empty office chair
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This article is adapted from a section of Econsultancy’s Innovation Best Practice Guide, written by Steffan Aquarone. The guide presents a set of simple, practical ideas, and Aquarone takes the word ‘innovation’ itself to mean ‘finding ways of doing things differently’.

The empty chair is a concept synonymous with Amazon’s customer-focus. Despite their importance to the success or otherwise of innovation, the customer is usually the most important person not in the room – and the chair serves as a reminder.

Teams, people and power are normally organised around organisational functions and goals rather than customer needs and experiences. To succeed, you need to orientate the innovation project around the customer.

If your innovation project is an internal one, it might be easier to get the ‘customer’ around the table. But customers come in all shapes and sizes, which is why many organisations use personas to help them think about things from different types of customers’ perspectives.

Although we are all different, there are some contextual things that are worth bearing in mind because they affect us all – even internal stakeholders. With plenty of internal projects the fatal mistake is made of assuming their audiences will put their lives on hold in order to consume the internal message. The same applies to innovation: if the product or service you’re building won’t stand up to external scrutiny, it’s unlikely to succeed with the people you’re building it for internally.

The bar has been set for customer experience

Whether you’re in a niche market, dealing with an internal customer or trying to build the next social network, if your user is a human then the bar has been set and there are already rules about how things work.

Expectations have changed and the immediate usability of software is a given. You should start by thinking about the customer’s journey, where they’re going, what they want to do, where they’ve come from etc. Many of the approaches adopted by good user experience and interaction designers can be applied here (see Econsultancy’s UX guide and training).

Ocado’s James Donkin, interviewed in 2017 for Econsultancy’s Innovation Best Practice Guide, said, “Our Smart Platform product is software for retailers, so we need a lot of software engineers. But we also have user experience (UX) designers, product people and data scientists because it’s important that we design something that’s useable and works well for the retailers themselves.

“Build something that’s good – that’s what we’re trying to do. Non-coding product people are great if they can help create the right thing for the market and think about what features we should build and in what order.”

But it can be enormously hard to identify customer needs

People are used to being able to have things immediately, accessible and personalised to them. But that doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to being able to find out what they want next.

Goal Atlas’ Mike Baxter has described the Kano Model of Customer Satisfaction as his favourite for understanding customer needs.

Kano talks about three types of need:

  • Latent needs – the expected needs that won’t be articulated. When we go to buy a car, we don’t specify that we’d like it to have a steering wheel.
  • Incremental – tend to be additive. Maybe ‘I want anti-lock brakes, all the way round airbags, seatbelt tensioners etc.’
  • Excitement factors – things people didn’t know they needed. Like the first time someone suggested you could have a car with an engine that was turbo-charged. These are normally things that are on the fringe, which are just coming into the mainstream.

“Ask about needs and people will spend most of their time explaining what their incremental needs are. They won’t spend any time on hidden expectations or excitement,” said Baxter, before pointing to the old Sony mantra: ‘Don’t ask them what they want to buy, give them what they never dreamed they could have’.”

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