exist.

If we understand customer needs, we dramatically improve our chances of successful innovation. A thorough understanding of customer needs requires a lot of questions: what are they thinking? What are they feeling? What are their pain points?

It’s unlikely that one person will be able to answer all of these questions, and it’s not just a matter of asking more than one person. If people share the same opinions, they’re likely to share blind spots.

Ensuring that teams responsible for driving innovation reflect different demographics, knowledge, and values helps us dodge the dangers of conformity, and the risk of not actually understanding our customers.

“Informational diversity” is what drives true innovation, and helps make sure that our solutions are actually addressing customer problems.

It’s also the reason that this year, I will not be receiving the $100 miracle mug. After sharing my list with my husband, he asked me why I wanted a product that had single-handedly inspired a blog post about how the concept of innovation is being eroded.

After several rounds of asking me “why?” he was able to identify my unarticulated need: Why do I want to mug? To keep my coffee warm. Why isn’t my coffee warm in the first place? Because I drink it sporadically throughout the day. Why do I nurse my coffee all day? Because I am too busy to drink it while it’s hot.

I don’t need a coffee mug – what I need is time.

So now what I am asking my family for this year is a way to gain an additional hour in my day. It may not make for an efficient shopping experience, but I’ll leave the innovating up to them.

If driving innovation is on your wish-list this year, get in touch with Allison Robins at the NATIONAL Calgary office.