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Are customer needs stifling innovation?

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” So said Apple’s Steve Jobs – and this phrase has inspired many bold developers of services and products, secure in the belief that their latest offering will be the best thing since sliced bread… Until no one buys it, that is

Many businesses, particularly technology providers, want to be known as innovators. We want to be more than problem solvers: we want to push the boundaries and introduce new concepts that disrupt the way our customers work – for the better of course. But finding that balance between innovating and addressing customer needs is like walking the tight rope.

It can be frustrating for dynamic, creative developers to have to rein in their big ideas and simply respond to customer requests for feature enhancements or quicker processes. Providers that stick to this approach may well have satisfied customers, but what if you want delighted customers? What if you know you can develop something that will revolutionise their business but they just don’t realise it yet?

That is what Google must have considered when embarking on the creation of Google Glass, the eyewear computer launched in 2012 and withdrawn in 2015 after a flurry of criticism. Google presented Glass as the future of wearable technology but took it off the market saying it was “a kind of ‘open beta’”. Astro Teller, who heads up the company’s experimental Google X lab, has since said that one of their chief mistakes was marketing the product before it was ready. This is an important reflection, but it doesn’t completely explain the product’s failure in the market.

When approaching a new development, one always has to ask, “how does this work for and benefit the customer?” Developing something just because it’s cool or different does not cut it – certainly not in a world where businesses are the customers. They will want to know how much money your solution will save them, how it will make their employees more productive, how much quicker it will enable them to respond to their customers, and how it will make them stand out from the competition. When the time comes to market the product, the customer must be able to see what problem it solves or why they need it.

innovationAs such as it is important to understand your customers’ industries and ways of working – and be able to consider the above questions – there is no replacement for the horse’s mouth. That is why it is vital to involve customers in the development stage for a new product. You know what would help them be more efficient and competitive, but only they know if they are ready to make that leap.

They can also advise on practical details and usability: invaluable input into the prototypes and on to the beta version. Clearly, the more innovative, open minded customers are the ones to invite into this process and they are there to be listened to, not pitched to. This will lead to changes, back tracks, designs thrown in the waste paper basket, but to quote AstroTeller again: “I don’t believe a mistake-free learning environment exists.”

Innovation must be initiated by the developer and in that (among many things) Steve Jobs had it right. Customers tend to look short-term for fixes that will resolve immediate issues they have with their systems and processes. The developer who understands their customer certainly can proactively propose a bigger picture, outside the box offering, provided the idea starts and grows with the customer in mind.